After last year’s brouhaha surrounding the presentation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of a Lifetime Achievement Award to Elia Kazan, one member of the academy had an idea. Samuel Gelfman, a literary and theatrical consultant and a member of the academy’s producers branch, contacted its president, Robert Rehme, and made a suggestion: Next time around why not devote a segment of the evening to the blacklist?
The proposal was not received with glee. In a December 28, 1999, letter to the officers and governors of the academy Gelfman reported, “As several of you–to whom I spoke earlier–know, when I suggested the idea to Bob Rehme, he explained that the Academy’s policy is to remain totally non-political and, after last year’s events, any mention of the motion picture industry cooperation with the House Unamerican Activities Committee constitutes a political statement.”
Gelfman respectfully demurred: “In a millennial overview of our industry’s first hundred years, the political climate that led to the Black List and the exclusion of these awards [to blacklistees] from public mention is a legitimate part of our history.” He might have added that the academy, which had collaborated with the blacklist system in the first place, had already made its political statement. The question now is whether to revise that statement to let the public know that it regrets this stain on its institutional history.
The academy’s desire to avoid recriminations about something that happened half a century ago is understandable, if not particularly admirable. But lest the academy forget, when those who were called went to prison, lost their jobs, were blacklisted and/or denied their screen credits–all for refusing to cooperate with opportunistic Congressional investigating committees–they were not protecting themselves. By resisting the demand that they confess, recant, inform, sign loyalty oaths, they were the latest in a long line of men and women down through the centuries who have been pressured by church and state to declare their allegiance to God and king (or, in the seventeenth century, official science, which held that the earth is at the center of the universe). Most of those who refused to bow to such pressures did so as a matter of conscience.
Back in the days of the domestic cold war it was part of the civic religion, the official mythology, to deny the existence of the blacklist. Indeed, as late as 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran for President he told journalist Robert Scheer that “there was no such thing as a blacklist in Hollywood.” The academy knows better, and surely fifty years later, it’s time to set the record straight.
As a general proposition it doesn’t pay for outsiders to advise membership organizations on how to conduct their business. But where the academy is concerned, we are more than outsiders. We go to the movies. We stay home and watch the Oscars. We are the audience, the customer, and as such, while we may not always be right, we deserve to be heard.
Gelfman has proposed that the academy fill in some missing history. We suggest that it go him one better. Here, members of the academy, is our idea. Why not instruct your branch representatives on the board at their next meeting to pass a simple resolution honoring the anonymous blacklistees, those who were denied work and recognition at the time? The question is not whether such a resolution may constitute a political statement. It’s the decent thing to do.