SPOTLIGHT ON:

Elia Kazan’s Betrayal

BY MAX OBUSZEWSKI
     As a great fan of cinema, I supported the protest against honoring Elia Kazan outside and inside the Mar. 21 Oscar ceremonies.

     One of Hollywood’s great directors, Kazan explored such socially conscious subjects as poverty in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” [1945], anti-Semitism in “Gentleman’s Agreement” [1947], racial discrimination in “Pinky” [1949] and revolution in “Viva Zapata” [1951]. But when anti-Communist hysteria, in the guise of the House Committee on Un-American Activities [HUAC], blew through Hollywood, he became an informer.

     Congressional hearings into Hollywood began in 1947, and ten witnesses were soon held in contempt. They were sent to prison for refusing to answer “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” The hearings were postponed until the Hollywood Ten exhausted their appeals. In 1951 the witch-hunt resumed. Victor Navasky, in Naming Names, estimates about one-third of those subpoenaed became informers.

     In Jan. 1952, after his friend Kazan met with J. Edgar Hoover, Arthur Miller told the director he would regret naming names for the rest of his life. On Jan. 14, Kazan answered the Committee’s questions, but would not name names. After reflection, though, he requested a second hearing, and on Apr. 10, he named some former members of his Group Theatre unit, including Clifford Odets, and others. Most of these names are long forgotten--Phoebe Brand, J. Edward Bromberg, Morris Carnovsky, Tony Kraber, Lewis Leverett, Paula Miller, Art Smith and James Proctor, Miller’s close friend and publicist for his plays. Generally, those named had their careers destroyed.

     The actor Bromberg, against his doctor’s order, appeared before HUAC under compulsion, but declined to cooperate and died shortly after. In this pressure cooker atmosphere, Sterling Hayden named names. However, he would later renounce his action, and Brand and others on the blacklist forgave him. Kazan, though, defiantly argued he did the right thing.

     On Apr. 12, 1952, he took out an ad in The New York Times exhorting others to follow in his footsteps. His statement mentions Communist thought control, but conveniently omits HUAC intimidation, lack of due process and HUAC’s creation of a blacklist. He also worked with HUAC member Richard Nixon to append to his testimony an assurance there was nothing subversive in any of his plays or pictures and that, for example, “Viva Zapata” was an anti-Communist picture.

     Kazan joined the Party in 1934, at the height of the Depression, and left disillusioned after a year and a half. Ten years later, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were allies. It was madness for a U.S. government organ to question one’s previous membership in an organization with ties to a country that would later be allied with the United States.

     No one named in the Hollywood witch-hunt was engaged in traitorous espionage or violent activities. They joined the Party as an alternative to the U.S. government’s failure to deal with the profound problems faced by a majority of its citizens. As Navasky deemed the proceedings, they were simply “degradation ceremonies” used by HUAC members to advance their political careers.

     In 1971, in an interview with the French film critic Michel Ciment, Kazan admitted, “There’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names.” However, over the years, he declined to talk about his behavior before HUAC. In effect, be pleaded the Fifth Amendment, something he disavowed in 1952.

     Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro presented a special Oscar to Kazan. However, the director of “Taxi Driver” seemed embarrassed and hid behind Kazan, who had to turn and call him to give him a hug. The television camera seemed to show most of the audience cheering Kazan, despite the protesters’ call for no applause. Liz Smith, however, wrote “most of the audience did not applaud.” I noted Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan sitting on their hands. Unfortunately, many Hollywood figures with a social conscience were notably reluctant to condemn the award--the exception being Rod Steiger, who worked with Kazan in “On the Waterfront” [1954].

     Counter-demonstrators outside included representatives of the Jewish Defense League and the Ayn Rand Institute. George Will and Arthur Schlesinger wrote opinion pieces in Kazan’s favor. Of course, Charlton Heston of the National Rifle Association was in Kazan’s corner.

     Schlesinger’s piece in The New York Times used the words of Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten: “It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.” The Nation lApr. 5/12, 1999] called the use of the quote “poetic injustice” and argued Trumbo made an exception: “Kazan is one of those for whom I felt contempt, because he carried down men less capable of defending themselves than he.”

     Kazan and Budd Schulberg used “On the Waterfront” to justify being informants, and Marion Brando did a brilliant turn as Terry Malloy, a whistleblower against corruption. A more honest film from this era is Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” [1952]. Gary Cooper, as sheriff, is looking for help among his friends, who desert him, as outlaws--representing HUAC--are coming to town.

     Miller did his own waterfront drama, the play “A View from the Bridge” [1955]. His protagonist informs on an “illegal alien” and suffers shame. One character in the play says, “Just remember kid, you can quicker get back a million dollars that was stole than a word that you gave away.”

     Of course, Miller’s “The Crucible” dealt with informing, as well as the danger of mass hysteria like anti-Communism. Miller’s John Proctor prefers to die than to name names, and the playwright suggests that this probably helped to bring an end to the witch trials. While “On the Waterfront” received worldwide acclaim and the attention of the Academy Award crowd, “The Crucible” would have to be produced in Belgium in 1954. Moreover, Miller was denied a passport to see it.

     As the debate over Kazan’s behavior swirls, Augusto Pinochet is facing possible extradition to Spain for trial for crimes against humanity.

     Coincidentally, William Buckley, a former employee of the CIA, in a May 5, 1982 column denounced the American Book Awards for giving Navasky its paperback “general nonfiction prize” for Naming Names. Most of the column, though, is an attack on Navasky for holding particular viewpoints--one being Navasky’s support of the thesis of the Costa-Gavras film “Missing,” which suggests CIA involvement in the coup in Chile that resulted in two U.S. citizens being killed.

     Both Kazan’s testimony in 1952 and CIA behavior in Chile in 1973 have several common threads and illustrate the importance of remembering our history honestly. Regardless if Pinochet is ever tried for his crimes, his arrest was monumental.

     One cannot predict what might have happened if Kazan had refused to cooperate with HUAC. But he was probably the best candidate, by virtue of his prestige and economic invulnerability, to challenge and expose the witch-hunt.

     Some of the pain still lingering could be ameliorated if Kazan would show remorse. Regardless of his behavior, however, the Hollywood cognoscenti should remember and honor all those who were blacklisted. Even the payment of reparations needs be considered.


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This story was published on Apr. 7, 1999.