Elia Kazan & Roman Polanski: Two Moral Tales

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Elia Kazan & Roman Polanski A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Elia Kazan and the blacklist and discovered I had hit a raw nerve. Some people felt that I had left Kazan off the hook for some terrible crimes; others were filled with rage that I would take it upon myself to judge Kazan. A long-time friend took her name off my mailing list. A respected critic wrote only three words “Who are you?” followed by a list of all the books he’d written, the festival juries he’d served on, etc. His point, as I understood it, was: where did I, a total nobody, get off making a judgment on Kazan, one of the greatest film artists in history?

After reading my post, Tom Hall, the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Film Festival, invited me to serve on a panel on the blacklist, along with Peter Askin (Trumbo), and Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace).  (The panel will take place this coming Sunday, April 17th at 3pm at the Sarasota Opera House.) While Tom recognized I wasn’t an expert, based on my blog he felt I had something to contribute. As this is coming up a week from today, I’ve been thinking about what my contribution might be.

Rightly or wrongly, Kazan is the epic face of collaboration during the blacklist, in the same way as his counterpart, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is the monolith of righteousness. As he was the most successful director in the theatre as well as movies, everyone felt Kazan had little to lose by defying the committee. He could keep working. As Kazan chose not to take that road, he was judged to be a greedy opportunist who sold out his friends for riches. While many were wracked with conflicts about their appearances before the committee, Kazan paid for a full page ad in the New York Times explaining why he did the right thing. There was a tone-deaf, Marie Antoinette quality to the way Kazan presented himself in the midst of all the broken lives, lost marriages and suicides wrought by the blacklist.

On the other hand, what was Kazan’s crime? Was he the only one who named names or behaved dishonorably? What about the grandstanding congressmen like J. Parnell Thomas who started the mess? What about the studio executives who actually created the blacklist? It wasn’t Kazan’s fault that he had to choose between losing his career or giving names of Communists to the committee. And as Richard Schickel wrote in his book on Kazan, there is a very solid argument that the 1950’s left could be strongly condemned for ignoring and/or defending the activities of Stalin, who had already killed almost a million people in his purges and cleansings, and sent fourteen million people to his Gulags by the time Kazan gave his testimony in 1952. Why stand up for people who were defending one of the worst butchers in history?

Things are never as simple as people would like to make them.

There are many things you can say in defense of Kazan’s actions, but there is no getting away from the fact that Kazan will always remain a very potent symbol. Those for whom the blacklist is still a living thing will never forgive him. Shortly before Kazan was presented with his honorary Oscar in 1999, blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky told Entertainment Weekly that he was hoping someone would shoot Kazan, saying “it would no doubt be a thrill on an otherwise dull evening.” That kind of hateful talk is of course unacceptable.

On the other hand, there are people who aren’t curious about what Kazan did--they simply support him unconditionally because of his talent. I’m not at all comfortable with that. Should geniuses get a free pass? Do they live outside morality?

And this leads me to Roman Polanski. Is it okay to drug a 13-year-old girl and have anal sex with her against her will? And then leave her crying in your car, waiting for you to drive her home? And then say that the judge was just jealous—he would have liked to do the same thing? And never apologize?

Here are a few of the people who think that is fine and dandy: Martin Scorsese, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Moreau, Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Paul Auster, the Dardennes Brothers, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols, Darren Aronofsky, among many others.

Would these people want somebody to drug and anally rape their own 13-year-old child? Of course not, they simply feel that great artists must be defended at all times, no matter what they do. And it is this lazy, knee-jerk response that troubles me.

The blacklist was a nasty, cruel, ugly, disgusting, vicious, and appalling time. And just as Polanski should not get a free pass for what he did—neither should Kazan for the role he played in the blacklist. We need to think these things through, and not let extraordinary talent blind us to larger issues. I believe that how honorably we live means as much as the way we tell our stories. Which is not to suggest that I think “good” behavior bears any connection to better art—I far prefer Kazan’s movies to Dalton Trumbo’s scripts—just that these things matter.

Kazan’s films were always praised, but he was often denied awards, including the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, and prizes from the San Francisco Film Festival, and LA Film Critics. There were too many people around who remembered the evils of the blacklist to get majority votes on these award-giving juries. It took nine years for Karl Malden to talk the Academy into giving Kazan an honorary Oscar and when he finally succeeded, it set off a firestorm. There was a movement to get people not to applaud, which at the end of the day proved unsuccessful. The 90-year-old Kazan got a standing ovation, with only a few, including Nick Nolte, sitting on their hands. If I had been there, I know I would have been with the people standing up and applauding.

But would I stand up and cheer for Roman Polanski? No, I would not.