The Blacklist’s gray tones
Playwright Arthur Miller and director Elia Kazan were the best of friends -- even regarded as brothers -- and brilliant collaborators during the 1940s and early ‘50s. They were bright, liberal, and both were affected ideologically by the Depression in the 1930s.
Kazan directed two of Miller’s seminal works on Broadway in the 1940s, “All My Sons” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Death of a Salesman.” They even shared the same girlfriend at the same time in the early 1950s -- Marilyn Monroe. And Miller and Kazan had high hopes for a film project called “The Hook,” about corruption on the docks.
But in 1952 Kazan, a former communist, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named writers, actors and directors he believed had been communists. As a result of his and other people’s testimony, lives and careers were destroyed. So was Kazan and Miller’s friendship. Miller didn’t talk to Kazan for a decade until they reunited for Miller’s play “After the Fall” in 1964. And though they remained cordial over the ensuing years, the closeness the two enjoyed before HUAC never returned.
A new PBS “American Masters” documentary, “Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin,” premiering Wednesday, explores their personal and artistic relationship in the context of examining a dark moment in the nation’s history. Besides clips and excerpts from Miller’s HUAC allegory, “The Crucible,” there are interviews with historians, scholars and blacklisted performers Lee Grant and Madeleine Sherwood and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein.
Filmmaker Michael Epstein -- whose credits include the 1995 documentary “The Battle Over ‘Citizen Kane’ ” -- says he wants to challenge viewers with the documentary and to make the point that the blacklist isn’t as black or white as often as it is portrayed in documentaries, movies and books. The documentary doesn’t break much new ground, but by narrowing the scope to the two men, it aims to bring a fresh perspective to an unceasing argument.
“The focus of the film was to be like a Miller play,” he says. “There are a lot of complicated characters and conflicted emotions. The film doesn’t tell you what you should think. I suspect people who come to the film disliking Kazan will have their position affirmed.” And those who feel Kazan was a hero? He says they’ll probably come away still feeling he was. “I love to make people uncomfortable and question things. I spent a lot of time talking to people who don’t talk to each other as a matter of principle.”
Before he began the documentary, Epstein says he had “few if any preconceived notions other than the blacklist was unconstitutional and to my mind un-American.”
Besides the blacklist, Epstein says, “None Without Sin” is also about friendship. “It is a film about art and how these two men communicated through their art, and because of their breakup, they both suffered greatly for it.”
Even 50 years after the fact, the Hollywood blacklist remains an unhealable wound, and Kazan’s testimony still hits a raw nerve in Hollywood circles. Take the vocal, angry protests when Kazan, then a frail 89-year-old, received an Oscar in 1999 for lifetime achievement. There were pickets outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and during the ceremony some members of the audience, including Nick Nolte, not only refused to give Kazan a standing ovation, they didn’t even applaud.
Epstein acknowledges that resentments were as raw in 1999 as they were nearly a half-century earlier. “I think it enrages people not so much that he never said ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Epstein says of Kazan. “But he never said that the blacklist shouldn’t have happened.”
Christopher Trumbo, the screenwriter son of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, says his father had contempt for Kazan’s action. “It has nothing to do with Kazan’s ability to direct a motion picture,” Trumbo says. “Those who obviously stood firm and didn’t testify and who in fact defied the committee held a moral ground. [His father] considered it a patriotic act, an act that is in defense of the Constitution.”
Kazan did win the best director Oscar for 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” a drama about a man who ends up testifying against a mob boss on the New Jersey docks. Ironically, the film was very close in theme to “The Hook,” which Kazan and Miller wanted to do. “On the Waterfront,” penned by Budd Schulberg, who also testified at HUAC, is seen as a thinly veiled explanation of their cooperation with HUAC.
“I don’t know how many times I have read apologies for Schulberg and Kazan saying that this movie shows what a hero you were if you turned in people,” Grant says. “That is not what it was about at all. The hero turns in a gangster!”
The blacklist, Trumbo adds, is a truly American story. “It’s a piece of our history that keeps on coming around. It’s not something that disappeared. There are many incidents in history that come and go, but this one continues to interest people because it gets to what is a human being. What is your character? What is your responsibility? What are the circumstances in which you act? These are real questions in which real people paid real penalties.”
Called to testify
During the early 1930s, Kazan, then a young actor, was a founder of a progressive New York theater company, the Group Theatre. In 1934, he joined the Communist Party for about 18 months. He quit the party in what he claimed was “disgust” and in protest over the party leadership’s attempt to gain control of the theater company. But he maintained close ties with many of those artists in and around the Stalinist movement.
In January 1952, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan admitted his former ties with the Communist Party but denied the Group Theatre was a front organization for the Communists and refused to name names of other former members of the Group Theatre he knew to be Communist.
But within a few months of his testimony, he learned from Spyros Skouras, the president of 20th Century Fox, the studio where he was under contract, that if he didn’t cooperate with HUAC he would never work in pictures again. So this time he testified, naming among others playwright Clifford Odets (who later named names himself), Lee and Paula Strasberg, John Garfield and writer Lillian Hellman.
In his autobiography “Timebends,” Miller recalls Kazan telling him about his intention to testify: “Listening to him I grew frightened. There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying; unless he came clean he could never hope, in the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America, and he would probably not be given a passport to work abroad, either. If the theater remained open to him, it was not his primary interest anymore.... But I was growing cooler with the thought that as unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I attended meetings of the Communist Party years ago and had made a speech at one of them.”
After his testimony, people of all ideological persuasions disowned Kazan. Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck called the filmmaker into his office and told him he was so controversial in Hollywood that the studio would not pay his salary for the final movie on his contract.
During this time, Miller found himself under scrutiny by HUAC’s investigation into the influence of communists in the arts. Even before Kazan and Miller fell out, Fox had turned down “The Hook” because the studio thought it was too politically controversial.
Miller was even denied a passport in 1953 to go to Belgium to attend the premiere there of “The Crucible,” which, though set during the Salem witch trials of 1692, was his attack against HUAC.
In 1956, he was called before the House committee. Though he denied he was a communist, Miller admitted he had attended meetings. But unlike Kazan, he refused to name names and was cited for contempt of Congress. That same year, he married Monroe, then the biggest female star in Hollywood. Two years later, the courts overturned the contempt ruling.
Sherwood, who was blacklisted in the early ‘50s, appeared in the original Broadway production of “The Crucible,” and later worked with Kazan on Broadway in his productions of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.”
“Arthur was very closed [emotionally],” Sherwood recalls. “He wasn’t just all the good boy and Kazan all the bad boy, because they weren’t. I wasn’t brought up before the committee. I think I was not well known or important enough, but people have said to me, ‘What would you have done if you had been called up?’ I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows what they would do if they were not in that position. It’s all very well to say of Kazan, why give him a lifetime achievement award? But the name of this documentary is ‘Not Without Sin.’ You have to look inside and question yourself. And it’s not easy to do.”
Excerpts from memoirs
Early in the making the documentary, Epstein had tea with Kazan, who turns 94 on Sept. 7. Epstein realized that Kazan’s frail condition meant he wouldn’t be able to participate in the project. So Epstein decided if he couldn’t interview Kazan he wouldn’t interview Miller, either, choosing instead to use passages from both men’s memoirs to reflect their views.
“Miller was very generous,” Epstein says. “He allowed us to excerpt large sections of ‘The Crucible.’ I got a note back from him saying he was reluctant to do a film like this because he didn’t want to continue to add [to the Kazan controversy]. He felt as though all of the controversy around the honorary Oscar was an unfair assessment of Kazan.... In Miller’s perspective, it was as if Kazan was being asked to bear the onus of the entire sins of his generation.”
Epstein shares Miller’s sentiments, saying Kazan “was repulsed by the crimes [by the Soviet government] that were clearly bubbling up that people knew about in ’52 and looked at the situation and said, ‘I’m supposed to fall on my sword for that? I can’t do that.’ I genuinely think the first thing he tried to do was to reject both the party and the committee and that wasn’t allowed. Kazan had said there were things he was willing to give up his career for, but the Communist Party was not one of them. So people like Walter Bernstein who were blacklisted and refused to name names fell back into the comfort of the party. Kazan had nowhere to go; he lost everyone and everything.”
Kazan’s critics, Epstein says, thought he testified to become richer and more popular. But his next two films after his testimony, “Viva Zapata!” and “Man on a Tightrope,” bombed.
His interview with Bernstein was a key element of the documentary, Epstein says. “He allowed me to push him. I don’t know if he is going to be happy with the end result.” Epstein notes that in the documentary, the screenwriter admits he “knowingly and willingly turned a blind eye when he knew of Jewish dissident writers who were murdered for no other reason than they were Jewish and perceived to be enemies of the Soviet state,” Epstein says.
“So those folks who were members of the party, willing members of the party, have some sin, some moral accountability,” Epstein adds. “But that doesn’t give you a license to blacklist. ... To say that Kazan’s ledger should contain all the sins of a generation is nuts.”
Grant didn’t talk to Kazan for 20 years, even though both were members of the Actors Studio in New York during much of that time. “I was moderating a panel discussion at the Studio,” she recalls. “And this guy stands up and looks very familiar and he is in a plaid work shirt.... It wasn’t until he left the room that I realized I had said hi to Gadge [Kazan’s nickname]. The ice was broken. There was a kind of understood relationship between where he was and where I was. There was a gentleman’s agreement.”
The Oscar-winning actress still finds it fascinating that Kazan’s films were filled with more social protest than those of any other director during that period. “He said in his book that his wife asked him to [name names]. But I don’t believe it. I think he was a passionate, driven, insatiable, obsessive director who exhorted everyone [the day after he named names] to do the same thing.”
‘American Masters: Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin’
When: Wednesday at 9 p.m.