February 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

They are the Oscars many viewers use to take a breather — those lifetime achievement awards, bereft of any suspense or haute couture. On March 21, honors will go to Elia Kazan, who guided Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Eva Marie Saint to acting Oscars and owns two statues for directing Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954). ”Richly deserved and long, long overdue,” says Charlton Heston. On the other hand, says director/screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, ”I’ll be watching, hoping someone shoots him. It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening.”

This year, you may want to reschedule the potty break.

Resentment of Kazan, whose other masterworks include A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), and East of Eden (1955), dates back to the early 1950s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee demanded that a cavalcade of Hollywood talents prove their patriotism by ratting out their Communist colleagues. Those even suspected of being party members — hundreds of people, ranging from Polonsky to actor John Garfield — were blacklisted. In 1952, Kazan named names. Rod Steiger, whom Kazan later directed in Waterfront, claims it was not until the end of shooting that he learned what Kazan had done. ”It was like I found out my father was sleeping with my sister,” says Steiger, who anticipates a few boos during the ceremony. ”The passing of time can do nothing to ease the pain of those who suffered.”

Heston, however, believes Kazan’s actions were defensible. ”It’s true many decent men and women saw their careers…finished completely, and that’s too bad,” he says. ”[But] the Hollywood Left has treated him rather badly over the years. Nobody can challenge [that] he was one of the great directors of his period.”

Still, lasting outrage — or, says Heston, ”near-Stalinistic political correctness” — cost the director salutes from the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. So this award comes as a surprise, especially since just last year the Writers Guild of America voted to restore credits to some blacklisted scribes forced to attribute their scripts to others. ”Why now? Because someone on the board [Malden] nominated him and the board voted for him,” says Academy head Robert Rehme.

The prize is already dividing critics as well as filmmakers. ”The only criterion for awards like this is the work,” says Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan. ”It’s a slippery slope when you start pulling in other criteria.” (Adds Turan of the L.A. critics who blocked the proposed award to Kazan: ”It was as if the ills of an entire era were laid at his doorstep.”)

But J. Hoberman, critic for New York’s Village Voice, says that while Kazan’s career is worthy, the award is hypocritical. ”There’s never been an industry acknowledgment of the careers the blacklist cost,” says Hoberman. ”Maybe it could be somewhat mitigated if they gave a posthumous award to someone like Garfield.”

Kazan, 89, said in a statement that he plans to ”thank the men and women who stood with me, behind the camera, and at its side.” No mention of his controversial past is planned. ”That’s not what this is about,” says Rehme. ”It’s about the work. Aren’t his movies great?”

”Oh, he has an excellent record,” agrees Polonsky, who still feels that Kazan should use his speech to apologize. Otherwise, the 88 year-old writer will continue working on his last project: a mobile gravestone. ”That way, if they bury this man in the same cemetery,” he cracks, ”they can move me.”

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