Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]


An Award for Elia Kazan

Jan Levine Thal


This century's final Academy Awards ceremony, the 71st, could be best described as missteps and I'm not talking about Gwynie crying about her mother again or Roberto dancing over Billy Bob Thornton's head. Oddly, those were the high points -- which certainly couldn't be said about Debbie Allen's choreography. Indeed, the Awards attracted a full 10 percent fewer viewers than last year. But surely the worst moment of the evening was when the Academy, specifically Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, presented an honorary award to Elia Kazan. If you've been on Mir these last few months, you may not know that this is the most controversial thing that happened at an Oscar ceremony in years.

Though a few Academy members stood and applauded, many more did not stand and a number did not applaud. ABC's cameras did their best to downplay those who disapproved of the award but apparently they were in the majority of those in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

No one doubts that Kazan is a great director -- his credits include On the Waterfront, Viva Zapata!, East of Eden, A Streetcar Name Desire and so on. But when the U.S. government asked Hollywood writers, directors and actors to turn one another in, Kazan spoke right up. In the 1940s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held hearings to investigate Communism in the motion-picture industry. Some HUAC committee members had long careers as a result, including Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy. But those who they called were not as fortunate. Ten witnesses, the so-called Hollywood Ten, refused to say whether they belonged to the Communist Party and eventually went to prison. Many more were on an unofficial blacklist well into the 1960s. Tens of thousands of people all across America, in all walks of life, lost their jobs for purported leftist sentiments, often with absolutely no evidence of such sympathies. In Hollywood, being named ruined thousands of lives. Several died, including John Garfield, J. Edward Bromberg and Philip Loeb as a direct result of being named.

Sadly, many unions, like the Screen Actors Guild, jumped on the bandwagon, condemning and ejecting their own members. SAG leaders, such as Ronald Reagan, no doubt did far more damage than Elia Kazan who named people who'd already been named. And the damage was long-lasting. In 1967, the Grateful Dead refused to sign the loyalty oath required to join SAG. Only then did the SAG Board of Directors reconsider whether patriotism should be a precondition for joining a union of artists. The loyalty oath was finally removed from SAG bylaws in 1974. Yes, there were many shameful acts on all sides. And not-so-veiled anti-Semitism as well.

But should the industry that suffered so greatly from such acts honor one of its perpetrators, even if he is a great artist? Will it be Hitler's ingenious movie maker Leni Riefenstahl next year?

Some argue that the blacklist is ancient history that should be set aside. I disagree. Just a few years ago, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee demanded to know the ethnicity, religious affiliation, sex, age, salary, employment history, political contributions, and other information about employees of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio.

The story of the blacklist is full of lessons for today -- it has all the elements of a great film with life, love, death, destruction, heroes and backstabbers all contending for center stage.

Just a few weeks ago I saw a fascinating play about the blacklist that opened recently in New Brunswick (after an earlier incarnation in Seattle). Its title, Jolson Sings Again, refers to the actor Larry Parks whose big break was the title role in The Jolson Story and who named names but nonetheless never worked again. Written by Arthur Laurents, who was blacklisted, the play specifically condemns Kazan as someone who had enough power in Hollywood to oppose and maybe even stop HUAC and instead chose to rat on his friends. Yes, Kazan made great movies. But what of those who never made movies again -- how are we to judge their work?

The issue begs the question of why the government was so fearful -- was the Communist Party USA so effective that it had to be stopped? If so, that's worth knowing. Let us celebrate its role in unions formed, social policies enacted, defense of people's lives and rights. If that's what made the left so dangerous, if that's the history they were trying to keep out of our consciousness, it seems to me it's our duty to know it. And who else should we revere in the left, besides the members of the CPUSA?

One actor, Lionel Stander, who appeared in comedies directed by Ben Hecht, Frank Capra, and Preston Sturges, said he had not joined the CP because it wasn't left enough. He was nonetheless an activist, supporting the Salinas Valley lettuce strike, the Tom Mooney case, the Scottsboro Boys defense, guild campaigns, antifascist work, and other left-wing causes. Stander said he had been blackballed for his politics for more than twenty years. He told the committee the only "un-Americans" active in Hollywood that he knew of were the committee's members. Ironically, he was one of the lucky ones. Stander starred in European films and later returned to American prominence as the chauffeur in "Hart to Hart," one of television's top ten programs during the early 1980s. Most of his comrades led less wonderful lives.

Elia Kazan to this day refuses to apologize for naming names, saying that he believed communists were the enemy.

As Pogo said, we have met the enemy and they is us.


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Jan Levine Thal is a writer living in New York City. Before that she lived 16 years in Madison, Wisconsin, where she continues to be heard on WORT-FM with film reviews phoned in from Manhattan. She has been a political activist since she joined the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Her proudest accomplishment is co-raising her son, Jeremy, though she says Jeremy gets most of the credit for becoming a lovely, caring person.


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