Editorial Board 1998-99
An award of distinction
An award of distinction
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decision to award legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan with an honourary Oscar for lifetime achievement has sparked enormous controversy within the motion picture community.
In 1952, Kazan appeared before a House Committee and identified eight colleagues as practicing members of the Communist Party. Kazan's testimony resulted in the subsequent blacklisting of all eight people, many of whom never worked in the film industry again.
Adding to the furor is Kazan's adamant refusal to apologize for his actions. He justifies his belief by citing parts of the Stalinist doctrine as anti-Semitic and overtly hateful. His acceptance ceremony on Sunday night was a tense affair a handful of celebrities deliberately remained seated during his lacklustre standing ovation.
While Kazan's character is questionable, his body of work speaks for itself. Over the last 40 years, Kazan has scooped two Best Director Oscars and has been at the helm for an impressive list of films which include On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. Kazan is also widely recognized as the man who discovered and groomed screen legends such as James Dean and Marlon Brando.
On this basis alone, the academy's decision to honour Kazan with an honourary Oscar is well warranted. The Academy Awards are about honouring artistic achievement, not evaluating the integrity of those involved in the film world. Kazan's political leanings and moral beliefs are ultimately separate from his indisputable talent as a filmmaker. Any overt failure to recognize Kazan's influence would result in a dangerous precedent being set.
Many find it hard to differentiate the art from the artist, but it is a crucial distinction which must continually be made. The most revered art in the world has come from people of questionable integrity and to deny them recognition on the basis of their character would be to deprive society of art's ultimate rewards.
On Sunday night, Elia Kazan was honoured solely for his achievements in filmmaking, not for his personal integrity. Those who don't side with Kazan's beliefs have the option of boycotting his films in protest, but to deny him of any recognition for his professional achievements would be monumentally hypocritical. After all, in doing so, the academy would be practicing the same form of censorship for which Kazan is so widely reviled.