Why Won’t Hollywood Forgive Elia Kazan? : His Artistry Is Revered but His Name Is still Reviled. The Town That Forgives Almost Everybody Still Remembers the Day He Named Names.
It was the fall of 1995, and once again names were being named. The members of the San Francisco Film Festival board of directors were meeting to choose a recipient of the festival’s lifetime achievement award, won in past years by Akira Kurosawa, Michael Powell and Satyajit Ray. As various candidates were proposed and discussed, David Thomson realized that one obvious contender had been forgotten: Elia Kazan.
“Wait a minute,” Thomson, the author of “A Biographical Dictionary of Film,” remembers saying. “Most of the people we’re talking about are markedly inferior to Elia Kazan.”
Kazan is, to use Thomson’s own phrase, a fascinating 20th century American. Originally an actor in the fabled left-wing Group Theatre of the 1930s, he was one of the most celebrated figures in 1950s Broadway and Hollywood, ushering in a new era of socially conscious drama and emotional realism in acting. In the theater, he helped found the Actors Studio, made a star out of Marlon Brando and directed the trailblazing plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. In film, he discovered James Dean (directing him in “East of Eden”) and won three Oscars, for “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and “On the Waterfront” (1954).
Despite these formidable credentials, when Thomson proposed Kazan’s name, reaction was swift. “Over my dead body!” one of the festival directors exclaimed loudly. From the brief discussion that followed, it was clear that any award for Kazan was a dead issue.
The incident was a striking replay of a 1989 meeting of the directors of the American Film Institute, where Kazan was nominated for its prestigious Life Achievement Award, only to be derailed by producer Gail Ann Hurd, a member of the AFI’s board of trustees. Strongly voiced criticism is usually enough to cause any nomination to be tabled.
Neither Hurd nor AFI Director Jean Firstenberg would discuss the events of the meeting, saying it occurred in an “executive session.” But longtime AFI board president Charlton Heston, who was at the meeting, said he was “appalled” by the out-of-hand rejection. According to Heston, Hurd said, “I don’t care about the films he directed. He named names and we just can’t honor someone who did that.”
In Europe, Kazan has often been feted for his cinematic achievements, with a retrospective tribute scheduled next month at the Berlin International Film Festival. In New York City he was a 1983 Kennedy Center honoree and in 1987 received a tribute from the American Museum of the Moving Image. But in Hollywood, awards are often about something bigger than the sum of a filmmaker’s work; they are rewards for good show-business citizenship, symbols of the entertainment community’s cozy shared values. And by his actions, Kazan has been judged unworthy of such respectability.
At 86, he remains perhaps the most gifted filmmaker alive whose artistry has been overshadowed by his politics. In Hollywood, where people are absolved for check forging, drug addiction, sex with minors and every kind of personal betrayal, Kazan has not been forgiven for his performance on April 10, 1952, the day he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), informing on eight of his old friends from the Group Theatre, including playwright Clifford Odets and actress Paula Strasberg, who, along with Kazan, had once been members of the Communist Party.
Determined to expose Communist influence in Hollywood, the HUAC subpoenaed dozens of prominent writers, actors and directors who were then pressured to publicly disavow Communism and name people they had supposedly known in the party. In the first round of hearings, the stakes were made clear: A group of writers and directors known as The Hollywood Ten were sent to jail for refusing to name names. When the Hollywood studio chiefs began to insist that their creative talent cooperate with the committee--or be blacklisted--it became obvious that a refusal to testify meant professional suicide.
Actors like Zero Mostel didn’t work in films for years. Directors such as Joseph Losey (“The Go-Between” and “The Romantic Englishwoman”) went into exile overseas. Many writers worked under assumed names, using fronts to sell their work at a fraction of their normal salary. Even playwright Lillian Hellman had to take a job as a shop clerk to make ends meet.
As a friendly witness, Kazan kept working, making many of his best films in the years after his testimony. But he remained haunted by his role as an informer, just as Hollywood has long been haunted by its complicity in the blacklist. For an industry that has traditionally supported liberal politics and creative freedom, the Red Scare struck a ruinous blow to Hollywood’s self-image; this time, the forces of repression were victorious. What made this triumph especially humiliating was that it was accomplished with the aid of Hollywood’s own top moguls, who had vowed to protect freedom of speech but caved in at the first sign of pressure.
Testifying before the HUAC, Jack Warner boasted that he’d “cleaned out” his studio. Louis B. Mayer named screenwriters he suspected of being Communists, adding: “In my opinion, Mr. Chairman, I think they are cracked.” Darryl Zanuck publicly assured his writers he wouldn’t fire anyone unless ordered to by his board of directors. The board promptly met, so ordered, and Zanuck fired them. Even the Screen Writers Guild cooperated by handing over to the HUAC all its records dating back to the 1930s. By the time the hearings were over, the Bill of Rights was a crumpled shred of tissue--everyone who worked at a major Hollywood studio was required to sign a loyalty oath.
“The blacklist wasn’t a pretty time in the history of Hollywood--it was a disgrace,” recalls Sam Goldwyn Jr., whose father was one of the few moguls who balked at firing suspected Communists. “A lot of people here have a lot of guilt about the way they behaved. People who considered themselves liberals remained silent--they didn’t defend people who were under attack.”
Perhaps because Hollywood’s ranks are populated with so many offspring of blacklisted writers and actors, memories of the shameful period remain vivid. The industry has honored many of its victims and has used such films as “The Front” and “Guilty by Suspicion” to canonize those who refused to inform. Over the past year, a variety of theater productions, books and documentaries have reexamined the era. Several different blacklist-themed plays opened in Los Angeles, including playwright Mark Kemble’s “Names,” a fictional account of a Group Theatre meeting set before Kazan’s testimony, and a revival of Eric Bentley’s groundbreaking 1975 Red Scare drama, “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been . . .” National Public Radio recently aired “Blacklisted,” a drama series by Tony Kahn that drew on a 3,000-page FBI file compiled on his father, blacklisted writer Gordon Kahn.
Whenever talk turns to the blacklist era, emotions run high, especially when the debate turns to Kazan. The director’s decision to name names ranks with the imprisonment of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs’ conviction for stealing atomic bomb secrets as crises of the anguished American left. Of those who testified, Kazan was the most celebrated artist, and his left-wing credentials were impeccable. In Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty,” a fervent 1935 drama that had become an anthem for Depression-era activism, it was Kazan--playing a cabdriver--who took the stage at play’s end, shaking his fist and leading the audience in a rallying cry of “Strike! Strike!” Later, as a director, Kazan continued to explore such social issues as race relations, anti-Semitism and political corruption.
So why did Kazan turn informer? After he testified, he took out in the New York Times a full-page ad of anti-Communist bluster. And he justified his actions to Arthur Miller by saying that people he was naming as party members “had already been named or soon would be” by someone else. “I’d hated the Communists for many years,” he told Miller, “and I didn’t feel right giving up my career to defend them.”
His actions provoked a whirlwind of protest on the left that still reverberates today. Unlike many who testified and later voiced regrets, Kazan has never apologized. More than anything else, this failure to show remorse has made him a continuing lightning rod for criticism, both from blacklist survivors and younger activist members of the Hollywood community who believe that today’s political climate could nurture the seeds of a new era of artistic repression.
“The AFI’s Life Achievement Award is about life choices,” says Gail Ann Hurd, the 40-year-old producer of “The Terminator” films as well as “Witch Hunt,” an HBO movie set in blacklist-era Los Angeles. “And especially when we’re in a climate where politicians attack movies and entertainment, it’s not a good signal for us to give an award to Kazan for what he did in his life and say this behavior is something we condone.”
The fierce debate over Kazan revolves around several provocative questions: Was his testimony an act of principle or of career-saving opportunism? Has Hollywood been reluctant to honor Kazan because he betrayed his friends or because the industry has a guilty conscience about caving into Red Scare pressure? But here is the question that cuts the deepest, with both Kazan friend and foe: Do we ultimately judge artists by their work or by the way they live their lives?
In his infrequent interviews over the years, Kazan has been reticent about discussing his testimony. When reached by telephone at his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he strikes a gruff, curmudgeonly pose. Asked about his past, he refers an inquiring reporter to his 1988 autobiography: “Elia Kazan: A Life,” in which he eloquently wrestles with his actions and their consequences.
“What new is there to say?” he demurs. “If you want to know what I think, go read my book. It’s all there.”
In his memoirs, Kazan is the consummate actor, anguished and regretful one minute, combative and unbowed the next. After giving his testimony, he recalls returning to his office at his beloved Actors Studio, a proving ground for everyone from Brando and Dean to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. When Kazan walked in the door that day, his secretary gave him his mail and quit; she wouldn’t work for a stool pigeon.
There he was, waiting for the reviews to come in. Would he be snubbed or denounced by an old friend--or embraced by a new one? One day, after Kazan began work with Tennessee Williams on a new play, “Camino Real,” a cast member said he was surprised by how healthy Kazan appeared.
“What keeps you looking so young?” the actor asked.
Kazan’s answer: “My enemies.”
Over the years, few people in Hollywood have been unmoved by Kazan’s actions. Marlon Brando was in rehearsals for the film “Julius Caesar” when news arrived that his mentor had turned informer. Brando’s eyes filled with tears. “What am I gonna do when I see the man next?” he forlornly asked. “Punch him in the nose?”
Even today the intensity of feeling hasn’t diminished. Paul Jarrico, a blacklisted screenwriter best known for his Oscar-nominated 1941 script, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” was in Helsinki recently for an event commemorating the blacklist. Asked by a reporter if he would shake hands with Kazan, he replied, “I don’t know him, but even if I did, I still wouldn’t.”
For years Jarrico had refused to even watch a Kazan film. Finally he relented. “I guess my anger had cooled; enough time had passed,” the writer, now 80, says. “It was silly; I was only punishing myself. And I have to say, Kazan is a very good filmmaker. But what he did was wrong, terribly wrong.”
Walter Bernstein, whose 1976 Oscar-nominated film, “The Front,” was based on his own McCarthy-era experiences, argues that by informing on his peers, Kazan betrayed his social ideals, which were an integral ingredient in his art. “By his actions, he damaged the very art he represented,” says Bernstein, a former friend of Kazan. “He hurt artists and their careers and free expression. So what are you honoring when you honor him?”
Abraham Polonsky is perhaps the most celebrated of the surviving blacklisted screenwriters and one whose commitment to his principles is often contrasted to Kazan’s role as an informer. A Communist Party member for years and a lieutenant in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the war, Polonsky made his mark in Hollywood with two John Garfield movies; he wrote “Body and Soul” and wrote and directed “Force of Evil,” the latter described by critic Andrew Sarris as “one of the great films of the modern American cinema.” But in 1951, as an admitted Communist, Polonsky’s contract with 20th Century Fox was terminated, and he was blacklisted. He did not make another movie under his own name until 1969.
To many in Hollywood, who see his refusal to testify as the honorable road not taken by Kazan, Polonsky represents integrity, while Kazan stands for expedience. Polonsky was living in Europe when he was first subpoenaed. His wife, he says, told him to stay, but he insisted on returning, swayed by romantic notions about American democracy. “I said, ‘It’s wrong--no one’s going to chase me out of my country,’ ” the 85-year-old screenwriter recalls over lunch. “I was so romantic I brought a Jaguar back with me.”
Those who informed were wrong, Polonsky argues, but “they didn’t drive the nails into Christ’s hands. They just threw a nail into the coffin of someone’s career. If they say they’re sorry, that’s the end of it for me.”
But Kazan is a different case. “Kazan didn’t just betray his friends. He took out an ad in the New York Times. He elected himself the head of the opposition. He acted like a big shot. I admit I’m prejudiced. He’s a creep. I wouldn’t say hello to him if he came across the street.”
When producer Paula Weinstein was a young girl, she saw “On the Waterfront” for the first time. She was enthralled by Marlon Brando’s sex appeal and moved by the story’s powerful drama. To her surprise, she was chastised by her mother for liking it: “I learned it was made by stool pigeons, and that’s what it was--a glorification of being a stoolie.”
Even for a younger Hollywood generation, the debate over Kazan is personal. Driven out of America by the Red Scare, Weinstein’s mother, producer Hannah Weinstein, moved her family first to Paris and then to London, where she launched a television studio, employing such blacklisted writers as Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian Hunter.
“In my family, you never knew when you might be getting a subpoena,” recalls Weinstein, who has produced such films as “Dry White Season,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Something to Talk About.” “From the time we were very little, we were told if there was a knock at the door by a man with a piece of paper in his hand, not to take it. When I was a child, I was told every person who named names. And the name you always knew was Kazan. With him, the sense of betrayal was the greatest.”
For Weinstein, there can be no awards for Kazan. “This wasn’t a small thing he did. People were betrayed; reputations were ruined. That’s big time. There has to be some memory of that behavior. If we all forgive everything, how do we ever learn to behave better?”
“If I were in the AFI, I wouldn’t vote for him either,” says Tony Kahn, who wrote NPR’s “Blacklisted” radio series. “Kazan was a very self-serving, manipulative guy--and not to be trusted. Even when he calls himself a skunk, he says it smiling, as if he wants us to like him for it.”
The son of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, writer Christopher Trumbo is friendly with Nick Kazan, the director’s son and a successful screenwriter. But he views the elder Kazan’s sins as unpardonable, especially for the way Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg--also a friendly HUAC witness--portrayed Brando as a hero for betraying his friends to expose racketeering in the waterfront unions in their film “On the Waterfront.”
“It’s interesting that two stool pigeons do a film justifying being stool pigeons, putting the best view on it,” he says. “Yet when they turned on people in their own lives, there was no murder or crime. They didn’t give anything up. In fact, after they testified, they kept working--they were rewarded.”
Kazan’s choice was especially painful because he had been so strongly identified with liberal causes. “It wasn’t traumatic that Sen. Joe McCarthy behaved the way he did,” says Sean Daniel, a film producer (“Dazed and Confused”) and former Universal Pictures production president whose father was a blacklisted writer. “The pain and never-forgotten hurt came from people of the left like Kazan who were turncoats.”
Daniel grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which in the 1950s was a hotbed of left-wing politics. “The FBI knocked on a lot of doors in our neighborhood,” he recalls. “Your experiences were passed down from generation to generation. Who testified, who didn’t--it was a constant refrain as I was growing up.”
Of course, each generation’s moral certainties are shaped by different experiences. As a young activist in the ‘60s, Daniel could never get his parents to acknowledge Robert F. Kennedy’s role as an inspiring figure to his generation. “For them, he was set in stone--he was still the young right-wing zealot, sitting up on the committee stand behind Joe McCarthy. And I think Hollywood is the same way: It’s still frozen in its ideas about Kazan.”
When Rip Torn was a young actor, he remembers driving hellbent to New York with his first wife, “our possessions piled on top of our car like Okies--all I wanted to do was read for Kazan.” To grasp the impact of Kazan’s becoming an informer, you have to imagine the charismatic dazzle he possessed at the peak of his artistic powers.
“His actors were in awe of him,” says Charles Maguire, who worked with Kazan on seven films, beginning as a first assistant director on “On the Waterfront.” “He was a god to them. If you only had one line--if you were the bartender and all you had to say was, ‘Can I fix you a drink?'--he’d make you feel like that line was the most important line in the picture.”
Walter Bernstein remembers being under Kazan’s spell, too. “He was the most seductive man I’d ever met,” he recalls. “He was completely enthralling to both men and women.”
Before Kazan testified, Bernstein had been writing a play for him, a “left-wing social drama” about a gangster who becomes a Broadway producer. “When he informed, I was shocked--knocked on my ass,” Bernstein recalls. “To me, Kazan had always expressed leftist sympathies; he always felt he was an outsider. I never believed he would do anything like that.”
Afterward, Bernstein abandoned the play and stopped speaking to Kazan. “Even if he wasn’t naming your name, you felt betrayed, because you thought, ‘I didn’t really know this man.’ ” Bernstein is reminded that Kazan, who was as charismatic onstage as he was behind a camera, always wanted to play Shakespeare’a Richard III. “It would have been an interesting choice,” he says. “But I think he would’ve really been perfect as Iago.”
With Kazan, everything comes back to acting. Many of his peers still don’t believe that his testimony was a true account of his beliefs. They see it as a great acting job, a spotlight role he was forced to play to save his career.
In his memoirs, Kazan blows hot and cold about his motives, at one point saying his Group Theatre comrades should have all named names, insisting it would have proved their patriotism. At other times, he is defensive, saying his testimony made him “an easy mark for every self-righteous prick in New York and Hollywood.”
Of one thing Kazan seems convinced: The trauma of testifying helped make him a great director; it gave him new depth and resiliency. “The only genuinely good and original films I’ve made I made after my testimony,” he writes. “The ones before were professionally adept. The ones after were personal; they came out of me. They’re films I still respect.”
Critic David Thomson agrees with Kazan’s belief that he made his best films after becoming an informer. “It energized his life; it brought his self-loathing to the surface,” says Thomson. “He’s a man who needed to have enemies, to be at the center of drama. And his naming names was an act that put him at the center of the nation’s biggest drama of all.”
Kazan soon found ways to use his new mystique--Elia Kazan, the informer--to activate his actors’ imaginations, even with those he knew thought his actions reprehensible. Rip Torn remembers Martin Balsam recounting his experience playing a scene opposite Brando while making “On the Waterfront” with Kazan.
“He was playing a guy investigating Brando, and Kazan wanted something really fierce in his eyes--a real hatred,” Torn recalls. “So before they shot the scene, Kazan told him, ‘Look, I informed on your friends, and I know how you feel about it. And that’s what I want. I want you to put it on the camera.’ ”
In “Guilty by Suspicion,” Irwin Winkler’s 1991 movie about the blacklist, Robert De Niro plays a high-profile director who refuses to inform on his friends. Agonizing over what to do, De Niro says, “I’m a filmmaker. That’s all I am. I don’t know what else to do. Is it so wrong to do what they want? Am I supposed to spend the rest of my life dreaming what I could have been?”
In his memoirs, Kazan recounts a similar crisis of conscience. But in the film, De Niro refuses to name names, denouncing the committee for its bullying tactics. Winkler was justifiably nervous about Kazan’s reaction when the two men met at a birthday party for De Niro after the film’s release. “I didn’t like the politics of your picture,” Kazan told him, “but I thought you got a wonderful performance out of De Niro.”
It was what Kazan said next that astounded Winkler. “You know,” he said, “De Niro was playing me.” Winkler didn’t know how to respond. After all, the film was about what happened to a director ruined by his refusal to testify. Winkler says he told Kazan he had another director in mind when he made the film.
But Kazan was insistent. “Come on, I know better,” he said. “That was me.”
In his memoirs, Kazan recalls studying a photo taken the night he accepted his Oscar for “On the Waterfront.” “My face has a look no one else’s has,” he says. “I was tasting vengeance that night and enjoying it. ‘On the Waterfront’ was my own story; every day I worked on that film I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and f- - - themselves.”
With Kazan, no quarter is offered, no quarter given. As Lillian Hellman once tartly put it: “Forgiveness is God’s job, not mine.” Even blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who gave a memorable 1970 speech before the Writer’s Guild, saying “it will do no good to search for villains or heroes because there were none; there were only victims,” didn’t extend amnesty to Kazan. “Kazan is one of those for whom I feel contempt,” he said before his death. “He carried down men much less capable of defending themselves than he.”
Even today, when the film community debates the merits of honoring Kazan’s work, he has few visible allies. Influential directors such as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, whose films owe a huge debt of influence to Kazan, declined to discuss Kazan for this story. According to Robert Wise, a two-time Best Director Oscar winner and AFI board member, when Kazan’s name came up at AFI board meetings, “the whole matter of his testifying was held against him. The concern was that his actions would reflect badly on the Life Achievement Award.”
Charlton Heston, a staunch conservative, is Kazan’s most outspoken supporter. He sees the shunning of Kazan by Hollywood liberals as a classic example of political correctness. “It’s an embarrassment to the AFI and to Hollywood,” he says. “The very people who condemned the blacklist are now the ones carrying out a blacklist against Kazan.” Heston’s analogy seems imprecise: Kazan has not been prevented from working, simply from being honored as a filmmaker.
“One hundred years from now, the personal stuff--the crossing of lines--will be totally forgotten,” says Budd Schulberg, who wrote two of Kazan’s most socially conscious films: “On the Waterfront” and “Face in the Crowd.” “The real art will live on long after the scandalous gossip is forgotten. That’s not what art is judged on. I didn’t like all the things Dostoyevsky did, but it doesn’t affect me when I read ‘The Idiot.’ ”
A cynic would say that what makes Kazan’s case different is that he’s out of the loop now; he can no longer make money for anyone. Hollywood is much more apt to forgive someone who still has box-office clout. Perhaps that’s why David Begelman was invited back to run Columbia Pictures even after he was convicted of forging checks. When Victor Salva’s film “Powder” had a big opening weekend even after the director was revealed to be a convicted child molester, his agent boasted that Salva had three offers to direct other films.
“People forgive people for all sorts of bad behavior in Hollywood, because sooner or later they want to be in business with them,” explains Irwin Winkler. “And I guess that’s one thing that makes the Kazan issue different: Nobody wants to be in business with him anymore.”
Maybe Dalton Trumbo was right: When trapped in horrific circumstance, everyone becomes a victim. By betraying his fellow artists, Kazan has been robbed of his role of the cinema’s revered elder statesman, his artistic reputation cast in shadow. But the nasty quarrel has also stunted his foes, whose objections are likely to be swept away by the tide of history, which tends to forgive artists their personal transgressions. In the end, Kazan will be remembered for his art, not his character.
“Kazan has earned his place through his art, and it shouldn’t be taken away from him,” says Sean Daniel. “I know his testimony. But he inspired me to be working in the movie business. And one doesn’t cancel out the other. To seek purity in the American cultural landscape is a fool’s mission.”