The Oscar and the Blacklist

Few doubt the worthiness of director Elia Kazan's career. But those scarred by with hunts of the 1950s protest that his misdeeds should not be forgiven.

March 13, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

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.

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