Helen Hunt wasn’t smiling. Neither was Lynn Redgrave, or Steven Spielberg. Well, at least they were clapping — others didn’t even go that far. On March 21, 1999, Elia Kazan was given an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards, but when the 89-year-old film director arrived onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Hollywood’s crème de la crème seemed less than thrilled to see him. Nick Nolte had his hands ostentatiously wrapped around his elbows, while Ed Harris rested his hands in his lap. But, as I mentioned, even many of those who gave Kazan applause did so mournfully, as though saluting the man who made Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront was a chore rather than a privilege.
Of course, the cause of Kazan’s less-than-warm reception that night was his 1952 testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), in which he divulged the names of Communists with whom he had once worked. Yet that didn’t fully explain the thinking of the aforementioned unhappy campers, few of whom could have remembered Kazan’s decades-old wickedness. After all, in 1952, when Kazan was “naming names,” Nick Nolte was eleven, Ed Harris was two, and Helen Hunt — who looked as though she had lost her best friend as she meekly brought her hands together — had not yet been born. It would be hard to understand their long faces except for the fact that their industry had made a sport of kicking around Elia Kazan for so long that it had become something of a rite of passage, and they were manifesting an L.A. variant of Jung’s collective unconscious.