In March of 1999, my wife and I attended the Academy Awards ceremony, as my Lenny Bruce film was nominated that year for an Oscar as ''Best Feature Documentary.'' It was the same year that the special Lifetime Achievement award went to director Elia Kazan who served as a ''friendly'' witness during the McCarthy communist witch-hunts of the 1950's.
At the time, a member of the Kurt Vonnegut newsgroup posed this question to me:
I'm just wondering: did you applaud and/or stand for Kazan? I became curious when I considered your associations with both the co-presenter Robert De Niro and with the stringently anti-Kazan Nick Nolte -- I don't know the nature of your sentiments, but I can imagine it may have been something of a dilemma.
This was my response:
That's a little akin to asking someone how they voted in the last election, but I'll answer any way.
I generally don't give standing ovations to anyone because I enjoy sitting down so much. Sometimes I'll stand if the people directly in front of me stand and block my view of the stage. I also stand in temple when so instructed by the Rabbi because you never know Who's watching.
I applauded Kazan for his work. I don't admire what he did in the 50's, but I don't think he's evil incarnate either. Anyone who's seriously anti-Kazan and wants to be consistent should have boycotted the Academy awards altogether because of the Academy's complacent and cooperative role during the witch-hunts. Plenty of other ''friendly witnesses'' have been honored by the Academy and nobody's said a word. One ''friendly'' actor was even elected President of the United States (twice). I don't remember anyone vilifying Lloyd Bridges when he died last year. (Another friendly witness.) They're mad at Kazan because he's never apologized. However, as any woman in this newsgroup will tell you, men just don't apologize. We're not hard-wired that way because we're always certain we're right.
I should also mention that I remain on very friendly terms with the assistant D.A. who prosecuted Lenny Bruce in New York, ostensibly driving the final nail into the coffin of Bruce's career. He's also never apologized because he felt he was doing the right thing at the time. You've got to admire the consistency of a guy like that.
What finally made my decision on the Kazan thing was all the people who came up to me and told me I should sit on my hands. I don't like being told what to do or how to think and will generally do the opposite. (This may account, in part, for my attraction to Bruce.) When one woman urged me to sit on my hands, I told her, ''I'll do better than that. I'll have a pen and a pad of paper with me, and I'll write down the names of everyone I see standing up. I'll give you that list, and maybe we can keep everyone on it from ever working again.''
Obviously, I love getting morality lessons from an industry where 90% of the participants would sell out their own mothers to get a better table in a restaurant.
I do greatly admire people who were victimized by the black-list who spoke out against Kazan. They earned that right. Abe Polonsky, a wonderful blacklisted director said (I'm paraphrasing), ''I hope someone shoots Kazan. It will be an exciting moment in an otherwise boring evening.'' I appreciated that anger because it came from a real place -- not from someone hopping on the latest Hollywood bandwagon. Then again, I live in a town where ''bravery'' is defined as ''cutting your $20 million fee in half to work in an independent film.''
With the Kazan thing behind us now, Hollywood can get back to what they do best -- blacklisting any creative talent over the age of 50.