Commentary Magazine


Acadamy Awards

To the Editor:

A moviegoer since the 1920’s, I applaud Richard Grenier for his critical acumen and felicitous style. His article, “The Politicized Oscar” [June], prompts me to ask the following questions, which I have puzzled over for some time. . . .

  1. Are clearly anti-American movies, like Missing, backed by U.S. money? If not, then who finances them? If they are American-financed, however, do the moneymen know what they are financing, or is it that they don’t care so long as the product seems a good bet to make a “bundle”? Or do they expect that the movie will do well overseas even if it doesn’t do well domestically?
  2. If a movie is expected to “make a mint” in Europe, say, does that imply a ready-made market for anti-American movies there? Do propagandistic melodramas, like the works of Costa-Gavras, reflect European views of the U.S.? . . .
  3. Why do presumably intelligent, decent citizens who are competent and celebrated actors sign up for roles in clearly anti-American movies? . . . Is it that the part is so good that an Oscar nomination seems inevitable, or is it the money? Or is is that the actor . . . uncritically accepts the hostile script as true or has accepted the statement that it is based on a true story? . . .

Bernard Adelman
Winthrop, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

After reading “The Politicized Oscar,” I would like to ask a question that the article addressed but did not resolve: should Academy Award decisions be made on the basis of politics?

On the one hand, Richard Grenier feels that politics should be left out. He approves the usual depoliticized nature of the ceremonies, and is uneasy with the idea that movies like If You Love This Planet and Alsino and the Condor might have been nominated on the basis of political considerations. But on the other hand, he argues that political considerations should determine whether a film is nominated or not. He does not approve of the fact that a Soviet film, Private Life, was nominated, arguing that the Academy should not support efforts that approve the rehabilitation of Stalin. If I try to synthesize a principle from Mr. Grenier’s reactions, it is that left-wing politics should be left out of awards decisions, but conservative politics should be taken into account. I hope I have misinterpreted Mr. Grenier’s remarks, and that there is an explanation for this confusion.

Gary A. Klein
Yellow Springs, Ohio

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To the Editor:

I have been a reader of exchanges in letters-to-the-editor columns for enough years to know that outraged readers can expect little satisfaction from them. Nevertheless, I venture this letter to express my profound dismay that Richard Grenier would feel free to falsify completely the contents of a book like Sophie’s Choice, either through ignorance or for his own political purposes.

May I be the latest in a long line of people to uphold the right of a reviewer to form whatever opinion he wishes about art or literature, no matter how stupid or self-serving. However, I think a reviewer has an obligation to report truthfully and accurately the contents of a book whether he likes it or not. Mr. Grenier tries to suggest that Sophie’s Choice equates the suffering of the Poles with that of the Jews during the Holocaust, while the book itself is one of the more eloquent descriptions of Jews as the primary targets of the Holocaust that has ever been written—and all the more powerful because it is written by a non-Jew.

Mr. Grenier writes that Sophie’s Choice is “based on a gross falsification of history.” The alleged falsification is that William Styron equates the suffering of Gentile Poles and other nationalities considered “inferior” with that of the Jews and that, therefore, the book diminishes the impact or significance of the Holocaust. To reach this absurd conclusion, Mr. Grenier obviously had to ignore the book, which is completely to the contrary. For example, how does the following explicit description of Auschwitz, found on page 234 of the book (Random House hard-cover edition), square with Mr. Grenier’s sweeping statement?

It may help clarify what went on between Sophie and Rudolf Hoess if we try for a moment to examine the nature and function of Auschwitz in general, but especially during the six months after her arrival in early April of that year 1943. I emphasize this time because it is important. Much can be explained in terms of the metamorphosis which the camp underwent as the result of an order (unquestionably originating with the Fuehrer) which went down to Hoess from Himmler sometime during the first week of April. The order was one of the most monumental and sweeping to be promulgated since the “final solution” itself was hatched in the fecund brains of the Nazi thaumaturges: that is, the recently built gas chambers and crematoriums of Birkenau would be employed solely for the extermination of Jews. This edict superseded previous rules of procedure which allowed for the gassing of non-Jews (mostly Poles, Russians, and other Slavs) on the same “selective” basis of health and age as the Jews. There was a technological and a logistical necessity embedded in the new directive, the impetus of which derived not from any sudden preservative concern on the part of the Germans for the Slavs and other “Aryan” non-Jewish deportees, but from an overriding obsession—springing from Hitler and amounting now to mania in the minds of Himmler, Eichmann, and their cousin overlords in the SS chain of command—to finally get on with the Jewish slaughter until every Jew in Europe had perished. The new order was in effect a clearing of the decks for action: the Birkenau facilities, gargantuan as they were, had certain ultimate limitations both spatial and thermal; with their absolute and uncontested priority in the lists of der Massenmord now, the Jews were tendered a sudden unaccustomed exclusivity. With few exceptions (Gypsies for one), Birkenau was theirs alone.

Even at the critical moment of Sophie’s arrival with her children at Auschwitz, Styron writes that among those on the train, “All the Jews have gone to the gas,” but Sophie and the other non-Jews still hoped for better treatment. Does this fit in with Mr. Grenier’s tidy diatribe?

If Mr. Grenier needs or wants further evidence that Mr. Styron has not slighted the agony of the Jewish people, which the Holocaust represents, let him look also at pages 143, 144, 145, 150, 152, 153, 217, 219, 221, 375, 379, 389, 478, 480, and 483. In fact, why doesn’t he just read the book? These references, by the way, are not complete, but those hurriedly found in a fifteen-minute, late-night perusal, piqued by Mr. Grenier’s wholesale misrepresentation.

If Richard Grenier doesn’t think Sophie’s Choice is well written, that’s his business. If he feels that William Styron should be punished or chastised for his views about Central America, that’s also his business. But when he chooses to ignore or viciously distort the core of one of the most significant novels ever written about the Holocaust, then it becomes everybody’s business.

I don’t expect any redress of my grievances from Mr. Grenier, but I do hope, and in fact I am sure, that your readers will want to read the book and see the movie for themselves, and then make their own judgments based on their perceptions and not on these gross and inexcusable distortions made by Mr. Grenier for his own purposes.

Joel H. Sterns
Trenton, New Jersey

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Richard Grenier writes:

I thank Bernard Adelman for his complimentary letter. All his questions are absolutely legitimate, but to answer them in full would require an entire article, so I will be as brief as possible.

Yes, Missing and a number of what I would consider anti-American movies are financed by American money, and their producers are perfectly aware that even if the films fail in the U.S. they have an excellent chance of being successful abroad. I am afraid these producers fall into that now notorious category of American businessmen who “love commerce more than they loathe Communism.” Yes, the success of anti-American propaganda movies like those of Costa-Gavras does, to a substantial extent, reflect European attitudes toward the U.S.—at least among what is called the “successor generation,” people who do not remember the world before 1945. There is quite a bit of doublethink in this, however, and in France, for example, where the plummeting prestige of the Socialist regime has affected the intellectual world as well as the rest of the country, we might see some changes, but I do not know whether this has been reflected in movie attendance. Last, Hollywood, as I have written before, is to a large degree in the hands of star actors. That is, if Robert Redford turns the screenplay down, the movie is likely not to be made. So that the studios, which in the old days ran Hollywood and were in the main ultra-conservative, no longer impose movies on the stars, the stars impose the movies on the studios. The question of why movie stars, “presumably intelligent, decent citizens,” choose to make what I would consider anti-American movies is far too complex to be dealt with here. I can only remind Mr. Adelman that movie stars are actors, and actors are “artists”—a class the majority of which has historically had difficulty identifying with our kind of society. If he wants an even more spectacular example of the alienation of artists, let him examine the doings and statements of another kind of artist—writers—in that great literary forum, the PEN Club.

Gary A. Klein has most definitely misinterpreted my remarks, and his letter contains more misrepresentations and non sequiturs than I would have thought possible in such a small space. First, in my article, I did not address the question of whether Academy Award decisions should be made “on the basis of politics.” I simply pointed out that the Awards ceremony—barring a few individual outbursts—has historically been apolitical, and has made quite a point of this. Then, suddenly, the last ceremony took a violent political swing, the text of the presentation reading as if it were written by Cora Weiss or the Reverend William Sloane Coffin. My principal “uneasiness” about if You Love This Planet and Alsino and the Condor was not that they were nominated on the basis of political considerations, but that these nominations were made by a secret steering committee, and that the votes cast represented only a tiny fraction of the full Academy. So much for my article. I freely confess to Mr. Klein, however, that if the full Academy had knowingly voted a top award to a Soviet film rehabilitating Joseph Stalin I would have been distinctly disturbed, whereas Mr. Klein, I gather, would have welcomed such an eventuality as a joyous expression of “left-wing” politics. Beyond this point I shall tutor Mr. Klein no farther, as I suspect that his questions are disingenuous, and that he understands me full well, as I do him.

Joel H. Sterns’s overheated letter charges that I “viciously distort” and deliberately report untruthfully on William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice for my “own purposes.” I do not engage in debate on this level and hence shall not answer his letter. He might be interested to learn, however, that no less a historian of the Holocaust than Lucy S. Dawidowicz, author of The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945, considers Sophie’s Choice an attempt to “usurp the Holocaust, to take it away from the Jews.” She says mordantly that Styron thinks “all that suffering is too good for the Jews and he has given it to the Gentiles.”

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