Hero or coward? Two views of Elia Kazan

Kenneth Turan is a man whose job by definition requires him to spend most of his life in the darkened confines of a theater or projection room looking at films. I have no quarrel with his work. Film critics are a breed who don’t interest me. But when he comes out into the light of day and writes a lengthy column that involves serious comment on American history and politics, especially a history and politics that concern me, I feel the need to challenge his authority. I am, of course, referring to his defense of Elia Kazan and his attack on people like me who criticized Kazan (“In the End, His Creative Works Matter Most,” Sept. 30).

By way of full disclosure, I am a man getting along in years. I will be 85 next month, and this is significant because it means I am one of the few remaining blacklisted film people, one of the few who can speak for those who are still around, and those who are gone.

And so I object when Turan describes Kazan critics like me as being guilty of “mindless vindictiveness, fear and simplistic blame” and quotes a blacklisted actress named Madeleine Sherwood (a name I don’t know) as saying, “I don’t think anybody knows what they would do if they were not in that position.” How about the nearly 300 writers, actors, directors and producers who were exactly in that position and refused to crawl before the House Un-American Activities Committee and give names?

But no amount of illogic dissuades Turan. He writes, “Yet that hasn’t stopped zealots” (like me?) “from not only decrying Kazan for testifying but also thoroughly demonizing him as if he was Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself, turning him, quite contrary to reality, into a scapegoat for the entire blacklist period.”


What was the meaning of Kazan’s behavior and what is the reason for condemning him?

As co-director of the campaign to protest the lifetime achievement award to Kazan by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 1999, I said repeatedly that we had no quarrel with awards to Kazan for his work as a director. There had been any number of them before, and no fuss had ever been raised. But a lifetime award on the most widely watched television program in the world! What did it say about America, about the role of a prominent man who supported, cooperated with and validated the work of a committee that did so much to create an atmosphere of fear in this country, a committee that condemned thousands -- not just Hollywood people but teachers, journalists, union workers, college professor, novelists -- to a blacklist that cost them their jobs and careers?

How could plain old Kazan be responsible for that? The job of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House of Representative look-alikes was not to get more names of reds. They already had them all, 10 times over. It was to get big-name people to publicly support their work and tell the rest of the country to keep their mouths buttoned or suffer fearful consequences. Arthur Miller wouldn’t do it. Lillian Hellman refused to do it. Dashiell Hammett, suffering from tuberculosis, went to jail and cleaned out toilets rather than give names.

Kazan publicly defying the committee might not have brought it down. At least he could have tried. He certainly would have had an effect that could not be suppressed by our major journals and would have reached many Americans who knew his plays and films, respected his work and been responsive to his position.


Turan speaks feelingly of the “banning or imprisonment of creative people in totalitarian states because of their religion or sexual orientation.” But he never mentions the jailing in our democratic state of people like Hammett and the Hollywood Ten for their political (not criminal) beliefs. Or, today, the imprisonment of hundreds or thousands of innocent people whose religion or color offends some of our leaders.

Kazan was an informer. He did it to preserve his career. He admits as much in many places. He helped to support an oppressive regime that did incalculable damage to America and abroad. Even if he died a feeble old man of 94, he should be called to account for his deeds. If Shakespeare was right about Julius Caesar, the evil that Kazan did will surely live after him.

Bernard Gordon’s screenwriting credits include “Battle of the Bulge” (1965) and “The Thin Red Line” (1964). He lives in Los Angeles.