A controversial director speaks
BOSTON — Last Sunday's Academy Awards are likely to be remembered for three things: "Shakespeare in Love" upset "Saving Private Ryan" for Best Picture. Host Whoopi Goldberg made a memorable entrance as a dazzling white-faced Queen Elizabeth ("I'm the African Queen") before losing the goodwill she had just garnered by ad-libbing crude jokes throughout the evening.
And a controversial award was given to director Elia Kazan, who in 1952 had informed on several of his colleagues to the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.
Some of Hollywood's royalty in the audience stood to cheer Kazan, the director of influential films like "On the Waterfront," "Gentleman's Agreement," and "A Streetcar Named Desire." Others sat stone-faced, not willing to lift a hand to recognize him. Steven Spielberg, among others, found a middle way: Applaud politely - but stayed glued to your seat.
Kazan himself had little to say. He didn't apologize, as some had hoped, or try to justify his actions.
But his feelings about his testimony are on record. "Kazan - the Master Director Discusses His Films" (Newmarket Press, New York), a new book out this spring, is based on 18 months of interviews with Kazan in the early 1970s. Author Jeff Young, a young film student at the time, got Kazan to talk at some length about his decision.
"Anybody who informs on other people is doing something disturbing and even disgusting," Kazan told Mr. Young. "It doesn't sit well on anyone's conscience."
Why did he do it, then?
"Communists were in a lot of organizations - unseen, unrecognized, unbeknownst to anybody. "I thought, if I don't talk, nobody will know about it...."
"I have some regrets about the human cost of it. One of the guys that I told on I really liked a lot."
Two years later, when Kazan's movie "On the Waterfront" won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, "What happened then?" Kazan asks. "All of a sudden no one cared what my politics were, that I was controversial, or difficult, or that people were slamming me all the time. After 'On the Waterfront,' I could do anything I wanted. That's Hollywood."
Speaking of the theme of "On the Waterfront," and maybe of himself too, he added, "There are circumstances which force you into making difficult choices. People don't realize what difficult means. It means that either way there are penalties, costs you have to pay. You can't win in a difficult situation. That's what I tried to show."
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