Features

Hollywood heroism

National | Drama "holds the mirror up to nature"-says newfound movie favorite William Shakespeare in Hamlet-and shows "virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." WORLD covers movies because, for better or for worse, they are mirrors for our culture's vices, virtues, and pressures, and they influence what's coming up next. The Academy Awards show on Sunday, March 21, is also a reflector and a generator.

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

At the end of this winter of our discontent, honor, self-sacrifice, and courage under fire seemingly are repudiated in American public life and popular opinion polls-but three of the five Academy Awards nominees for Best Picture depict honor, self-sacrifice, and courage during World War II. Today, culture seems stagnant, education is in the doldrums, and artists are playing meaningless games, but the most important Oscar to be awarded next Sunday, March 21, may be the Lifetime Achievement Award to Elia Kazan, a great filmmaker who stood up against Hollywood Communists in the 1950s and has been socially ostracized ever since. The Academy Awards are more than a fashion show. When the folks now lionized as the greatest generation were fighting in World War II, the best pictures were Mrs. Miniver with Greer Garson (1942), Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart (1943), and Going My Way with Bing Crosby (1944). Such films reflected a culture worth fighting for. But at the end of the revolutionary 1960s, the big winner was Midnight Cowboy, a sordid but well-acted saga of male prostitutes, which earned the distinction of being the first X-rated film to win Best Picture. That moral standards have slipped since then is evidenced by the fact that the same film in the video stores is now rated a relatively mild R. This year's Best Picture nominees, on the eve of the new millennium, are all about history. They look back to a past that is interesting today because it emphasized so many qualities in short supply today. Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, the favorite to win Best Picture, woke up a generation of aging Baby Boomers to the heroism exhibited by their parents. The movie's graphic depiction of the carnage on D-Day and the human drama of American GIs fighting for their country and each other resonates powerfully for a generation that has had it comparatively easy. (See the review in WORLD, Aug. 8, 1998.) The Thin Red Line attempts to do something similar for the fighting men at Guadalcanal but is hurt by self-conscious artsiness, including stilted meaning-of-life soliloquies and closeups of flowers as the bombs drop. The film earned its nomination mainly because of the film community's interest in its reclusive director Terrence Malick, a creatively eccentric stylist who came out of hiding to make this picture. (See the review in this issue, p. 27.) If there were a Positive Values Oscar, it would go to Life Is Beautiful, a poignant comedy about affirming life in the face of the Nazi death camps. The story of a father who tries to protect his son from the horrors of the concentration camps by pretending that it is all just a big game is extraordinarily moving. (See WORLD, Feb. 27, 1999.) For what it's worth, the Vatican, accentuating the positive instead of forbidding harmful movies, put it at the very top of a list of movies that Catholics should see. Life Is Beautiful has done so well at the box office that the Italian import may become the most popular foreign film ever shown in the United States. It is the first movie since the Greek Z (a left-wing 1969 film) to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Picture. More impressively, Life Is Beautiful was the brainchild of Italian comic Roberto Benigni, who wrote, directed, and starred in the movie. Mr. Benigni won nominations for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Writer. This is the best showing by a single individual since Warren Beatty received four similar nominations (with the addition of Best Producer) for Reds (1981), a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda that won big as part of Hollywood's reaction to the election of Ronald Reagan. (Woody Allen was also nominated for these three categories in 1977; Orson Welles matched Mr. Beatty's nominations with Citizen Kane in 1941.) The other two Best Picture nominations this year point us to Elizabethan England. Shakespeare in Love represents the main threat to Saving Private Ryan for winning Best Picture. This comical historical fantasy imagines the Bard of Avon-usually so idolized that he is unimaginable as a real human being-as an effervescent young man trying to make it in London's turbulent theater scene. For all of the beautiful language bubbling out of his mouth, poor Will, like other mortal authors, gets writer's block, until he falls in love, an experience that gives him the idea for Romeo and Juliet. (Gwyneth Paltrow plays the love interest Viola, the name of a character in Twelfth Night, putting her in competition with Elizabeth's Cate Blanchett for Best Actress.) Shakespeare in Love is a contender because at time when movies have become predictable-with one buddy picture following another, with explosion after explosion-it is fresh and very well written. The movie is intelligent, witty, and even learned, with the dialogue and the plot salted with multileveled Shakespearan allusions that only an English teacher could fully fathom. The script was written by the talented playwright Tom Stoppard (author of another notable Shakespeare spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), who, with co-writer Marc Norman, is up for Best Original Screenplay. The main fault with the movie is Hollywood's insistence on putting in sex and nudity every chance it gets. In this case, the story line violates its own Romeo and Juliet parallels. Shakespeare's great romantic tragedy hinges on the lovers' mutual insistence that they get married. Once again, our own shallow, twisted culture fails to comprehend its betters. The other nominee, Elizabeth, has a rich historical texture, but the sensibility is sheer 1990s. The movie depicts Bloody Mary's persecution of the Protestants and other elements of the Elizabethan religious wars, but with no attempt to enter sympathetically into why the age considered theology something to die for. In trying to portray the great Virgin Queen sympathetically, the filmmakers can only portray her as a victimized woman forced to suppress her sexuality. This unstable compound of feminism and Hollywood's typical treatment of sex, ironically, portrays Elizabeth as much less of a strong, powerful woman than she really was. (See WORLD, Jan. 9, 1999.) The most significant Oscar of the night is a Lifetime Achievement Award for Elia Kazan, now a frail 89-year-old and a pariah in Hollywood for over 40 years. Mr. Kazan, a Greek-Turkish immigrant, was one of the founders of Actors Studio, whose techniques of "method acting"-in which actors are taught to delve deep into the psychology of their characters-lie behind most of the Best Acting awards given ever since. It was Mr. Kazan who discovered, taught, and directed Hollywood icons such as James Dean and Marlon Brando. He was the director of some of the most acclaimed films in motion picture history, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). Few in Hollywood have more lifetime achievement than Mr. Kazan. Giving him an Oscar would seem to be a no-brainer. And yet this award, granted by the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rather than by the general membership, has sparked intense controversy in the filmmaking community. This is because Mr. Kazan repented of his former allegiance to communism and, in the early 1950s congressional investigations, exposed his ex-comrades in the film industry. Like many artists and intellectuals during the Depression, Mr. Kazan embraced Marxism and joined the Communist Party. He became a member of the Group Theater in New York, an influential center of left-wing drama. The Soviet Communists knew what American conservatives are just now learning, that the way to take over a country is not through politics but through shaping the culture. As Lloyd Billingsley documents in Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviets made a concerted effort to infiltrate and control America's entertainment industry, from taking over the trade unions to influencing the writers, actors, and directors who were creating the American imagination. The communist influence was not just a matter of artists expressing their personal Marxist beliefs. As documents newly released from post-communist Russia confirm, the Soviet spymasters and espionage agents were directly engaged in America's arts and entertainment scene. Mr. Kazan's Group Theater was under the control of cultural commissar V. J. Jerome and Andrew Overgaard, a paid official of the Communist International. As the brutality of Stalin became more and more evident, and as his attempts to control his followers became more blatant, many of his followers in America's arts world remained obedient soldiers. Some, however, dissented and woke up to the truth about Marxism. When the Party demanded that his friend Budd Schulberg make changes in his novel What Makes Sammy Run, Mr. Kazan objected. Finally, in his words, he "had enough of regimentation, enough of being told what to think, say and do, enough of their habitual violation of the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed." In 1936, along with method-acting pioneer Lee Strasberg, among others, he quit the Party. In 1952, Mr. Kazan was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating the communists' involvement in Hollywood. At first, he refused to identify any of the others who had been Party members with him. But then, at his own request, he appeared a second time and "named names." According to Lawrence Kaplan in The Weekly Standard, Mr. Kazan reasoned that in not naming names, he was upholding the "code of silence" enforced by the commissars he had repudiated. "No previous radicals in this country had ever claimed the protection of the law for their clandestine activities," summarized Mr. Kaplan. "No other society in history had offered its citizens rights behind which to shield their political subversion." Mr. Kazan gave the names of his former comrades. Some of them had left the Party, and most of them were already known to have been communists. But Mr. Kazan's testimony was a major catalyst in the investigation, inspiring others to come forward and bringing the communists' cultural espionage into the light. Some of those revealed to have been communists-and some of those who, unlike Mr. Kazan, refused to be "informers"-were jailed briefly for contempt of Congress. Though the "creative" community, especially screenwriters, favored the left, the heads of the studios were businessmen concerned about public opinion. The communists named by the congressional committee were "blacklisted"-which was not governmental censorship, but the decision of studio bosses not to hire them. Though many blacklisted screenwriters got around the boycott by writing under pseudonyms, and though in the long run being blacklisted simply enhanced their prestige, Hollywood to this day wraps itself in the mantle of martyrdom, celebrating in recent Academy Awards ceremonies those who suffered in the name of artistic freedom that, in practice, often meant slavish conformity. Mr. Kazan was portrayed as the villain, the betrayer of his friends and traitor to his art. But as he said in a notice published in The New York Times after his testimony, "We must never let the communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries. I am talking about free speech, a free press, the rights of property, the rights of labor, racial equality and, above all, individual rights." Playwright Arthur Miller-whose Death of a Salesman Mr. Kazan directed on Broadway-was indicted for contempt of congress for not testifying. In response to Mr. Kazan and the House hearings, he wrote The Crucible, drawing supposed parallels between the anti-Communist investigations and the Salem witch hunts (a play that has sullied the reputation of Puritans ever since). Mr. Kazan, however, remained defiant in his anti-communism and stood up against the high-powered peer pressure of the arts community. His riposte to The Crucible was a movie: On the Waterfront. Billed as "a story about man's duty to society" with a script by the Soviet-censored novelist Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront was described in Mr. Kazan's memoirs as "my story." It starred Marlon Brando at his method-acting height as ex-boxer Terry Malloy (delivering the immortal line, "I coulda been a contender!") who gets a job as a dockworker. His union has been taken over by gangsters who-like Stalin-think nothing of committing murder. A tough parish priest, Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, is determined to expose the union racketeering. In one powerful scene, a dockworker is killed in the hold of a ship for cooperating with authorities. Father Barry ignores the union activists' threats in order to give the informer the last rites. Then, with blatant resurrection symbolism, Father Barry, carrying the dead man, rises from the hold on a platform, telling the dockworkers that his church is anywhere. Through the course of the movie, Father Barry is trying to persuade Terry to testify about what he knows to the Crime Commission trying to clean up the waterfront. "Now boys, get smart," says the priest. "[Get] the facts to the public, testifying for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. And what's ratting to them is telling the truth for you." Finally, Terry agrees. "You ratted on us, Terry," accuses the mob-related union boss (Lee J. Cobb). "I'm glad what I done to you," responds the washed-up contender, "and I'm gonna keep on doing it." Whereupon they engage in a brutal brawl in which Terry is nearly killed. But he manages to get up and stagger back to work. His fellow workers, impressed by his integrity, reject their corrupt leaders and follow Terry. On the Waterfront won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1954. Some 45 years later, its co-star Karl Malden went before the board of the Academy and argued that Elia Kazan deserved another Oscar. The board unanimously agreed. Predictably, the Hollywood left is outraged. Some are agreeing with the award, arguing that someone can be a great artist and yet an evil man-as if Mr. Kazan's moral courage were "evil." A group called the Committee Against Silence is going to stage a protest on Oscar night. "We do not wish to attack him as a director," says a handout issued by the Writers Guild. "Regrettably, talent and principle do not necessarily go hand in hand." The Writers Guild is orchestrating a protest within the hall, asking those who attend the awards ceremony not to applaud when the award is given. Not clapping will be this year's AIDS ribbon for Hollywood's politically correct. After a year in which "informers" such as Linda Tripp and truth-tellers such as Kenneth Starr were demonized, while the evildoer they exposed retains high job-approval ratings, it is fitting to remember Elia Kazan. It will also be instructive to watch the other Oscar presentations. After all, the upcoming Academy Awards are granted not by critics, nor by the viewing public, but by professionals in the film industry: the directors, studio employees, technicians, and others whose names scroll by on the credits-the people who actually make the movies. This makes the Oscars an especially valuable cultural index, showing what the culture-makers are thinking. Whether it is ironic, an exercise in virtual virtue, or an indication that more positive values may be on the verge of return, it is surely significant that popular culture-following a Year of Impeachment-is saluting World War II, Shakespeare's England, and a man who stood up against the pressure of his peers to tell the truth.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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