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.
The next spring, HUAC returned to
Hollywood with a vengeance and, among many others, subpoenaed Kazan’s Group Theatre comrades. Most took refuge in the Fifth Amendment and refused to discuss their past political associations. The exception was John Garfield. The Bronx street kid who was Hollywood’s pre-Brando Brando blandly told the Committee that no one in Hollywood had ever discussed the CP with him. HUAC was not satisfied. Garfield was blacklisted along with the rest.
HUAC was then out to snare a Red movie star. Edward G. Robinson, Larry Parks, Sterling Hayden, José Ferrer, and Judy Holliday were also candidates. But Garfield remained the prime target. Kazan, who worked with Garfield both at the Group and in Hollywood, was sure to be subpoenaed. Arthur Miller, who was then collaborating with Kazan on a never-produced script about labor-racketeering on the Brooklyn waterfront, would recall the director’s telling him he was afraid of being blacklisted. To complicate Kazan’s situation, he had just finished Viva Zapata! for 20th Century Fox— directing Brando as a Mexican revolutionary in a project originally brainstormed by Hollywood Ten member Lester Cole.
Kazan’s subpoena arrived in early 1952, along with one for playwright Clifford Odets. In his autobiography, the director maintains that up until then he had posed as a “left-
oriented liberal.” Screenwriter Walter Bernstein first met Kazan when the director was researching his waterfront project; Kazan asked Bernstein to introduce him to the Communist leader of the National Maritime Union. Bernstein set up a meeting and recalls that
afterward Kazan told him “how much he admired [him] and how that was the side he was on.” Miller has written that Kazan “identified himself with the idealism of the left. . . . Like Odets, [Kazan] wore the fading colors of the thirties into the forties and fifties, the resonances of the culture of antifascism that had once united artists everywhere.” Was it not the young Kazan who, in the original Group production of Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, incited a stunned opening-night audience to yell “Strike!” and moved New Masses to dub him “Proletariat Thunderbolt”?
Summoned before HUAC, Kazan confessed in closed session his own long-ago Communist past, but declined to name former comrades. This would not do. Although Kazan has always denied that Fox studio boss Spyros Skouras gave him an ultimatum to cooperate, it is known that, in his anxiety regarding Viva Zapata!, Skouras requested everyone connected with the movie to provide written accounts of their political views and that these were forwarded to gossip columnist George Sokolsky at The Hollywood Reporter. Before long, the Reporter received the secret transcript of Kazan’s “uncooperative“ testimony and made public the story that although the director had “confessed Commie membership,” he “refused to supply any new evidence on his old pals from the Group Theatre days, among them John Garfield.”
Kazan was trapped. In April, he returned to HUAC at his own behest and named Odets as a Communist, plus the seven Group actors who had been in his cell— Lewis Leverett, J. Edward Bromberg (who had already suffered a fatal heart attack after his unfriendly testimony), Phoebe Brand and her husband Morris Carnovsky, his old roommate Tony Kraber (soon to lose his job at CBS), Paula Miller Strasberg, and Art Smith. Kazan supplemented his testimony with an annotated résumé explaining, in servile detail, why every play or movie he had ever directed was already anti-Communist.
It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, joining the Communist Party might have been a career move. In his testimony, Kazan admitted bringing Brand into the CP and Kraber would maintain that gung-ho Kazan had recruited him as well. Back then the Party was happening. There were secret meetings where the Group’s Red fraction plotted to make Odets’s Awake and Sing! their next production— and screw director Lee Strasberg’s opposition. (One of the more bizarre aspects of this backstage intrigue was that Strasberg’s wife was a member of this supposedly clandestine cell.)
Kazan drew the line, he told HUAC, when he refused to support a CP directive that the actors take over the Group and transform it into a collective. The Party took him to task for this, importing a Detroit labor organizer who branded Kazan an opportunistic “foreman type.” Rather than accept this criticism, Kazan explained that he chose to resign (although not perhaps right away). Located in a chapter of his autobiography that begins with a tribute to an “inspiring” former comrade, Kazan’s account of his HUAC testimony is a startling example of crablike motion and profound ambivalence. The director covers his tracks and doubles back to make new ones. Then, like Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, he pumps himself up for a declaration of war. The memory of his Party trial makes him so angry that he decides to name everybody— although he calls a few of them up to get their permission first.
Phoebe Brand would later maintain that Kazan had testified selectively, naming his enemies but not his friends. Certainly, he could have done more damage— he might have volunteered the name of his old Theatre of Action comrade Nicholas Ray, for example, and thus denied the world Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause. He could surely have provided additional information on Garfield, whom he knew to be the Committee’s main interest. Garfield, like Bromberg, became a HUAC fatality. He suffered a massive heart attack at 39 while under increasing pressure to give friendly testimony. Kazan was made of tougher stuff.
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.
A Jury of His Peers
I felt my sympathy going toward him and at the same time I was afraid of him . . . As unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I had attended meetings of Party writers years ago and had made a speech at one of them. — Arthur Miller
Kazan is one of those for whom I had contempt, because he carried down men much less capable of defending themselves than he. . . . — Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter
I’d rather not talk about [Kazan]. He was once my friend, my teacher. I’ve never been able to look [him] in the eye, nor he me. Because he knows that I know. — Martin Ritt, director
You look for forgiveness, you try to understand, but I can’t manage it with Kazan. What he did was diabolical. And what he did afterward was diabolical— to try and reach and offer work to blacklisted people. He tried to corrupt them by giving them work and by doing so making them accept him. — Jules Dassin, director
[Kazan] was the most seductive man I had ever met. He made you feel wanted and cared for. He understood you and passed no judgment. . . . Once he talked eloquently to me of wanting to play Richard the Third, knowing the evil uses of charm. He would have made a fascinating Iago. — Walter Bernstein, screenwriter
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 16, 1999