When Elia Kazan, one of the twentieth century’s great American theater and movie directors, died two years ago, the obituaries almost all struck the same sour note. As the
New York Times put it, in
addition to his artistic accomplishments, Kazan committed “what many still consider one of the great ideological betrayals in American performing arts history.” The Los Angeles Times, the movie business’s hometown paper, announced his death with a straightforward page one headline, elia kazan, 1909–2003, but then got down to cases in the subhead: stage and screen triumphs were eclipsed by his testimony against colleagues in the blacklist era.
For many “progressives”—especially in the entertainment business—“eclipsed” doesn’t begin to tell the story. Over the entire half-century after
he “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee on April 12, 1952, Kazan remained the very embodiment of a self-serving, backstabbing rat bastard. The assumption about his moral turpitude rests on another assumption, so often echoed in books, movies, and classrooms that by now it appears an indisputable fact: that the blacklist was a straightforward case of good versus evil, pitting decent Americans defending free thought and expression against the vilest forces of reaction.
Like the most heavy-handed Hollywood “message” movie, such a view allows for zero ethical complexity—and it
is nonsense. While no one
can deny or excuse the bullying and moral corruption of federal investigators, the term routinely applied to their work—“witch hunt”—is entirely misleading. Mid-twentieth-century Hollywood, California, had nothing in common with seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. In Hollywood, the witches—communist activists, working surreptitiously to advance Soviet interests—were all too real.
That today’s Hollywood liberals continue to celebrate their Old Left forebears as selfless martyrs doubtless sometimes results from ignorance. Many celebrities get their history from movies or from one another, and they’re suckers for good-guy-versus-bad-guy takes on complex events. Hence the rhapsodic Hollywood reaction to George Clooney’s new Good Night, and Good Luck, a film chronicling CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s clash with Senator Joseph McCarthy that scrupulously resists any suggestion that communism posed a meaningful danger. In the Bush era, Hollywood’s blinkered view of the blacklist
reinforces its smug sense of itself as a fighter for truth and justice against what it sees as a thuggish government. Rich, powerful, perfectly free to denounce the nation’s policies and leaders to a willing press, liberal celebrities glory in casting themselves as the descendants of the brave but powerless individuals who paid such a high price for resisting the bullies of HUAC.
Never was this fantasy clearer than on October 27, 1997, when elderly blacklist victims and the new Hollywood came together at
the Motion Picture Academy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the HUAC hearings. The evening featured a documentary, Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, but things really took off when such contemporary stars as Billy Crystal, John Lithgow and Kevin Spacey reenacted the stirring testimony of blacklisted actors and writers. Following the performances, the current heads of the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild apologized for their predecessors’ failure to stand up to Washington bullies and pledged: Never again!
Then, most thrilling of all, an actual relic of that time, the blacklisted writer Paul Jarrico, 82, rose to speak. While never mentioning Stalinism, Jarrico explained why the government had it in for people like him. Stirring up the Red scare and McCarthyism, he said, were the same kind of Americans responsible for bigotry, the genocide of Native Americans, and “repression of dissent.” Leftists like him, by contrast, dedicated themselves to the “fight to end racism, to end sexism, to end the obscene chasm between poverty and wealth.” Jarrico ended with words to warm the hearts of the assembled celebrities, as they headed back to their lavish homes in their luxury cars. “It may take another 50 years,” he declared, “but we shall overcome. The good guys will win.”
No one mentioned Elia Kazan’s name from the stage that night—that would’ve been to give the skunk an introduction at the garden party. But as a chief villain in the blacklist myth, Kazan got his due and then some, when two years later the Motion Picture Academy announced that it would at last award the sickly 89-year-old filmmaker a lifetime-achievement Oscar. The firestorm that followed split Hollywood between those who insisted that Kazan should never be forgiven and those who argued that honoring
his artistic work wasn’t the same as excusing his testimony. None defended Kazan’s actions a half-century earlier. “His lifetime achievement is
the destruction of lives,” raged 79-year-old Norma Barzman, a blacklisted writer who spearheaded protests against the award. “I hope somebody shoots him,” snapped 87-year-old screenwriter Abe Polonsky.
What put Kazan beyond redemption wasn’t simply his cooperation with HUAC. He could still have won forgiveness. At the 50th-anniversary event, after all, Billy Crystal sympathetically re-created Larry Parks’s testimony, in which the Jolson Story star begged the committee not to force him to betray his friends, before—in tears, an obviously broken man—giving in.
But far from repentant, Kazan was defiant. The day after his HUAC appearance, he took out a New York Times ad entitled, almost regally, a statement by elia kazan. “I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem,” it read. “That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien society and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.” The only way that the American people could solve this problem wisely, Kazan continued, was to “have the facts about Communism.” Kazan then briefly recounted his youth in the communist movement and the contempt that he came to have for the totalitarian mentality that he’d seen firsthand.
Why hadn’t he come forward earlier? Kazan asked rhetorically. “I was held back, primarily, by concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the Party many years ago.” Also holding him back was “a piece of specious reasoning” that had silenced many. “It goes like this: ‘You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack them or expose them, because if you do you are attacking the right to hold unpopular opinions and you are joining the people who attack civil liberties.’ ” Kazan was blunt: “I have thought soberly about this. It is, simply, a lie.”
A complex and contradictory man, outgoing but given to gloomy self-reflection, Kazan conceded in his autobiography that his haughty defiance was largely a pose. “Any time you hurt people, and I did hurt some people, you don’t like it,” he wrote. Yet self-serving as it undoubtedly was—for his HUAC testimony allowed him to keep working in Hollywood—Kazan’s statement also expressed his deepest beliefs.
Born Elia Kazanjoglous
into a long-brutalized Greek minority in the Turkish province of Anatolia, Kazan arrived in New York in 1913 at age four. Always grateful to the country that saved his life, he never lost a powerful sense of being an outsider. At the height of his celebrity, working in the most collaborative of professions, he still felt ill at ease revealing himself, hiding instead, like his imperious rug-salesman father, George, behind the “Anatolian smile,” bred over centuries of oppression to mask anger and resentment. Everything in Kazan’s early experience reinforced
his sense of difference—and the insecurity and independence of mind it tended to foster in equal measure. Even in Gotham’s ethnic stew, Kazan’s family stood out as foreign, and nothing changed when the family moved to suburban New Rochelle, where his father continued to wear a fez to work.
Kazan’s alienation from his peers is evident in the 1926 New Rochelle High School yearbook, in which the photo of the intense young man with a thick nest of black hair is the only one unaccompanied by a list of student clubs and activities. The obligatory cheery note below the photo is almost mocking: “Eli has been so backward in coming forward that we’ll have to tell you what we found out—he puts over anything he tackles. Girls, what wouldn’t you give for that hair? Maybe it grew that way in Constantinople.” Nor did Kazan fit in at Williams College—“a pompous, reactionary gentleman’s school,” he later called it. He couldn’t get in to a fraternity and had to wait the tables and wash the dishes of his
fellow students to make ends meet. His sense of being nothing to the school’s moneyed swells laid “the emotional groundwork for me to
join the Communist
Party,” he later reflected.
That commitment blossomed after college and a stint
at the Yale Drama School, when Kazan joined the Group Theater, New York’s top left-wing Depression-era theatrical company. Run by the gifted trio of Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the Group boasted among its 30 or so actors
such landmark talents as Stella and Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, and John Garfield. Its biggest star, though, was playwright Clifford Odets, whose stirring social dramas gave him a stature that rivaled Eugene O’Neill’s. For many, the Group was less a theater than a cause, many of its shows unapologetically leftist in ways that today’s audience would find shocking. Group members proudly called themselves a “collective” and held commercialism to be a dirty word. Their aim was to change the world.
Gadge,” as his Group comrades now called him—short for “Gadget,” for his willingness to do anything, from
furniture repair to press agentry—swiftly graduated from assistant stage manager to character actor. Kazan was a generous, if highly competitive, colleague, sharp with a sense of his own possibilities. Not coincidentally, Kazan, who graduated from college a virgin—and who in his seventies still bitterly recalled the nights he waited on wild frat parties, eyeing the lascivious coeds to whom he was permanently invisible—now had all the women he wanted in this milieu, as sexually unrestrained as the most relaxed college campus would be 35 years later. Through his two marriages, Kazan remained an avid and unapologetic womanizer. “I was faithful to her in every way except sexually,” he wrote, meaning it, of his longtime, devoted first wife, Molly.
But work always came first. Kazan’s big break as an actor came in Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. Set in a clamorous meeting of New York taxi drivers during a 1934 strike, Lefty pitted decent left-wing working stiffs against the union’s corrupt, boss-owned leadership. Kazan’s role was tiny but pivotal. For most of the play, he sat in the audience, his cue coming at the play’s climax, when one of the good guys proclaims: “[T]he man who got me food in 1932,
he calls me COMRADE! The man who picked me up where I bled, he called me COMRADE too! What are we waiting for? Don’t wait for Lefty! He might never come!” Now, rushing the stage—and taken by many in the audience to be a real
taxi driver—Kazan announced: “They found Lefty—behind the car barns, with a bullet in his head.” At that, the “workers” erupted in a cry, taken up by the audience at every performance: “Strike, strike, strike!”
The reviews sang. “The Group Theater gives its most slashing performance in this drama about the taxi strike,” raved the Times’s Brooks Atkinson. “The most exciting workers’ drama we have seen yet,” seconded the New York Post. Needless to say, the Daily Worker loved it, too: “Swept the audience off its feet. A high-water mark of revolutionary drama.” Kazan would look back to Lefty’s opening night as his most memorable theater experience.
In such a milieu, Kazan readily gravitated toward the Communist Party, with its professed agenda of social justice and international peace. “Idealism was our answer to the Great Depression,” he later reflected. “Comradeship buffered us in a society many of us, for one reason or another, considered hostile.” He formally joined the party in 1934. Soon
afterward, he co-authored Dimitrof: A Play of Mass Pressure, agitprop about a Belgian communist falsely accused
of setting the Reichstag fire. He got his first shot at directing with an anti–New Deal play called The Young Go First, mounted by a marginal leftist collective.
It was no secret that many in the Group were ardent communists—reviews would blandly mention the fact. Over time, though, the company’s relentless politics began to limit its audience. A string of commercial flops so damaged the Group’s finances—never solid at the best of times—that
members were at one point bringing home only $25 a week. To address the crisis, the co-directors, though fierce
leftists, ordered members to shun overt political activity.
For Kazan, the directive soon led to a personal crisis. Already, the way that the Group’s communists operated behind the scenes disturbed him. The party might give lip service to democracy but didn’t practice it. “You’d have to go to Actors’ Equity,” he’d later recall, “and pretend you’re just one of the guys, when you’re really part of a program that’s been decided on before the meeting.” Now, in response to the new policy, the party ordered Kazan and his theatrical comrades to seize the Group from the directors. Kazan realized that such a coup would be a disaster for the company and said so to several colleagues—privately, he thought.
No such luck. Reported to party higher-ups, Kazan had to endure the most humiliating evening of his life. At a special meeting, chaired by a “Leading Comrade”—a UAW leader imported for the occasion all the way from Detroit—Kazan found himself dressed down for resisting “Party discipline” and for being an “opportunist” currying favor with “the bosses.” After his Group comrades eagerly piled on, Kazan was ritualistically offered the chance to grovel, recant, and return to the fold. Instead, disgusted and furious, he went home and fired off a letter, quitting the Communist Party.
Kazan’s break with the party at first changed little in his life. He remained determinedly leftist, and his relations with his old comrades went on mostly unchanged. But as the Group tottered on its last legs, Kazan had to look for new sources of income. Hollywood seemed promising, and in 1940 he moved west, together with several Group colleagues. Harold Clurman later recalled walking onto the Warner Brothers lot and spotting his ragtag buddies Carnovsky, Kazan, and Odets, cracking wise in New Yorkese as they lolled in the California sunshine—a sight so incongruous that he doubled over with laughter. In the end, limited by his ethnicity, Kazan appeared in just one worthwhile film: a supporting role in City for Conquest, a 1940 Jimmy Cagney gangster flick. But already he saw that his future lay in directing—especially for the movies. His brief film-acting stint had helped him understand the startling way that the camera “records thoughts and feelings,” penetrating “into a person, under the surface display.”
Hollywood was in political transition. The studio system, presided over by autocrats and trading on the glamour of its stars, remained the industry’s public face. But a number
of developments—including the influx of talent from the East Coast and war-ravaged Europe—began to alter the town’s innate conservatism.
Working slyly to advance these political changes were communist operatives, led by German theater veteran Otto Katz. According to historian Stephen Koch, Moscow had sent Katz to California to organize communist front organizations and radical unions, and he succeeded beyond all expectations. “Columbus discovered America,” Katz would boast, “and I discovered Hollywood.” The growing communist influence in the industry was clearest in the push for radical unionism. For instance, party activists, led by Kazan’s old Group comrade J. Howard Larson, dominated the newly formed Writers Guild.
As party members took up key positions in the studio hierarchy, they began to wield power. As associate producers, story editors, and even agents, they not only saw to it that fellow communists got work but—in a sort of reverse blacklist—made sure that anti-communists didn’t. “There’s no question they looked out for their own,” observes Hollywood writer Burt Prelutsky, a former liberal who has migrated rightward. “Morrie Ryskind had . . . written some great pictures, including A Night at the Opera,” Prelutsky continues, “but he’d broken with the party and become a Republican. For a time he couldn’t get arrested in this town.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent his last years as a studio hack, well understood the political climate of that time. “The important thing is you should not argue with them,” he wrote of Hollywood leftists. “Whatever you say they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind, ‘Fascist,’ ‘Liberal,’ ‘Trotskyist,’ and disparage you both intellectually and personally in the process.”
Well-positioned party members also worked to bar the making of anti-communist films. In a 1946 Worker article, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo noted with satisfaction that prominent anti-communist books of the thirties and forties such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon never made it to the big screen. Nor did any script touching on the Ukraine famine or the Moscow show trials.
Moscow’s ultimate Hollywood goal, Koch explains, was to “Stalinize the glamour culture”—that is, associate in the public mind left-wing views and celebrated entertainers, lending those views respectability. This project could also enable the party to tap “Hollywood’s great guilty wealth as a cash cow.”
Events 6,000 miles away helped further the communists’ Hollywood ends. As
a cause both noble and almost certainly lost, the Spanish Civil War played well in
Tinseltown, with the communist-dominated Hollywood Anti-Nazi League setting the tone for that era’s version of radical chic. Reporter Murray Kempton, himself a reformed leftist, described a war relief fund-raiser at the home of a major producer, featuring New Masses editor Joseph Freeman as the speaker. Appalled at seeing the friend who’d driven him to the shindig snubbed by the Hollywood heavyweights present for the sin of being a mere writer, Freeman pointedly addressed his remarks to the serving help. Two members of the wait staff, it turned out, were German Jewish refugees; deeply moved by Freeman’s words, they burst into tears—which, in turn, so moved the producers and stars that they dug deeper into their wallets. Afterward, recalled Kempton, “Freeman’s Hollywood comrades congratulated him on a brilliant piece of stage business.”
As the Spanish war wound down to its sorry conclusion, it prompted ever more fervent Hollywood benefits and rallies, their sponsors and steering committees packed with communists and credulous fellow travelers—some of whom would one day lose their careers for doing nothing more than signing some petitions. Screenwriter Abraham Polonsky later pointed to the endless round of benefits as proof that the American party was just a “social” organization. More serious observers argued that, in the end, the party’s Hollywood branch was almost comically ineffectual, a bunch of gullible idealists whose idea of subversion consisted of slipping a few lines into a film.
Nonetheless, by the late thirties only the willfully blind could deny that the party was a wholly owned Soviet subsidiary, working on behalf of Moscow’s policy goals. Nor, by then, could any fair-minded observer fail to grasp the nature of the Soviet regime. Reliable reporting had described Stalin’s brutal purges in Russia, and in 1939 fascism’s supposedly most stalwart foe signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Among the committed, no hint of embarrassment showed. “I don’t believe in that fine, little republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about,” sneered playwright Lillian Hellman as Stalin’s forces, temporarily freed from their preoccupation with Germany, crushed their northern neighbor.
For a time, World War II saved American communism from itself. After Hitler stabbed Stalin in the back and Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war and Russia became our ally against fascism, the American Communist Party entered the mainstream as never before. In Hollywood, old antagonisms eased. For many on the Left, it was increasingly possible to envision communism as “twentieth-century Americanism,” as the party slogan went.
By now, Kazan, back in New York, was more involved with his career than with
politics. Dubbed the “boy genius of Broadway” after directing Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth, Kazan brought to the stage over the next few years a catalog
of the masterworks of mid-twentieth-century theater. Propelled by his Broadway success, his film-directing career soon took off, too. His debut picture was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on Betty Smith’s best seller about turn-of-the-century tenement life, and he catapulted to the first rank of Hollywood directors with 1949’s Gentleman’s Agreement, a Best Picture Oscar winner that dramatized the pervasive anti-Semitism in American life. Kazan thought the movie overrated, but as a committed liberal, he understood its ideological power. Thirty years later, when Jeff Young, a young Jewish interviewer, was deriding the film for being dated, Kazan responded with a query: “Was your name always Young?” Replied Young: “Mine was.
My father changed his.” Said Kazan: “That’s my point about Gentleman’s Agreement.”
In the years after the war, Kazan forged close bonds with both of the emerging superstar playwrights of the American theater, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. The two could hardly be less alike—Miller passionately engaged with the larger world, Williams fascinated with the intimate questions of human existence. “I didn’t admire Art more than I did Tennessee—or less,” Kazan said. But it was clear that he could never experience as deep a kinship with Williams, who, as he put it, “lived in another world, the homosexual enclaves of certain places he considered romantic. . . . [H]is daily life didn’t relate to my own.” Working on A Streetcar Named Desire, his first production with Williams, the director soon realized that the play was the writer’s own story: that he wholly identified with the desperately vulnerable Blanche, a lost soul in a brutal world—indeed, that as a homosexual with a preference for “rough trade,” he also sought out situations that could end only in disaster. Like Blanche, he was “attracted to the Stanleys of the world,” Kazan reflected, testing “the gentleness of his true heart against the violent calls of his erotic nature.”
Leftist playwright Arthur Miller, on the other hand, was a genuine soul mate. When Miller gave Kazan an early draft of Death of a Salesman, the director reacted just as he’d expected, seeing the play not merely as a wrenching family drama, but as a profound ideological statement; and under Kazan’s inspired direction, Willy Loman emerged as the victim of a callous capitalist system.
Following Salesman’s 1947 triumph, the young director and young writer went to Hollywood with some script ideas. There they met an unknown starlet, Marilyn Monroe. The unhappily married but faithful Miller fell for her, and she was smitten with him—but it was the happily married but philandering Kazan who slept with her. After making love, Kazan and Monroe would look at Miller’s photo on her bedside table and talk lovingly of him.
By the early fifties, expressing anti-capitalist attitudes,
as Kazan had done in Death
of a Salesman, could have consequences. With the Soviets occupying Eastern Europe
and the People’s Army conquering China, communism had become an incendiary domestic issue—and, for politicians, an easy headline grabber. HUAC had been around since before the war, investigating the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis as well as communists. Now, under J. Parnell Thomas, it turned its sights on the movies.
The panic took a while to take hold in Hollywood. After the committee issued its first subpoenas, some who didn’t get called felt what Norman Mailer called “subpoena envy.” Major stars, trumpeting the First Amendment, rallied behind the subpoenaed writers and directors.
Hollywood’s hostility toward the committee so spooked Chairman Thomas that he considered canceling the hearings. He didn’t, largely because those subpoenaed—the Hollywood Ten, as they’d soon be known—made a disastrous miscalculation. Rather than engage their inquisitors respectfully or plead the Fifth when asked if they were communists, the ten—fervent communist stalwarts almost to a man—followed party orders to assert a First Amendment right to refuse to answer questions about their beliefs. The result: a series of ugly hearing-room shouting matches, with the infuriated Hollywood ideologues, middle-aged and unglamorous, repeatedly gaveled down as they shouted in defiance. Congress cited each of the ten
for contempt. The stars who had traveled to Washington
to support them—Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye—quickly recanted. Bogart called the trip “foolish and impetuous,” asserting: “I detest Communism, as any decent American does.” The studios caved in turn.
In Hollywood’s collective memory, the years that followed represent an extended nightmare. As blacklist fear spread, so, for a time, did bravado. Abstractly, it was easy to believe that, if called, one would stand up to the committee. Elia Kazan sure talked that way. He despised the Washington inquisitors and those in the movie industry doing their bidding. At last summoned to testify in January l952, Kazan took the approved position, offering to discuss his past activity in the party but refusing to name co-members.
This position failed to satisfy the committee—or, Kazan
soon learned, his employers in
Hollywood. Subpoenaed again, deeply anguished, he sought Miller’s advice. By both men’s account, it was a painful scene. Kazan talked of how he felt pressured to give up everything to defend an ideology he loathed. Miller later claimed that he urged Kazan not to cooperate; Kazan recalled Miller saying that he hoped he’d do the right thing but would support him either way.
After Kazan’s swearing in on April 12, the committee’s lead counsel noted that the director wished to augment his earlier testimony. “That is correct,” said Kazan. “I want to make a full and complete statement. I want to tell you everything I know about it.” Kazan proceeded to name eight members of the Group Theater who also had belonged to the Communist Party, and he recounted how party higher-ups had punished him for deviating from the approved line. “I had enough regimentation,” he said, “enough of being told what to think and say and do, enough of their habitual violation of the daily practices of democracy. . . . The last straw came when I was invited to go through a typical Communist scene of crawling and apologizing and admitting the error of my ways. I had had a taste of police-state living and I did not like it.”
The theater and film communities, which lionized Kazan, reacted with stunned disbelief. But when Kazan
ran his Times ad justifying his actions, disbelief turned to fury. Almost alone among those threatened, they noted, Kazan had professional options; even if Hollywood blacklisted him, he could still work in theater, which resisted the blacklist. Some thought that he had caved under pressure from fellow Greek Spyros Skouros, president of 20th Century Fox. One of the Group veterans he’d named, actor Tony Kraber, appeared before the committee as an unfriendly witness. Asked if he’d known Kazan during the thirties, Kraber responded scornfully: “Is this the Kazan that signed the contract for five hundred thousand dollars the day after he gave names to this Committee?” The allegation was “an outright lie,” Kazan protested.
It didn’t matter. People he’d been close with for his entire career now crossed the street to avoid him. At parties, old friends wouldn’t meet his eye. Some openly insulted him. To Zero Mostel, he would always be “Looselips.” He comes off as a chief villain in Lillian Hellman’s notoriously dishonest memoir of the period, Scoundrel Time. “Life was easier for Lillian to understand when she had someone to hate,” Kazan later wrote. Miller’s response was The Crucible, a play about a literal witch hunt.
Kazan alternated between resentment at the rough treatment and regret for having provoked it. He had dreams of reconciliation, where everything was as it had been. He even dreamed about Lillian Hellman, afterward wondering: “What did I want—that bitch with balls to forgive me?” Yet he also knew that his conflict with many former colleagues went beyond the fact of his testimony. No longer sympathetic to the far Left, Kazan not only looked at the Soviet Union differently than they did, but also at the United States, which he no longer saw as a bastion of corruption and exploitation but, despite its flaws, as mankind’s best hope.
Yes, the committee was a nest of vile bullies; and, yes, some who opposed them had shown great courage. But what was getting overlooked—increasingly so as time passed—was the poisonous nature of the ideology that those on the other side were defending. Whatever the career considerations, Kazan’s loathing of communism weighed heavily in his decision to testify. “The ‘horrible, immoral thing’ that I did I did out of my own true self,” he maintained.
Not long after testifying, Kazan started work on Tennessee Williams’s latest play, Camino Real. During rehearsals, someone brought up how good Kazan looked. “What keeps you looking so young?” he asked. “My enemies,” replied Kazan.
One of those enemies, Arthur Miller, wasn’t done venting. When the playwright finished his one-act A View from the Bridge in 1955, he sent it to Kazan, whom he hadn’t spoken with in three years. Setting aside his work to read the play, about a Sicilian dockworker in Brooklyn who reveals to the authorities that his romantic rival is an illegal immigrant, Kazan responded enthusiastically: “I have read your play and would be honored to direct it.” “You don’t understand,” Miller shot back. “I didn’t send it to you because I wanted you to direct it. I sent it to you because I wanted you to know what I think of stool pigeons.”
Miller had another reason to resent Kazan. Years earlier, the two men had worked on a film project, never realized, set on the New York City docks: The Hook. Now, in the wake of his “betrayal,” Kazan had successfully gone forward with another writer on a similar movie, to tremendous acclaim. That film, of course, was On the Waterfront, released in 1954. The other writer was Budd Schulberg, also an ex-communist who had named names before HUAC, for reasons nearly identical to Kazan’s—the party, in its drive for intellectual conformity, had ordered him not to publish his novel What Makes Sammy Run, deeming it too “bourgeois.”
But far worse, in Miller’s view (and others agreed), was how Kazan and Schulberg used On the Waterfront—the story
of a young man, played by Marlon Brando, who achieves nobility by informing on the corrupt thugs who rule the docks—to justify their own treachery. From the start, Kazan’s first choice for the role was Brando, whose career he’d made years earlier by casting the then-unknown 23-year-old as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. But Brando was so bitter about Kazan’s testimony that he refused even to read the Waterfront script. “That was a terrible thing Gadge did in Washington,” he’d tell people. “I’m not going to work with him anymore.” He relented only when he learned that Frank Sinatra wanted the part. Rod Steiger, who played Brando’s hoodlum brother, later claimed that he’d done the film without realizing that Kazan had talked to the committee. “It was,” Steiger declared, “like I found out my father was sleeping with my sister.” For all the political bluster, it was the usual Hollywood story: career first.
On the Waterfront won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Screenplay for Schulberg, and Best Director for Kazan. Yet in the “progressive” circles where Kazan was once a star, the acclaim only made the
In the years that followed, Kazan directed other memorable pictures, among them East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, Splendor in the Grass, and the deeply personal love letter to his country, America, America, based on his uncle’s escape from Turkey to the
U.S. But by the mid-sixties, demand diminished for his brand of serious, character-driven filmmaking, and Kazan turned to fiction. His 1967 novel The Arrangement, dealing with a husband’s chronic infidelities, was autobiographical, many believed—and not a few critics noted Kazan’s penchant for betrayal. But it was a huge success, Number One on the Times best-seller list for 34 weeks.
Yet the sixties ultimately proved a disaster for Kazan. With the country polarized over Vietnam and race, the blacklist took on fresh meaning for a new generation of leftists, who viewed the “Red Scare” as a precursor to the repressive present. And as the veterans of that earlier time were happy to recall, no one had acted more shamefully than Kazan.
The new Hollywood that emerged in the sixties was far more monolithic in its politics than the one Kazan first encountered in the forties, and from the outset the kinship
between Hollywood’s New
and Old Left was inescapable. Even the old Communist
Party epithets—“fascist,” “reactionary,” “warmonger”—came back in vogue. That Kazan had remained a political
liberal in the years after his testimony, with a string of trailblazing social dramas to his credit, didn’t matter; nor did the fact that he had regularly used blacklisted actors. He was a bad guy.
Meanwhile, the seventies and eighties saw a torrent of books and movies about the blacklist period, pointing up the moral tawdriness of the era and the nobility of its victims. “We had a number of old leftists on the executive board of the Writers Guild, some of whom had been blacklisted,” recalls TV writer Burt Prelutsky, who served on the board in the eighties. “By then, it was like they’d won the Medal of Honor.” The totalitarian ideology that gave rise to the era’s excesses wound up either ignored or sanitized.
For his part, Kazan refused to subject others to political
litmus tests. Though he opposed the Vietnam War, when his friend and fellow ex-leftist John Steinbeck (who’d written the screenplay for Kazan’s Viva Zapata) staunchly supported the war, even traveling to Vietnam to write enthusiastic dispatches from the front, Kazan applauded his physical and moral courage. He continued to profess indifference toward the scorn heaped upon him and the uncritical praise accorded those who’d embraced and never publicly rejected Stalinist totalitarianism. But in private, the situation rankled.
Yet it was impossible to overlook Kazan’s remarkable career entirely, and as he moved into old age, he started to win some of the honors that great achievers usually take for granted. A lifelong New Yorker, in 1972 he won the city’s highest cultural award, the Handel Medallion. Eleven years later, President Reagan presented him with a Kennedy Center Award for lifetime achievement in the arts. Hollywood, though, repeatedly and publicly snubbed him. Time and again, the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association would consider him for recognition and then pass him over in favor of lesser talents.
Then, finally, the Motion Picture Academy announced, in early 1999, that it would give Kazan his lifetime-achievement award. In the ensuing controversy, the Hollywood Left achieved new levels of self-righteousness, though a few brave commentators challenged its version of events. “If the Academy’s occasion calls
for apologies,” said Arthur Schlesinger, “let Mr. Kazan’s denouncers apologize for the aid and comfort they gave to Stalinism.” The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen asked why the industry had waited so long to bestow this honor on such a legend. “The answer is clear: He was blacklisted.” “This whole outcry about betraying friends—of course, no one ever does that in Hollywood,” says Prelutsky of the brouhaha. “The fact is, if everything had been exactly the same, except the names named were those of fascists instead of communists, they’d have been erecting statues to the ‘informers’ on Hollywood and Vine.”
The 89-year-old Kazan stayed silent. Reports described him as “in frail health.” His old friend Eli Wallach claims that he was starting to suffer from dementia. When he spoke to Kazan just before the director flew west, Wallach recalls, “He was scared, he asked, ‘What’ll I say?’ [and] I told him, ‘Just say thank you and get off.’ And that’s what he did—and he brought on Scorsese and DeNiro out there with him for protection.”
Kazan doubtless could have composed in advance the slighting headlines that would follow his death. “History is written,” he’d noted, “by the last fellow at the typewriter,” and he knew how much writing his enemies had done. He left instructions that he wanted no memorial service, just a party, with everyone he knew invited, including his old enemies, “if they’re still alive.”
But developments since Kazan’s death might have surprised him. At long last, America is looking at the “heroes” and the “villains” of the blacklist period with clearer eyes. Two important new books that just several years ago would probably not have been published are causing even some liberals to reconsider. Ronald and Allis Radosh’s Red Star over Hollywood gives chapter and verse on the communists’ efforts to infiltrate the film industry. And Time movie critic Richard Schickel’s forthcoming biography of Kazan credits the director for his courage, even as it reveals many of his adversaries as the unapologetic Stalinist tools that they were.
Paul Jarrico might have been right, at the HUAC anniversary gathering in 1997, if not quite in the way that he intended: it could just be that in the final accounting, the good guys will win after all.