It's hard to deny that Elia Kazan is one of the country's greatest living filmmakers, with a resume that includes "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront," "Splendor in the Grass" and "East of Eden.'
But it's just as hard to deny that Kazan's naming of names during the great red hunt of the 1950s damaged several careers and helped legitimize a process that would destroy dozens more. Of the seven actors he named before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) -- Lewis Leverett, J. Edward Bromberg, Phoebe Brand, Morris Carnovsky, Tony Kraber, Paula Miller and Art Smith -- not one had a career that amounted to more than a minor footnote in stage and movie history.
All were victims of the blacklist, an informal agreement among Hollywood studios that anyone identified with the Communist Party would not work in the film industry -- unless they cooperated fully with HUAC, usually by providing the names of others sympathetic to the Communist cause. The blacklist dates back to 1947, and it wasn't until 1960, when Kirk Douglas insisted that blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo receive writing credit for "Spartacus," that its effectiveness began to crumble.
But by then it was too late for many men and women, whose most productive years were now behind them.
And therein lies the heart of the controversy over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decision to honor Kazan with a special Oscar on March 21. Those whose reputations were ruined by the blacklist have never forgiven Kazan.
"I personally don't think it's a good idea," says Brand, 91. "If they want to do that, some of his work deserves it, I guess. But I don't think he deserves it, that's all. I don't think a person should be awarded a prize for doing what he did."
Honoring him with a special Oscar, Kazan's opponents argue, is tantamount to bestowing Hollywood's blessing on his role in one of the industry's darkest chapters.
"I could not forgive this man ever because of the damage he did to his country," says blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon, 80, who plans to lead a protest outside the Oscar ceremony. "Honoring a man who, because of his great prestige, did so much to encourage McCarthyism, and nothing is said about the political and social consequences of his actions? People should know that it is not an honorable thing to become an informer."
Kazan's supporters counter that the award honors a body of work, not a set of political beliefs. "I just think it would be selfish not to give it to him," says Eva Marie Saint, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Kazan's "On the Waterfront," a film seen by many as a thinly veiled defense of his HUAC testimony. "Our town has a way of patting everyone on the back quite often, and I think he deserves one."
Others insist that naming the names of possible communists in 1952 was a public service, not a shameful act. "Elia Kazan helped make Hollywood and America aware of the truth about the Communist threat in America," says the Ayn Rand Institute's Scott McConnell, a member of the organization's Ad Hoc Committee for Naming Facts, which was formed specifically to support Kazan's Oscar. "The fact that Kazan testified about the danger of communism should be applauded and honored. He is a man of integrity."
Or, as National Rifle Association head and Oscar winner Charlton Heston has been quoted as saying, "Sometimes, the good guys win."
Career in the balance
Kazan's relations with HUAC were not always cozy. When he first appeared before the committee, on Jan. 14, 1952, he freely admitted that he had been a member of the Communist Party from 1934 to 1936, part of a unit whose common bond was membership in New York's Group Theatre acting company. But he refused to name the others in the unit.
But as Kazan writes in his 1988 autobiography, "A Life," that decision weighed heavily on his mind. He saw what HUAC had done to other "unfriendly" witnesses who refused to name names, had watched their careers wither. Kazan had a wife and family to support; was remaining silent worth their suffering? Was it worth his career?
Kazan began to panic when word of his testimony leaked out. At the time, he was preparing for the 1952 Academy Awards, at which his "A Streetcar Named Desire" was up for Oscars in almost every category. Now, he perceived, the public was turning against him, and he didn't like what that portended.
"I'd have to sit in front of the Chinese Theatre," he writes, "placed prominently for the cameras to pick up, waiting to applaud the actors, my friends, as they carried off their awards, while my film career went up in the flames of newspaper cuttings."
Perhaps even more important -- at least according to his book -- Kazan had become a fairly virulent anti-Communist by 1952. He apparently believed that Communists were a genuine threat to this country, and that communism went against everything he believed in.
So Kazan requested a second appearance before HUAC.
On April 10, Kazan told the committee: "I have come to the conclusion that I did wrong to withhold these names before, because secrecy serves the Communists, and is exactly what they want. The American people need the facts and all the facts about all aspects of communism in order to deal with it wisely and effectively. It is my obligation as a citizen to tell everything that I know."
In a written statement he named his fellow unit members, the seven actors and playwright Clifford Odets (he and Odets had met earlier, Kazan writes in his book, and agreed to name each other before the committee). He also named three party officials who worked with the group.
Kazan then went on in the statement to describe his contributions to the Communist cause -- contributions he insisted were negligible, mostly having to do with unsuccessful efforts to gain party control of both the Group Theatre and the Actors' Equity union.
He left the party in 1936, Kazan testified, fed up with its efforts at control. "I had had a taste of police-state life and I did not like it," he told HUAC. "Instead of working honestly for the good of the American people, I found that I was being used to put power in the hands of people for whom, individually and as a group, I felt nothing but contempt, and for whose standard of conduct I felt a genuine horror."
Had Kazan's involvement with HUAC ended there, it's unlikely the bad feelings would remain strong nearly five decades later. But Kazan compounded the fracture. Two days after his testimony, Kazan took out a full-page ad in the New York Times defending his actions, explaining why he didn't speak out earlier and urging others to follow his example.
"I was held back by a piece of specious reasoning which has silenced many liberals," the ad read. "It goes like this: 'You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack 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.
"I have thought soberly about this. It is, simply, a lie ... Liberals must speak out."
The ad made Kazan appear to be leading the charge against the Hollywood left, and as the director would soon learn, visibility in an unpopular cause leads to increased contempt.
"He accomplished two things," says blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky, 89. "He blacklisted his most intimate friends, and he himself walked away. And he [convinced] others to become stool pigeons. But in general, all he did was destroy the ability of his most intimate fiends and admirers to practice their profession. He blacklisted them."
Kazan's supporters, however, note that all of the people he named had been named before. Any damage to their reputation had already been done; any effect Kazan had on their livelihoods was minimal.
"He did not betray anyone," says Celeste Holm, who won a 1947 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "Gentleman's Agreement," directed by Kazan. "There was not one single name that he mentioned that wasn't already known. That was hardly a big revelation."
In the 47 years since Kazan testified, he has never expressed regret. Although the decision to name names clearly continues to bedevil him, he steadfastly insists he made the right call. That lack of contrition gnaws on people.
Kazan was a mentor to many actors. He was also seen as a man with a finely tuned moral compass, thanks to the enlightened themes of such films as "Gentleman's Agreement," which attacked anti-Semitism, and "Pinky," about a light-skinned black girl passing as white.
"He was our father figure, a man who was supposed to lead us toward honesty and principals in acting," says Rod Steiger, who co-starred in "On the Waterfront" but says he was unaware at the time of the depth of Kazan's involvement with HUAC. "It was a terrible emotional shock to us, at least to me. It was like like my father was found sleeping with my sister.
"If they want to give him an award, then they should give an award to every family whose life he might have affected," Steiger says.
After the hearings, Kazan went on to direct some of his greatest films -- not only "Waterfront," but "East of Eden" and "Splendor in the Grass." He'd win a second Oscar for "Waterfront" ("Gentleman's Agreement" was the first). Dozens of great actors got their starts and did some of their finest work under him, including James Dean, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
It was old friend Karl Malden, a member of the AMPAS Board of Governors, who proposed that he receive a special Oscar. The award was debated, and eventually approved.
"There's no doubt about the fact that Elia Kazan is a great director, and has received two Academy Awards plus numerous other awards as testimony to that," says director John Frankenheimer, a member of the Board of Governors. "But what he did in my opinion is a despicable act."
Come March 21, Gordon and others plan to be outside the awards ceremony, protesting Kazan's Oscar. They insist they have no desire to disrupt the proceedings; rather, they are asking that Academy members and those inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion simply refrain from applauding when the honor is bestowed.
Some may heed the call, but early signs indicate no shortage of enthusiasm for the award. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have been lined up to present Kazan with his Oscar; film critic Richard Schickel is producing a tribute to be shown during the ceremony. Wednesday, at a press conference announcing that the writing credits on six more films are being changed to reflect the fact that they were actually written by blacklisted writers, Warren Beatty sounded a forgiving note when speaking of Kazan, now 89 and in ill health.
"You're talking about someone I love, who taught me more than anyone else about movies," Beatty said. "People make mistakes. We can say we wouldn't do it, but we didn't have to live through that time."
But for people like Abraham Polonsky, whose name didn't appear on a single American film between 1951 and 1968, thanks to his appearance on the blacklist, the issue is clear. "If the U.S. government wants to give him the Benedict Arnold award, it's OK with me," Polonsky says. "That's all he deserves."
Pub Date: 3/13/99