By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By his own account, Kazan thrived on alternating secrecy and disclosure, rebellion and compliance. Born to subterfuge, he characterizes his early relationship with his mother as conspiratorial and he succeeded in recreating that atmosphere throughout his life. Arthur Miller described rehearsing with Kazan as "a conspiracy not only against the existing theatre but society, capitalism in fact, everybody who was not a part of the production." Throughout his memoirs, Kazan complains that he's perceived as a betrayer of trust but even more frequently cites his "gift of dissembling."
Dissembling or acting? According to theater historian Mel Gordon, Kazan's HUAC testimony was unique for its emotional intensity: "Stanislavsky's name had appeared in both the California and Federal HUAC hearings as some mysterious Russian influence in Hollywood, but only Kazan actually hooked into the Method by re-living some sensational hidden memory." For Kazan, this dark memory was the 1936 Party meeting at which, in his words, he felt expected to "grovel, make excuses" and, as before HUAC, "confess [his] errors." Gordon points out that Kazan's testimony and subsequent statements are "right out of an Affective Memory exercise. All the other friendly witnesses had to be prompted to answer questions, only Kazan emotionally connected." (And only Kazan took out a self-serving, self-righteous ad in The New York Times that, projecting Korean War rhetoric back to 1936, condemned Communist thought-control and seconded HUAC's assertion that the Party was a "dangerous and alien conspiracy.")
There is no doubt that, once he threw himself into the role, testifying gave Kazan a rush the director is not alone in pointing out that he did his best work coming off his HUAC performance. After making the requisite anti-Communist melodrama Man on a Tightrope (a movie that also served to "clear" the too- liberal Fredric March), Kazan directed the six features on which his reputation rests: On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and Splendor in the Grass. All are films about betrayal. By the time he wrapped the last one in 1961, the blacklist had been broken.
Walter Bernstein says that, HUAC testimony or not, Kazan "continued to insist he was a man of the left." Indeed, 25 years after defending Viva Zapata! as an anti-Communist film, its director told one interviewer that he was proud that his movie was an appeal to the "disgruntled and rebellious people of the world."
Similarly, Kazan's resentment-ridden memoirs are complicated by a persistent streak of sentimental leftism. Waiting for Lefty still chokes him up. Kazan remained true to the Group's values its concern for social significance and grandstanding histrionics, its militant middlebrowism and ethical critique of the capitalist system. (In fact, it was another Group graduate, Karl Malden, who pushed for Kazan's lifetime Oscar.) And here lies the rub.
In 1952, Kazan had enormous cultural authority. He was Broadway's leading director and an Oscar-winning filmmaker. If there was any artist in America who could have resisted HUAC and made the blacklist public it would have been he not the least in his demonstrated capacity for projecting self-justifying martyrdom. Kazan could have been a contender. Instead, he chose to become the Lucifer of the Old Left refusing the role history had ordained for him and taking another. Some might hail his patriotic exposure of the Group Theatre threat, but for others, he had allowed HUAC to cast him as that most wretched of '30s creatures the stool pigeon hired by the bosses to undermine worker solidarity. (A police spy was, in fact, the villain of Dimitroff, the anti-Nazi agitprop Kazan wrote with Art Smith in 1934.)
"It was disturbing to inform on my colleagues," Kazan would later tell Jeff Young, himself the nephew of a blacklisted screenwriter. "But I never told one goddamn lie about it. Also, the guys I named were all known. Everybody knew who they were, so it wasn't a big deal." Of course they were known. The big deal was Kazan's cooperation. He furnished no new information (and few friendly witnesses did). Rather, he humiliated himself by submitting to HUAC's protocols. As Philip Roth concludes in his novel of the Red Scare, I Married a Communist, it was the congressional Red-hunters who exploited "moral disgrace as public entertainment."
If Kazan's HUAC appearance was essentially symbolic, so is the whole story of the Hollywood blacklist. Although it has been estimated by historians Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund that 90 percent of those driven from the movie industry never returned, Hollywood's significance for America may be best understood in the way that sorry story of the wrecked careers and purloined movie credits has come to encapsulate something far more extensive namely the Cold War purge of schools, government agencies, and trade unions in which the thousands of past, present, and possible Communists who refused to pull a Kazan were consequently fired from their jobs.
Kazan was only a featured player in the destruction of an American left that despite the monumental crimes of Soviet Stalinism was itself, throughout the 1930s and '40s, a powerful catalyst for social reform and political change. Had it not been for this wider blacklist, the subsequent development of American trade unionism, civil rights, and foreign policy might have been quite different. Perhaps some day Hollywood will make a movie about that.