I’d like to speak seriously about this video if we can get past Robert De Niro’s ludicrous haircut (tall order, I know).
Elia Kazan was a controversial pick for the lifetime achievement award. In fact, he had already been denied such accolades by the American Film Institute and many film festivals and critics associations due to his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 in which he named former members of the Group Theater he knew to be communists.
When Karl Malden nominated Kazan for this award, he gave a presentation to the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in which he said (all quotes via Wikipedia), “as far as I’m concerned, there’s no place for politics in any art form.” (!!!) He expected a big debate, but, as the LA Times reported, “he was greeted by a rousing burst of applause.”
Kazan himself was unrepentant. In 1976, he said in an interview, “I would rather do what I did than crawl in front of a ritualistic Left and lie the way those other comrades did, and betray my own soul. I didn’t betray it. I made a difficult decision.”
When someone wins a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars, they are traditionally given a standing ovation. As you can see in the video, several audience members clapped politely but would not stand for Elia Kazan; others refused to applaud. On the other hand, many Academy members did stand, defiantly, making a point of their own on the line they saw between artistic achievement and one’s personal or political actions.
So, if you were in the Los Angeles County Music Center on the night of March 21, 1999, when Elia Kazan received his honorary award for lifetime achievement, you could either stand up and make a point, or stay seated and make a point. Those were your options. There was no way to stay neutral.
And as a barely politically aware 12-year-old watching from home, I was gobsmacked by this realization: You can’t recuse yourself from discourse. Silence is a statement. Abstention from voting is itself a vote for something. The food you eat, the products you purchase, the words you use, all of these decisions have weight, both subtle and profound. You can’t claim neutrality or plead ignorance.
What you’re doing matters, so you may as well know what you’re doing.
Study up. There’s going to be a test. Every single day.