Shud He Have Been a Contendah? | The Nation


Shud He Have Been a Contendah?

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"Kazan is a certifiable coward," says Tom Greene, a television writer-producer-director, whose father, Paul, wrote for Schlitz Playhouse and the original Lassie before being barred from working because his writing partner named him. "Once a week the FBI would come to the house, to my father," remembers Greene. "They would be decent and polite, ask for names. And my father would say 'No.' So he was not able to write again, had to raise three sons, but the FBI would make sure he didn't have a job, pressuring him always to name names." Greene says bitterly that his father "had to do a hundred other things to keep a family afloat because of the cowardice of people who sold their souls to the devil."

About the Author

Cliff Rothman
Cliff Rothman is a cultural reporter at large for the New York Times, Harpers Bazaar, GQ, Vanity Fair and The Nation.

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Blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon is 80 but determined to march outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "There are only a dozen of us left of the few hundreds who were blacklisted, who lost their jobs and livelihood," Gordon says. He wrote The Lawless Breed and Flesh and Fury before the blacklist forced him to write under the pseudonym "Raymond T. Marcus" for most of the fifties, until he eventually returned to films with 55 Days at Peking and the original Thin Red Line. "When the academy, before a worldwide audience of a billion, gives a lifetime award to a man who was an important informer, a big name, it validates their work as redbaiters, which led to the whole postwar policy of interference," Gordon adds. "It was just [two years] ago in October, on the fiftieth anniversary, that the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild and AFTRA all put on a great big event in which they apologized and expressed their regret and vowed that it wouldn't happen again," says Gordon. "But not the academy. So who the hell are they to promote 'forgiveness'?"

But prominent Hollywood figures with a history of social and political consciousness who were approached for feedback--and who usually need little provocation to share their views--reacted like vampires retreating from an outstretched cross. No one wanted to talk, among them Steve Tisch, the liberal producer (American History X, Forrest Gump); Sean Penn, whose father, Leo Penn, was blacklisted; Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, often fearlessly outspoken on a number of issues; Marlon Brando; Al Pacino; Lauren Bacall, who with Humphrey Bogart flew to Washington to protest personally to HUAC in the early days; screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown); Kirk Douglas, who was among the first to overturn the blacklist, by openly listing Dalton Trumbo's credit for Spartacus; Shelley Winters; and Jane Wyatt.

Before we go further: A noteworthy hero of the escalating imbroglio--one who deserves immediate mention--is Rod Steiger, the famous Kazan alumnus from On the Waterfront. Steiger has been the only "star" name speaking out publicly in a community squeamish about attaching their names to a controversy. Never a shrinking violet, he didn't mince words. "I don't believe age excuses any crime," he said angrily. Learning that Kazan had named names before the committee "was like finding out my father was sleeping with my sister." He sees the award as "tarnishing the Oscar itself. No human excuse in my opinion could in any way excuse the devastation in other people's lives." The actor says people he knows are uncomfortable and confused by the award. But for him there is no ambiguity: "The people of intelligence that I talk to, they can let it go away for Kazan, but how can they let it go for the relatives, who couldn't work, couldn't pay the rent?"

Ironically, that very issue of "rent money" seems to be behind the muted responses now. "I think this is the most scared community of people I've ever lived in," notes producer-writer Jeff Young. "There is a sort of economic blacklist that functions every day of the week. What did your last picture do? Everybody is afraid of going on the record, of being exposed. God forbid the studio disagrees or a producer disagrees, and they don't get a job next week." Apathy is also a factor. An 89-year-old man's behavior before a government committee in the early days of the cold war, when Truman was still President, seems about as relevant to some young turks as Neville Chamberlain and Howdy Doody.

In part, it is the academy's checkered history itself that challenges the current argument that art must be separated from politics. "It wasn't a secret in the inner works of Hollywood what Dalton [Trumbo] wrote, what Michael Wilson wrote," Wexler points out. "It was not a secret to the academy when they awarded, for example, the Oscar for the writing of The Brave One to a person who no one could find, who could not even accept the award. The academy knew that a blacklisted writer wrote it. The academy was not above politics." Echoes Trumbo's son, Christopher: "The academy joined the blacklist business. They involved the idea of politics in the awarding of Oscars. Now they want to change their minds." (Greene says he thinks Kazan's Oscar should be red, "stained with the bloody prints of those he destroyed.")

Director Frank Pierson, another academy board member who voted reluctantly for the Kazan award, is regretful as he watches the right use the vote to rehabilitate the blacklist--his worst nightmare. "Charlton Heston takes the position that he and Kazan were right, to use a shotgun approach to a minuscule problem for all the blacklisting and campaigning and posturing. None of the people who were really Communist or giving away secrets at the time were caught, so what does it add up to?" says Pierson, who wrote Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon. "I'm so furious. If I had thought this was going to be the result, I would not have agreed to give [Kazan] the award."

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