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|Photo by Jenafer Gillingham|
"Whatever they asked me, I said I stand on the Fifth," recalls Polonsky, who along with fellow blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon, is spearheading the opposition to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' decision to present an honorary Oscar to director Elia Kazan at the awards ceremony on March 21. Kazan is still seen as a pariah by many members of the film community who haven't forgiven him for betraying his friends to HUAC. Nonetheless, Polonsky had no idea what he was getting himself into when he spoke out against the 89-year-old director.
"In the last two weeks, I've been interviewed by reporters from around the world about this Kazan thing," Polonsky grumbles during a conversation at his Beverly Hills apartment. "I've only got one thing to say: Fuck Kazan. He double-crossed his friends, so to hell with him. The awards organizations may be willing to forgive and forget, but they weren't affected by the blacklist -- which, by the way, is still operating today if they give an award to this creep who snitched on his friends."
Like I said, Polonsky isn't one to mince words. The recipient of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association 1998 Career Achievement Award -- an honor that also went to Casablanca screenwriter Julius Epstein -- Polonsky will be onstage Saturday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a screening of his 1969 film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, followed by a question-and-answer period. The conversation is sure to be lively.
BORN IN THE BRONX IN 1910 TO A RUSSIAN IMMIgrant couple, Polonsky comes from a long line of political radicals. "My father's sister fought in the Bolshevik revolution, and my father, who worked as a pharmacist, was a Socialist," recalls the director, who was the eldest of three children. "Politics were a huge part of the world I grew up in."
In 1933, Polonsky married his childhood sweetheart, Sylvia, who gave birth to a daughter the following year. With the Depression in full swing, he supported his family teaching night classes in English literature at City College, and attended Columbia Law School by day. "In 1935, I became a member of the bar, and that's how I got involved with movies," recalls Polonsky, who joined the Communist Party in 1936.
"I worked for a firm that had a client named Gertrude Berg who had a radio show she wrote and directed. She needed to know some law for a script she was writing, and I was asked to help her. She discovered I could write, so she took me with her when she went to work in Hollywood in 1937. She paid me well, but I hated the film industry from the first day. All those people do is talk about themselves. I couldn't stand it! The only thing I liked about it was the money."
The following year, Polonsky returned to New York, where he continued to work for Berg. His bad vision got him excused from military duty, but he was eager to go and in 1942 was accepted into the OSS, the original incarnation of the CIA. Before leaving for Europe, he signed a five-year contract with Paramount which they were obliged to honor on his return, and in 1945 he settled his family in Hollywood.
"Working there only increased my contempt for the film industry -- I knew for sure they were nuts after that," says Polonsky, who wrote two scripts that went into production in 1947. The first, Golden Earrings, was conceived as a drama about the Gypsy Holocaust, but was turned into an innocuous vehicle for Marlene Dietrich by director Mitchell Leisen. More important, that year also saw the release of Polonsky's boxing classic, Body and Soul, directed by Robert Rossen. Paramount then loaned Polonsky to Enterprise Studios, where he made his directorial debut with Force of Evil.
Filmmaker Robert Towne remembers seeing Body and Soul and Force of Evil as a child. "I recognized even then that there was something completely unique about them," says Towne. "They combined a noir look with a different set of attitudes. His pictures weren't driven solely by a fatal flaw in a central character. The sense of moral conflict in the films is broader than that and pivots on a fatal flaw in society rather than in the individual."
Force of Evil received good notices, and Polonsky's directing career was poised to take off when the Red Scare kicked in. "I was named by lots of people. They've all apologized, and I accepted their apologies," says Polonsky. "They were stuck and I pity them. Kazan has never expressed remorse for ruining the lives of the people he named. After I appeared at the hearings in Washington, my daughter started having trouble at school, so in 1953 I said, 'Let's go back to New York where everybody's father is going to jail.' We returned to New York, and my daughter learned her father was a hero -- and that's the difference between New York and L.A. New York is not a company town."
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