HOLLYWOOD -- Elia Kazan, the ailing 89-year-old director who in recent years has been rejected for several lifetime achievement awards because he informed on friends during the height of the McCarthy era, will be given an honorary Academy Award at the Oscar ceremonies on March 21.
The decision by the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give Kazan an honorary Oscar is, in some ways, a direct rebuke to the American Film Institute, which has gone out of its way to ignore Kazan in its yearly awards.
Kazan is perhaps the foremost filmmaker of the 1950s and '60s, the director of such classics as "On the Waterfront," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Viva Zapata!" and "East of Eden."
His name still stirs debate and even animosity because of his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on April 10, 1952. At the time, Kazan, who was also a top Broadway director, informed on eight friends who had been fellow members of the Communist Party in the 1930s. The House panel was zealously looking for evidence of communist influence in Hollywood. Among those whose careers were damaged or wrecked were actors Morris Carnovsky and Art Smith and playwright Clifford Odets.
Two years ago, after acrimonious debate, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the American Film Institute rejected proposals to honor Kazan with life achievement awards.
At the time, his supporters said he was a victim of Hollywood hypocrisy and trendy politics. After all, they said, many organizations give lifetime and so-called humanitarian awards to men and women with messy, sometimes destructive personal lives. Kazan's critics, however, have said for years that his decision to name names was so offensive that he should never be forgiven.
But academy president Robert Rehme said Tuesday that the 39-member board decided unanimously Thursday to give Kazan the honorary award. Previous honorary Oscars have gone to Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Satyajit Ray, Cary Grant, Akira Kurosawa and Greta Garbo.
Rehme, who has been a board member for about 15 years, said he could not recall if Kazan had ever been nominated for an honorary Oscar and added, "I'm proud we're doing this." He said of the vote: "There was no debate, no discussion; it was overwhelmingly approved with enthusiasm. Elia Kazan is one of the most extraordinary directors of this century."
Rehme said the board had voted after a speech by actor Karl Malden, who appeared in three of Kazan's films. "Just look at the work he's done," Malden said Tuesday morning. "If anyone deserved this honorary award because of his talent and body of work, it was Kazan."
Kazan has won two Oscars, for his direction of "Gentleman's Agreement" in 1947 and "On the Waterfront" in 1954.
Kazan, reached by telephone at his Manhattan apartment, said: "I feel very happy about this. I'm flattered to death. I'm pleased with it. What more can I say?"
A family member described his health as "alternately vigorous and frail." But Kazan promised that he would fly to Los Angeles to accept the award.
Kazan, who was a co-founder of the Actors Studio in 1947, helped influence even the current generation of film and theater actors because of his work with such performers as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Kim Stanley and Julie Harris.
"Twenty-one actors who worked in films for him were nominated for Oscars, and nine won Oscars," Malden said. "That's a pretty good average."
Malden added: "Here's a man in his '80s who hasn't gotten what he deserves. It's about time."
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