The Anti-Kazan


Wherever you may land on the Kazan issue nearly 50 years later, there’s no getting around the fact that somebody’s getting a Lifetime Achievement Oscar this year for a long career they had during and after the blacklist, and somebody isn’t getting one for a long career they didn’t have because of the blacklist. That second somebody is Abraham Polonsky, easily the most talented and fascinating filmmaker to be blacklisted, and arguably American film’s greatest HUAC loss. Polonsky came to Hollywood as a scriptwriter in 1947 after going to Columbia Law School, teaching at City College, and serving during the war with the OSS. He shook the world with his second script, for Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947), and at the urging of star John Garfield wrote and directed Force of Evil (1948). It’s not going too far today to suggest that Force of Evil is more original, sublime, and lyrical than any Kazan film; equally, what it implies for the career that never subsequently happened is momentous. The ’50s, at the very least, would not have been the same decade had Polonsky been working at full cry.

Though he got to eventually write and direct two more films, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1970) and the little-seen Yugoslav epic, Romance of a Horsethief (1971), Polonsky is famous now only as the Kazan antithesis, the Holly -wood director who lived up to his principles and surrendered his career rather than surrender his friends. Today, his reflections on Kazan’s final moment in the sun display little mellowing with age. “About Kazan, I put it three ways: One, I wouldn’t want to be buried in the same cemetery with the guy. Two, if I was on a desert island with him I’d be afraid to fall asleep because he’d probably eat me for breakfast. Three, we’ve already given him the Benedict Arnold award, which is usually reserved for presidential assassins. Except he didn’t kill a president, just his friends. All those people with the Group Theater, they were his best friends.

“Seriously, it’s a terrible mistake,” the 88-year-old Polonsky growls from his home in L.A. a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony, waxing enthusiastic about Greenwich Village, his great-grandchildren, Charlton Heston (“I was on this radio show and Chuck called in, and I said, ‘Hey, you’re the king of guns, why dontcha go get a gun, give it to Kazan, he could blow his brains out and go down in infamy, which is all he wants’ “) and the “media blitz” he’s enjoying. “Suddenly everybody remembers the blacklist.” But does he plan to go to the Oscars? “I’m invited, I’m always invited, I’m a member of the Academy. But why would I go? Did you know you have to pay to get into that? Why would I pay good money to see that guy, to go and sit on my hands?”