It was 1999. Dr. A and I went to California for my mother’s 80th birthday party. It was a fun event held at a fancy restaurant in Palo Alto whose name escapes me. My father, Lou, was 83 at that point and insisted on driving to the party. His eyesight was going and he drove way too fast but that’s what happens when you grow up in the mountain West. In fact, his sister had a radar detector in her car until she was well into her 70’s. The Greek side of my family are long-lived and as stubborn as hell.
It was also the weekend of the Academy Awards. I’m not sure if my father had seen a movie in a theatre since taking me to see Mary Poppins. My mom was in charge of going to the movies with me, which was a good thing because we got along much better. I do have to give Lou credit, he sat through Mary Poppins a second time because I liked it so much. He was not a patient man so that was a rarity.
My father’s Los Angeles cousins were in town that weekend for the big shebang. As always with my relatives, I’m uncertain how closely related we were because Lou was wont to say, “We’re Greek. A cousin is a cousin.” Being Angelenos, they wanted to watch the Oscars and my father grudgingly complied. I suspect he hadn’t seen the Oscars since I moved out, which, given how bad the show can be, is not necessarily the worst thing in the world.
My father talked incessantly in a loud booming voice throughout the broadcast. It was louder than a Ramones concert in the living room, there was a gaggle of octo and septugenarians, so the teevee was cranked to the max. I sat there wishing I had earplugs. Lou’s running commentary annoyed Cousin Angie to no end. Much to my amusement, she kept telling him to shut up, something only one of his peers could do. He, of course, ignored her requests. I have long thought that the motto for Brokaw’s greatest generation should be “We won the war so we don’t have to listen.”
The high point of Lou’s endless chatter came during the In Memoriam section. In those days, they didn’t have some chick singer warbling a sappy song during the segment, which made it more moving. Anyway, the commentary went on. As each picture appeared he’d say, “He’s dead. She’s dead. Never heard of him.” We tried pointing out that it was tribute to the recently deceased but he went on with his mantra, “He’s dead. She’s dead. Never heard of him.” To this day, Dr. A and I call the In Memoriam bit of the Oscars, “the Lou segment,” and I find myself repeating the mantra, “He’s dead. She’s dead. Never heard of him.”
The main attraction for the LA cousins was the lifetime achievement award presented that year to Elia Kazan. My father wasn’t the only one into the whole ethnic pride thing. But it was a VERY CONTROVERSIAL special Oscar. Kazan was a friendly witness during the blacklist days; not only that, he was an unrepentant friendly witness. To his credit, Kazan didn’t claim to have been a political virgin during the 1930’s. He admitted to Communist Party membership and spent a goodly portion of his 1988 memoir In My Life attacking the CPUSA.
The Hollywood Left may have been outraged by the award but I didn’t understand the need for it. Kazan won two best director awards, one for the dated anti-Semitism drama Gentleman’s Agreement and another for the ode to “stool pigeons,” On The Waterfront. Special Oscars have customarily gone to notables who never won: from Chaplin to Cary Grant to Stanwyck to Kirk Douglas. Such an award would be less controversial today since they’ve ghettoized the special Oscars to supposedly save time during the broadcast. I’m on the record as loathing that change but that’s a discussion for another day.
Back to Elia Kazan. I bit my tongue when the relatives defended him for being a friendly witness, that’s a matter of opinion. The shit really hit the fan when the subject of Kazan’s 1963 classic film America America came up. My father’s expertise on all things Greek American kicked in.
“That movie is about how Kazan came to America” he said with great authority.
I stopped biting my tongue and opened my mouth, “He came to America as a small child and grew up here. It’s a fictionalized account of his Uncle’s story.”
Lou was stern and outraged, “You’re wrong. It’s about Elia himself and it’s a true story.”
Instead of retreating, I staged my own Pickett’s charge, “I just read Kazan’s memoirs. It’s his Uncle’s story. Have you even seen the movie? I have…”
“No. I just know it’s his own story.”
I was fuming but finally decided to stop after Dr. A gave me a look that said “you’re right but he always *has* to be right.” It was true, especially when it came to all things Hellenic even if I had seen all of Kazan’s movies and read his memoirs. He knew best because Kazan was Greek. I should have known better than to go there but I thought he might yield to my knowledge of the facts. I have the stubborn gene too.
Looking back on this ridiculous argument, I should have bit my tongue til it bled. I’d had similar fights with my father on a wide variety of subjects, but this time we were on my home court: I’d seen the movie, read the book. It didn’t matter: Elia Kazan was Greek and Lou was my father. Case closed.
If you’ve never seen America, America check it out. It is one of Kazan’s finest efforts and certainly his most personal film even if it’s his Uncle’s story, not his own. There I go again. Here’s the first few minutes of the film, narrated by Kazan himself: