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A silent ovation

The questions about Elia Kazan's honorary Oscar have no simple answers. When the 89-year-old director of "On the Waterfront," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "East of Eden" accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy on March 20, there will probably be as many boos as cheers. I will be doing neither: just watching silently.

There is no question that Kazan deserves the award for his work in film and the theater. More than any other single person, he presided over the modernization of American film acting. From the dawn of cinema until the late 1940s, actors' styles ranged from the melodramatic to the mannered to the realistic and relaxed--and then came Kazan with actors like Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint and James Dean, to change everything, even our ideas of what was realistic.

The Method, the new style was called, and it took shape at the Actors' Studio, which Kazan co-founded. It advised actors to reach within themselves for emotional touchstones to apply to the characters they were playing. It could also became a fearless exercise in self-revelation, and when Brando appeared in "Streetcar" and "Waterfront" there was the feeling he was baring his soul to the camera. Great stars of earlier years would have been too protective of their images to put themselves on display like that.

Those key films changed American movie acting for good. Kazan, however, did something else to assure his immortality. At the time of the congressional witchhunts, when the House Un-American Activities Committee made unconstitutional probes into the political beliefs of citizens, Kazan named names. In 1952, he told HUAC of colleagues who were allegedly Communist party members. He did it, he says, for two reasons: Because he didn't want to lose his ability to work, and because he thought communism represented a genuine threat to democracy.

He did, ironically, lose the ability to work in some ways: He knew, he said, he'd never get the right to direct another play by Arthur Miller, whose "Death of a Salesman" he brought to Broadway.* And of course his testimony helped others to lose their freedom to work. But he was right about communism. It has become clear over the years that Soviet communism was not what it claimed--that when all the dead are added up, Stalin's toll of innocent victims was comparable to Hitler's.

The problem with Kazan's testimony is that the evil of communism and the danger of subversion were not really the point. The purpose of the "un-American" hearings was to smear--to enforce guilt by association, to use congressional power to destroy careers in a way that would not have been proper in a courtroom.

Kazan was being asked to supply the names of people who, in most cases, had not belonged to the party for years--who were communists when that was perfectly legal, and indeed when America and Russia were allies. The witchhunts were show trials, just like under Stalin. They assumed that the end justified the means (the same rationale used by the Ken Starr circus). They used the threat of contempt of congress to coerce American citizens into answering questions that no citizen should be asked by such a forum. They created a hysteria that was a greater threat to our freedoms than the feeble American Communist Party ever represented.

So Kazan cooperated with an illegal and immoral investigation. That is the point. To name names was to give legitimacy to unconstitutional demagoguery. Even the staunchest anti-Communist could, and should, have refused to answer such questions. Now, nearing the end of his life, Kazan is being honored for his work. It is work worthy of honor. It is right to give him the Oscar -- and right, perhaps, not to applaud, but simply to observe.

* He was wrong about Miller. He directed Miller's "After the Fall" at Lincoln Center in 1964. Miller did not forgive him for naming names, but decided Kazan was the best possible director for the play.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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