This time, controversy isn't behind the scenes
LOS ANGELES — On Sunday afternoon, Becca Wilson will keep vigil outside the Academy Awards, protesting the movie industry's decision to honor a man who she says "wrecked" the lives of hundreds of filmmakers - including her father's.
To people like Ms. Wilson, recognizing the "lifetime achievement" of famed director Elia Kazan is a slap in the face. His congressional testimony 47 years ago during the McCarthy era, they say, blacklisted many in the film industry and aided efforts to squelch free expression in this country.
But to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the decision to honor Kazan is both a gesture of forgiveness and a tribute to his work, which includes directing "On the Waterfront," "East of Eden," and "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Either way, the Kazan award is seen as growing evidence that the American institution that trades most on fantasy is increasingly willing to face reality.
"No one was under any illusion that this award for Kazan would slip down easy like an oyster," says Bruce Davis, executive director of AMPAS. "We went into this with our head up and eyes open."
The boldness with which the Academy's 39-member board acted underscores a change in attitude toward controversy - which the AMPAS has long tried to discourage or at least to shrug off. A changing world and the growing sophistication of audiences, observers say, is demanding more mature responses.
"The Oscars started out as an event to award artistic greatness, but can't help but reflect the fact that moviemaking is a business and business involves politics," says Clay Steinman of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., who studies Hollywood's impact on American culture. "Writers and artists tend to have strong views on political and cultural issues [that] they can't help but embody or express. The Academy is increasingly realizing this fact of life."
Explaining the unanimous decision to recognize Kazan, Mr. Davis says: "The board felt he had been in the wilderness for long enough, and his was a career of such startling originality that it would be a shame not to recognize him while there's still time."
But to people who were directly affected by the blacklisting of the "Red scare," that position is untenable.
"Kazan wrecked hundreds of lives by ratting on filmmakers to those who would smash any kind of dissent in this country," says Wilson, daughter of the late Hollywood screenwriter Michael Wilson, who co-wrote "Best Picture" screenplays for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia." She says her family and scores of others lived in fear and anonymity because of Kazan's testimony in 1952 before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The Academy tried to make amends in 1985 with a small ceremony acknowledging her father's authorship of the two classic movies. But the sign she'll carry in protest Sunday says: "My dad didn't get his Oscar until after his death."
Other prestigious Hollywood organizations - the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association - have failed to bestow on Kazan similar recognition. The reason is widely believed to be that he testified to the activities of eight of his old friends, who had been members of the Group Theater. They, like him, had once belonged to the Communist Party.
Steering clear of controversy
In past years, AMPAS officials have cited Academy bylaws as they sidestepped controversy knocking at their doors. One bylaw states that "the Academy is expressly prohibited from concerning itself with economic, political, or labor issues." In trying to stay true to that mandate, AMPAS officials typically shunned the string of outdoor rallies that protesters stage in efforts to usurp the Oscar festivities.
But, of course, the Oscars have not always been trouble-free. Jesse Jackson organized a 1996 protest over Hollywood's treatment of African-Americans. In 1992, a gay-rights group heckled arriving stars over the depiction of homosexuals in "JFK" and "Silence of the Lambs."
Even inside the auditorium, politics and other outside issues have occasionally made it to the stage - and to the television audience. From Marlon Brando speaking through a surrogate native American to Vanessa Redgrave touting the Palestine Liberation Organization and Richard Gere talking up Tibet, the famous have used the Academy Awards to make their points - despite official Academy counsel to refrain from political grandstanding.
Airing out bad feelings
Although the Kazan controversy is making waves within the industry, many outsiders say the Academy's decision to face the issue directly can only help in the long run.
"It is a very difficult issue where to draw the line between a person's private life and work," adds Jeanine Basinger, a professor of film studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., who is a curator of several Kazan historical papers. "But it is an opportunity for a whole country to examine its conscience and air out how it feels - and perhaps focus on the hope that nothing like the blacklist ever happens again."
Others say Kazan's film legacy is important to recognize not only for the boldness of storytelling power, but also because of the performances the director was able to elicit from leading actors. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was a pioneer in importing Russian teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky's psychological/personal approach to acting known as the Method.
"He was not so much a great visual stylist like Orson Welles or [Alfred] Hitchcock, but rather the director most responsible for getting the best actors' best performances on film," says Mr. Steinman.
But because Kazan has never apologized for his actions so long ago, many who might have been willing to forgive him and move on have joined a burgeoning protest. According to spokesman Stuart Timmons, a group known as Committee Against Violence was started by people who were blacklisted, their families, and friends. The group is calling on Oscar audience members to refrain from applause when Kazan's award is announced.
Some top names have lent support: Ed Asner, Gore Vidal, Sean Penn. And this week, a leading Hollywood group decided to formally protest as well. The executive council of the Writers Guild of America East voted 11-to-2 against the AMPAS action and released a statement reading in part: "While recognizing that Mr. Kazan has made substantial artistic contributions to the motion-picture industry, the council was troubled by the Academy's decision to honor him for lifetime achievement...."