The release of the new 18-disc Elia Kazan box set, which includes Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, “A Letter to Elia,” has got me thinking about the evolution of my thoughts about the director of such classic films as “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,”On the Waterfront,” ”East of Eden,” “America, America,” the interpreter and informal dramaturge for great American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and the elicitor of legendary performances from Marlon Brando, James Dean and so many others.
Kazan is all these things, but he is also a source of deep resentment from many, an anger that is dimly understood by a younger generation of movie fans.
As most people who read this blog know, in the early fifties Kazan was a “friendly witness” for the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), giving names of people in the film industry who were Communists. While there were dozens of others who did the same thing, people lost their livelihoods because of his revelations, although Kazan has always denied this. In any case he lost many long-time friends and was widely denounced.
But if he hadn’t willingly testified, the course of his life would have been irrevocably changed, and it’s impossible to say whether “On the Waterfront” (written by his fellow name-namer Budd Schulberg) would have ever been made, let alone “East of Eden,” “Baby Doll,” or “A Face in the Crowd.” What would not working with Kazan have meant for James Dean’s development as an actor? Would Kazan have still made “Splendor in the Grass,” a movie I loved, after the blacklist ended? In light of what he did, does this matter? It does to me.
In 1971, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo directed the film “Johnny Got His Gun,” based on his 1939 novel. As the blacklist officially ended in 1960 when Kirk Douglas put Trumbo’s name on the script for “Spartacus,” the publicity for the film centered on the blacklist. This piqued my interest in the period and when I got to college I did some research and wrote an article, “Celluloid Sedition? The Strange Case of the Hollywood Ten,” for the local film magazine, The Velvet Light Trap. The more I studied it, the more the moral issues consumed me. What would I have done? It is so easy to judge people when history doesn’t force hard choices on you.
HUAC actually held two investigations, one in the late forties and one in the early fifties. During the first one, eleven men were called in to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" The first, Bertolt Brecht, left the country the next day. The others, one of which was Trumbo, who became known as “The Hollywood Ten” refused to answer, and went to jail. After their release, all of them—except director Edward Dmytryk, who agreed to cooperate--came out barred from working in from industry. The blacklist had begun.
I doubt these men had any idea they would face such harsh consequences. If he had known, I doubt that Ring Lardner, Jr. would have responded to the “are you now…” question with, “I could answer… but if I did I would hate myself in the morning.” With the possible exception of the pompous Communist bigshot John Howard Lawson, I believe the Hollywood Ten were essentially innocents. I don’t think they thought it was possible in America to go to prison or lose their ability to work simply by practicing their rights to speech and assembly.
By the second round of HUAC hearings in 1952, everybody knew the deal: cooperate or be totally screwed. But this time the deal was much more strenuous than simply answering whether you’d been in the party. You also had to be a snitch. Many of the accused had renounced the party—or had never even been a member--so they were actually eager to talk about themselves. But the new rules were that once you said anything about yourself, you had to name names. It was Kafkaesque. Academy Award-winning John Garfield was a left-winger who rejected the party, but as a non-party member claimed he had no names to offer, so his career was ruined anyway, and he died of a heart attack soon after. Unless you were a ranting reactionary like Adolph Menjou, it was either lose your career or, in the eyes of many, lose your soul. Arthur Miller, who stood up to the committee, later wrote about the cruel twisted logic of those years in “The Crucible.”
Still, there were a range of options within this inquisition. On one edge, you could deliver a fiery speech denouncing the committee, and seal your fate; and on the other margin you could really go to town like screenwriter Martin Berkeley, who identified a whopping 162 people. In the areas in between there were people who desperately struggled to cooperate but ended up being blacklisted anyway, like Garfield and Larry Parks. If you wanted to be absolutely certain that your career was secure, you needed to plant yourself firmly in the collaboration zone. And this is what so many people condemned about Kazan. He was thought to be too overtly friendly, an opportunist who gave it up without a fight. He saw it differently, of course. Why lose your life to protect people you disavow? The problem with this argument is that many people who had turned against the Communists still refused to turn any of them in.
The blacklist was a brutish, nasty thing which destroyed lives, often slowly, through alcoholism. Divorces, strokes and heart attacks were common. Whether you were able to work or not, the suffering could eat through your life like a fever, as you helplessly watched your friends crumble into despair and ruin. As Kazan would later say about himself, Hollywood folk define themselves by their jobs: without work, they don’t feel like they exist. In the face of all this misery, Kazan’s reign as the king of Hollywood caused the rage against him to fester. Of course, it was American hysteria, HUAC and the cowardice of the studios that created the blacklist. Kazan had nothing to do with that and he was only one of dozens who gave names to the committee. His unforgivable sin was being the most talented and celebrated person to cooperate.
Lillian Hellman, who was defiant to the committee, wrote a book on the period, which she entitled “Scoundrel Time,” but Trumbo, who paid a bigger price than most, gave a famous 1970 speech to the Writer’s Guild where he said there were no heroes and villains during the blacklist, only victims. His words made as many people angry as it pacified others, but it did signal a new era in thinking about the era.
As the decades passed, many of the blacklisted people died, memories faded, and the general consensus about Kazan became forgiveness. Still, when Martin Scorsese and Karl Malden lobbied to get him a special Academy Award in 1999 (when he was 90), Kazan’s icon Marlon Brando refused to present it, and Robert De Niro, star of Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon,” replaced him. The audience of his Hollywood peers gave Kazan a prolonged standing ovation, but the TV camera focused on Nick Nolte, grimly sitting on his hands. After almost fifty years, Nick Nolte was still pissed off at Kazan for something that happened when Nolte was eleven. I have worked with Nick Nolte and love him, but what the hell kind of choices did he have to make when he was eleven and in the years since? Would he readily walk away from ever being a movie actor again?
Shortly after I came to New York, I was at a party after a New York Film Festival screening. Somebody came over to me and said, “Reid, I have somebody I know you’ll like to meet.” I turned around and this gentleman extended his hand warmly. “I’m Elia Kazan,” he said. What ensued was a discussion about the movie we had just seen. I could use this space to invent something about how insightful he was, but the truth is I don’t remember a single word he said, only how courtly and dignified he was. I wasn’t nervous at all talking to The Great Man, even though I was in awe of the art he had created. He set me completely at ease, and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. A man can be a genius, a legend, susceptible to human frailty, and many other things, but when he stands inches away from you, he is a human being, nothing more, nothing less. Any thoughts of the blacklist couldn’t have been further from my mind.