A Snitch in Time

The Berlin Wall is dust, the Doomsday Machine dismantled, the Soviet Union dismembered. And Sunday night, in the midst of the interminable orgy of showbiz self-congratulation known as Oscar Night, a wizened little guy with a big nose— still hale at 89 if a bit dazed by the commotion— is scheduled to finally receive his lifetime achievement award. Another Cold War relic will be laid to rest. Or will it?

There's a tumult in Tinseltown, but, as befits a hall of mirrors, the reality of this uproar will be constructed in the control booth. Depending on the politics of the telecast director (or maybe on the politics of the director's parents), either the camera will focus on those members of the audience who, organized by a committee of elderly screenwriters, stonily sit on their hands, or, more likely, the telecast will make it appear that Elia Kazan is receiving the greatest ovation in the history of the Motion Picture Academy.

Oldtime lefties like Abraham Polonsky and Bert Gordon— both of whom were hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood— consider Kazan anathema: He named names. In April 1952, at the pinnacle of his success, Elia Kazan went voluntarily before HUAC to become the most distinguished American artist who saved his Hollywood career by informing on onetime Communist associates.

It may that for the vast majority of the viewing audience, Kazan is a virtual unknown. His credits, however, should be familiar. He won his first Oscar for directing Gentleman's Agreement in 1948 and his second, seven tumultuous years later, for directing On the Waterfront. In between, Kazan helped run the Actors Studio and directed the original Broadway productions of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, effectively putting their authors on the cultural map. Kazan was likely the most influential and brilliant director of actors in postwar America— the man who popularized the Stanislavsky technique known as the Method, who made Marlon Brando a star, who brought James Dean to Hollywood, and who staged the most famous brother scene in movie history.

Ancient history. That Kazan directed his swan song, The Last Tycoon, as recently as 1976 was something of a fluke. The director had struggled on, but his Hollywood career was largely over by the time Andrew Sarris consigned him to the "Less Than Meets the Eye" dustbin in his 1968 auteurist taxonomy, The American Cinema. As a director, Kazan was "more mannered than meaningful," Sarris had decided. "There is an edge of hysteria even to his pauses and silences," the critic added, without even bothering to mention the director's most memorable performance— singing for HUAC.

On one hand, feting Kazan is within the Oscar tradition of decorating a battle-scarred survivor, if not a cast-off has-been. In 1972, Charles Chaplin was brought back from a 20-year exile to receive his lifetime achievement award. (Chaplin, a "dangerous" alien with alleged Stalinist sympathies, had been banished from the U.S. six months after Kazan's HUAC testimony.) Orson Welles, who also suffered for his politics during the Cold War, died before he could be properly rehabilitated. (Does anyone remember the days when Steven Spielberg could proudly shell out $60,000 for the prop sled from Citizen Kane but refuse to help Welles fund his last projects?)

It's pleasant to show old clips and dangle the golden watch. But, on the other hand, honoring Kazan shines the klieg light on another aspect of Hollywood hypocrisy— the wholesale firing and non-hiring of the movie industry's actual and suspected Communists (as well as other politically incorrect types) from the late 1940s into the 1960s.

Elia Kazan was first named as a Communist during the October 1947 HUAC hearings by no less an authority than studio boss Jack Warner, who was trying to convince the Committee that FDR rather than Warner Bros. was responsible for the Stalin-celebratory wartime propaganda film, Mission to Moscow.

Kazan, who had in fact been a member of the then-legal Communist Party for 19 months in the mid 1930s while acting with the Group Theatre in New York, was at that point a Hollywood liberal. He would sign a telegram in solidarity with the Hollywood Ten, who were HUAC's first, most celebrated targets, and support their legal defense until the spring of 1950. It was then, soon after Senator Joseph McCarthy made his stunning debut as America's witchfinder general, that the Ten lost their legal appeals and went to jail for the crime of having refused to tell Congress if they were (or had ever been) members of the Communist Party.

By summer there was war in Korea and even liberals were on the defensive. People were losing work; marriages and friendships were breaking up. Hollywood was rife with informers. Ronald Reagan was one, reporting to the FBI on the membership he represented as president of the Screen Actors Guild; at the Screen Directors Guild, a vociferous minority led by Cecil B. DeMille were trying to oust liberal president Joseph Mankiewicz, who had declined to have members sign loyalty oaths. Kazan ducked out of the October 22, 1950, SDG meeting described by one participant as the "most tumultuous evening" in Hollywood history, telling the Mankiewicz faction (John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler) that DeMille knew of Kazan's CP past and would use it against them.

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