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Shud He Have Been a Contendah? | The Nation

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Shud He Have Been a Contendah?

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The inevitable controversy--presenting name-naming film director Elia Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Award--has unfolded like an accident waiting to happen, aggravating the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' already sordid history during the blacklist era. (Assuming faux neutrality then--like the Vatican during World War II--the academy knowingly awarded Oscars to fictitious writers and fronts, including one who did not even speak English. And this institution with a long history of obtuseness and obfuscation has, like Kazan, never publicly apologized.)

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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Nixon thought so; Otis Chandler doesn't. Maybe it depends on where you
stand.

The furor that has shone a spotlight on the moral equivocation of the board's choice has embarrassed the members who voted against their conscience. "I'm a compromised person, on many levels," admits board member Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer and director who was himself blacklisted but caved in to Karl Malden's barnstorming speech on behalf of his ailing friend Kazan. "When we raised our hands, I didn't raise my hand high." He laughs, ruefully. "I've made so many ruckuses in that room recently, I was just sort of running out of gas," says Wexler, knowing the statistics were in Kazan's favor. "But a number of people looked at me, thinking I'd open my radical mouth."

So Kazan is now the flashpoint for brilliant artists and leaders with tainted private lives. To what extent can one compartmentalize? The issue of ratting on friends resonates, with Lewinsky and Tripp, Hitchens and Blumenthal, in the news. What is friendship, and what are the boundaries? And the blacklist? For a generation it stood as the embodiment of cowardice and self-interest, and now naming names is in the midst of rehabilitation by the political right.

Protests and counterprotests, even countercounterprotests, were scheduled. The glove was tossed down by the Committee Against Silence, a hastily assembled agglomeration of liberals, leftists and the blacklisted, which announced a public protest outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the night of the Oscars, March 21. Charlton Heston appeared on Good Morning America, flummoxing interviewer Aaron Brown with a defense of Kazan and McCarthyism because There Was a Cold War Going On. "This was very serious stuff," Heston intoned to Brown. "We were fighting a war." Then another newly formed group, the ad hoc Committee for Naming Facts, an offshoot of the Ayn Rand Institute, announced a counterprotest on Oscar night, in support of the award. "We wanted to defend and honor Kazan as a principled man who fought bravely for America and its freedoms," says committee vice chairman Scott McConnell. A memorial service at the Writers Guild on March 5 honored Ben Margolis, lead attorney for the Hollywood Ten and a founder of the National Lawyers Guild. And two days before the Oscar awards, Nightline was devoting its show to the Kazan controversy, while four trade-paper ads, funded by the Committee Against Silence, were taken out to denounce the Kazan award and to urge attendees not to applaud him. Others were being urged to wear an American flag pin in their lapel in support of him.

The right seemed to be winning the PR war because Hollywood, predominantly Democratic and liberal, was largely silent. The film community, where the blacklist played out on its most visible terrain, is ever a company town, and was running scared. "I'd say that fear is still rampant in Hollywood," assesses Norma Barzman (Luxury Girls, Never Say Goodbye), who was blacklisted along with her husband, Ben (The Boy With Green Hair, Back to Bataan), and forced to move to Europe for their livelihood. Barzman, canvassing the town for names and cash for the trade-paper protest, found that the big names would not call back, or offered their dough silently. She laughs when recounting a conversation with a television producer who was willing to donate, but not openly. "Norma," he confided, "I'll give you money but I'm in the middle of a deal. You understand."

It's been a situation of less-than-obvious motivation all around. Time's defense of Kazan and the award, written by film critic Richard Schickel, didn't mention Schickel's personal bias toward Kazan's politics, which had led to a heated volley of letters with Haskell Wexler in 1995. When Wexler angrily called Kazan "a stoolie," Schickel replied with equal vehemence that he applauded Kazan's naming of names: "I've never seen anything particularly immoral about it.... Had I been in Elia's position in 1953 I'm certain I would have done exactly as he did--and equally without regret."

Five decades ago the town just caved in. The major studios, television networks and trade unions all succumbed to the blacklist. "The so-called trade papers also played a rather virulent role in the blacklist," recalls Daily Variety editor in chief and former industry executive Peter Bart. "The Reporter, especially, was flagrant in espousing the blacklist, publicizing those people who were blacklisting people. They gave them tremendous publicity." This time around, Daily Variety's veteran columnist Army Archerd has waged a single-handed campaign of outspokenness against the Kazan award. "And I'm just one who will still remain seated during the Honorary Oscar presentation," he wrote in the first of five columns on the subject.

Kazan, with his roots in the Russian-soaked theater discipline that eventually evolved into the Actors Studio, and one of the film industry's most powerful and thoughtful directors--by virtue of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Pinky, A Streetcar Named Desire and Gentleman's Agreement--had been expected to take the high road and challenge McCarthyism. That he didn't, and then went the extra step to volunteer names, unapologetically, is the nub of the ferocious rage and sense of betrayal still directed at him. (The American Film Institute has turned him down for its lifetime achievement award, for example.)

"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."

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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