By the time I arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, the selection was over. About 200 people had won coveted bleacher seats to the red-carpet entrance of the 71st Academy Awards. Among celebrity-worshipers, sitting in the Academy Award bleachers is like taking communion from the pope. Reaching this pinnacle requires a fanatical dedication that separates the avid star-worshiper from the armchair variety. One must possess the physical fortitude and iron will to camp out in the streets days before the ceremony and, once chosen, to spend up to 12 hours planted on a bleacher seat in the hot sun. For those who can endure these hardships, the payoff is immense. As Hollywood nabobs disembark from their limousines and glide over the red carpet to their rendezvous with glory, the chosen in the bleachers roar them on with shouts of encouragement and screams of adulation. This bleacher audience—big enough to whoop thunderously but small enough to be managed by a cadre of security guards—plays an essential role in creating the Oscar “buzz.”

Meanwhile, the unchosen have no option but to go home or to find a spot on the street that might offer a promising view of arriving movie stars. Dozens of bleacher-seat rejects flocked to the pavilion’s back entrance where, rumor had it, performers in the evening’s celebration would arrive sometime in the afternoon. The spectacle was made more preposterous by a transvestite dressed as Marilyn Monroe, stubbled with a five-o’clock shadow, and a midget parading around in a white suit. Both cradled fake Oscars and smiled for amused fans who clicked away on cameras. Women squealed and men chuckled when “Marilyn” hoisted his white dress to reveal thick dark leg hair and white bikini underwear.

I went to the Academy Awards not to star-gaze—nor to be amused by the farcical behavior of those who did —but to get a stiff dose of political agitation. Demonstrators representing old-guard communism and radical individualism vowed to square off in the streets around the pavilion. The prospect for a confrontation sounded invigorating—especially after a year in which America’s fiercest political debate was over the definition of “sexual relations,”

The demonstrations on that day were borne of a decision made almost 50 years earlier by Hollywood director Elia Kazan. In 1952, Kazan, then a communist apostate, volunteered to the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of several communists with whom he had worked in the mid-1930’s. Kazan’s own activity as a communist was brief, lasting less than two years. As a young idealist faced with the grim realities of the Depression and fascism, Kazan initially believed communism had something good to offer. But as J. Edgar Hoover writes in Masters of Deceit, Kazan’s liberal sensitivities clashed with the Communist Party’s “regimentation and thought control.” Kazan had the sense and honest objectivity to reject communism at a time when many of his comrades were willing to ignore or overlook Stalin’s ruthless solidification of power in the Soviet Union.

Communists regarded Kazan’s 1952 testimony as perfidy of the highest order. When studio executives blacklisted known and suspected communists, Kazan became the bête noire of leftists whose humble aim was to overthrow bourgeois America and establish a Soviet satellite state. Hoover notes that Communist Party apostates were “vilified, blackened, and made to appear the scum of the earth,” and retaliation against Kazan was swift. One week after Kazan’s testimony, Samuel Sillen of the communist Daily Worker wrote, “We have seen a lot of belly-crawling in this time of the toad, but nothing has quite equaled last week’s command-performance by Hollywood director Elia Kazan. . . . Kazan is not content with being a toad. He must be a philosopher of toadism.”

Despite having directed classics like On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and East of Eden, Kazan became a pariah. Only after the final chapter of the Cold War had been recorded in America’s dumbed-down history books could Kazan’s work be considered for the honor it deserved. In January, the Motion Picture Academy’s board of governors voted to award him an Oscar for lifetime achievement.

In some quarters of Hollywood, the decision to honor the 89-year-old director was met with outrage. To Tinseltown’s unapologetic Stalinists and virulent leftists, awarding Kazan an Oscar was as palatable as admitting that tens of millions had been murdered in the name of their philosophy. In response to the academy, the peculiarly named Committee Against Silence asked the Oscar audience to remain silent when Kazan received his award. It also planned a little fest of self-righteous indignation outside of the ceremony.

By noon, the only demonstrators I could find at the pavilion were Kazan’s supporters from the Ad Hoc Committee for Naming Facts. Formed February 24 by the Ayn Rand Institute, the Ad Hoc Committee sought to honor Kazan as a hero for, in the words of Chairman Peter Schwartz, standing up against “an ideology which called for the enslavement of the individual to the collective state.”

Their demonstration area at the intersection of Hope and First Street, about a block from the red-carpet entrance, was well stocked with piles of showy press packets, cases of bottled water, and stacks of professionally manufactured signs with slogans like “Hollywood Communists Supported Stalin,” “Thank You Kazan For Not Being Silent,” and “Kazan: Defender of Free Speech.” Many dressed in coat and tie—not the sort of clothing associated with demonstrations or warm Southern California afternoons. As some fielded press questions and posed for photos, others handed out leaflets to curious spectators.

A couple of hours dragged by with no sign of the Committee Against Silence. By 2:00, the pro-Kazan demonstration had swollen considerably and included a contingent of about 20 toughs from the California chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. They weren’t like the twiggy’ Republican geeks I had known in college. A couple were outright bruisers, and the band had the menacing air of drunken Vikings making way for the English coast.

Legions of crazed fans crowded the sidewalks, with more arriving by the minute. An occasional limousine cruised slowly by, and sometimes you could make out a waving hand from behind tinted glass. Of course, this only teased the gawking folks who had come to see stars. More than once a newcomer asked if I had “seen anyone yet,” which I took to mean “anyone like Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep,” and I had to respond sadly that I had not. A Goodyear blimp, three helicopters, and a banner-towing airplane competed in the category of noisiest and most irritating flying machine. As I was thinking how the event had the sounds and feel of a big football game, I noticed a handful of people carrying signs kitty-corner to the pro-Kazan demonstration. The Committee Against Silence had arrived.

Getting to their protest site posed something of a problem. Security guards had taped it off earlier in the day, and they weren’t letting spectators across First Street. The large mob gathered on the other side of First Street complained bitterly about this. (They didn’t care that such a great location had been closed off for a bunch of pinkos to use, just that it had been closed off.) When I headed to the anti-Kazan site, three or four spectators followed. An assiduous security guard intercepted us halfway across the street, screaming, “Go back! This area’s off limits.” But nothing was stopping us—especially an unarmed security guard—and we left him standing in the middle of the street with a bruised ego.

The anti-Kazan people distinguished themselves from the rabble by tying red scraps of T-shirt around their arms. According to one, they were only the “advance party” for what could be 1,000 protesters. This “advance party” was middle-aged and astonishingly yuppified for a pack of commies. When I asked two of them how they secured a site so close to the red-carpet entrance, one of them got annoyed and muttered, “We’ve got a police permit and everything,” before turning away to chatter on a cell phone. His comrade had a different story, saying, “I think probably the academy was a player in it.” I listened to her prattle on about the world’s dismay over the academy’s decision to honor such a vile man. She was explaining why the 1950’s was the most politically correct era in American history when a look of fear shot across her face, and she started screeching, “Stop! Stop! This area’s for the protesters.”

I looked over mv shoulder to see a horde of spectators stampeding across First Street. They had had enough of being pushed around by rent-a-cops; now they were taking matters into their own hands. Several security guards and a couple of protesters offered futile resistance and almost got crushed for their trouble. Anti-Kazan protesters were furious that their site had been overrun. The woman I’d interviewed flashed me a sneering look that blamed me for leading the onslaught. But the story ended happily for the Committee Against Silence. The invaders were unwittingly drafted into the anti-Kazan camp by the Los Angeles Times, which reported the following day that 500 people protested Kazan’s award.

My own estimate put the number at 150. And they weren’t friendly. Several anti-Kazan protesters hurled insults at the pro-Kazan side. A woman who seemed under the control of hallucinogens squirmed in laughter when her comrade screamed that Kazan was “a slime man” to a pro-Kazan demonstrator wearing a Vietnam veteran’s baseball cap. Another woman shouted, “Ahh, I see the Nazi party’s here!” At that, a large brute holding a pro-Kazan sign and wearing a Jewish Defense League T-shirt scowled in disgust, and for a moment I thought I might have to intervene to keep him from picking her up and shaking the silicone implants out of her.

The appearance of the Red Menace jump-started the pro-Kazan side. YAFers boomed their baritone chants of “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Hollywood Commies Got To Go,” and “Kazan’s the Man, Kazan’s the Man!” Fittingly, given the surreal circus surrounding them, they seemed oblivious to a stark irony. Here were virulent opponents of liberalism supporting a man who has never repudiated liberal politics, just communism. Kazan defended his decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a way of saving the Hollywood careers of “good liberals” who weren’t allied with the communists.

Scott McConnell, director of communications for the Ayn Rand Institute and vice chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, called Kazan an “honest liberal” of the old school who “believes in individual rights and saw that the Communist Party of America and the Soviet Union were the enemies of individual rights.”

McConnell believes Hollywood continues to suffer an infestation of communism. “They wouldn’t call themselves communists,” he told me. “They’d call themselves environmentalists or multiculturalists or socialists or left-leaning or progressives. But they still have a lot of the same policies and philosophies.”

The Committee Against Silence was not hiding its ideology behind euphemisms. About 50 of them locked arms and marched into First Street under signs reading “Hail Heroic Soviet Spies” and “Reforge the Fourth International World Party of Socialist Revolution,” as well as two familiar red flags sporting the hammer and sickle. This was too much for the YAFers to stomach, and they charged off their corner to meet the hated foe. A communist protest leader with a bullhorn urged her comrades on in a chant of “Down with McCarthyism,” while the YAFers shouted, “Long live McCarthy.” An all-out brawl seemed imminent. Hundreds of spectators (who had, up until that point, behaved dutifully by staying on the sidewalks) followed the lead of the demonstrators and streamed into First Street. The whole scene was drifting into chaos.

Movie stars could swoop in at any time. Order needed to be restored, and a squad of police officers moved in to separate the demonstrators and clear the street for the parade of limousines. It took about 15 minutes to herd everybody back on the sidewalks. After the crowd nearly crushed me against a newspaper boy, I decided to head to the pavilion’s back entrance. I muscled my way through Hollywood’s believers for about a half-block before looking back at where the demonstrators stood. A few signs rose above the crowd like insignificant atolls in a sea of star envy. The political squabblers had been absorbed by the celebrity-worshiping masses.