GIVE ELIA KAZAN AN OSCAR? WHY NOT? Who cares? What's all this Kazanomania anyhow? Why are the L.A. Weekly, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times giving it space?
This past January, in the cloistered chambers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, actor Karl Malden spoke with such passion and conviction that the board of governors voted without a single dissenting voice to present an Oscar to Elia Kazan — an Oscar to celebrate his lifetime contribution to the motion-picture industry. Kazan already has received two Oscars as a director, one for On the Waterfront, the other for Gentlemen's Agreement. This third and very special Oscar would recognize the breadth of his contribution to motion pictures, the extent of which the Academy board apparently thought insufficiently recognized.
There were others, not members of the Academy board of directors, who also were aware of Elia Kazan's lifetime achievement in film and, precisely because of it, believed that to give him this third Oscar was not at all a good idea. They remembered that there had been a blacklist in Hollywood; they remembered that Elia Kazan had been on the side of the blacklisters. They started speaking out; they started writing letters; they decided to take out ads; they started appearing on television with their side of the story. That's why I've written this article.
The Academy has hunkered down low in the bush and maintains a stony silence. Its decision is made. Kazan will get his Oscar. But the protest against Kazan has caused at least some who originally supported Kazan to reconsider their original vote. Hal Kanter, a member of the Academy board who voted for Kazan, has since said, “My first impulse, always as a human being, is to forgive and let bygones go by. But in the current controversy over an Academy Award, I am ambivalent about honoring Elia Kazan.” Haskell Wexler, another member of the board and an Academy Award winner in his own right, echoes Kanter's declaration.
Once Kazan's complete past was again brought to light, many who had been silent began to speak out. Faye Kanin, a former Academy board member, reflected, “I too wondered why the board of governors had decided to do this — [Kazan] has received two Oscars for his work.” Rod Steiger, who has an Oscar of his own, says of Kazan, “This man created hell for a lot of people.”
While Academy insiders ponder the board's decision, outsiders are getting active. The Committee Against Silence, which opposes the Kazan Oscar, plans to picket the ceremony, setting up camp across from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Not to be outdone, the Ayn Rand Institute plans to protest the picketers. It promises to be a lively evening, indeed. But to get a proper grip on Kazanomania, you need to know something about the Hollywood blacklist. Here's the short course:
IN 1947 THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON UN-AMERICAN Activities undertook an investigation of the motion picture industry. Hollywood studios and producers thought so highly of the committee and its aims that they refused to hire anyone who declined to cooperate with the committee's investigations and demands. The names of these people, these “unfriendly witnesses,” were compiled to form a blacklist. Some of those people were Communists. Some of them used to be Communists but weren't anymore. Some of them had never been Communists. What they all had in common was that they would not cooperate with the committee. But whatever the political beliefs of the blacklistees, the studios agreed not to hire any of them. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, following suit in supporting the committee, passed a bylaw which said that no person who was blacklisted could get an Oscar.
It's always helpful to cite authorities in these matters, so I'm going to rely on Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to help me out. A staunch cold warrior, an impeccably credentialed anti-Communist, Schlesinger wrote an article for The New York Times on February 28 of this year, in which he said: “Little has disgraced Congress more than the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Its inquiry into Communism in Hollywood was among the most indefensible, scandalous and cruel episodes in the entire history of legislative investigations.”
Which brings us to Elia Kazan. In 1952, Kazan appeared before that same committee, and in the furtherance of this “indefensible, scandalous and cruel episode,” he gave the names of his left-leaning colleagues to the committee. If they did not see eye to eye with the committee, if they chose not to cooperate, they were blacklisted, consigned to professional oblivion. Not only did Kazan cooperate with the committee, he quickly took out a full-page ad in The New York Times justifying and rationalizing his testimony. And he continued to work for top dollar in Hollywood. Cooperate with a committee that has “disgraced Congress” and get right in on the ground floor where there's plenty of cash for those who can gauge the political wind correctly. It's truly a wonderful life.
Schlesinger goes on to ask about those who deplore Kazan as an informer, “Is informing unforgivable in all circumstances? Had Mr. Kazan been a member of the German-American Bund naming underground Nazis, would they have condemned him just as much? Or a former Klansman who informed on his hooded brethren? â Or a former Mafia thug who informed on the mob? Or a member of the Nixon White House who informed during Watergate? Or a whistle blower who disclosed government malfeasance?”
Of course, it is ludicrous to imagine Kazan in any of the roles Schlesinger suggests for him. His intention is to divert attention from what Kazan actually did — collaborate with the committee in its efforts — and what must not be forgotten is that the committee could not operate without a willing supporting cast of informers. But did Kazan's naming his former friends serve this country's interests? Did the blacklist somehow protect the nation from political contagion? Schlesinger writes, “The idea that the presence of a few Stalinists and fellow travelers in the film industry was a grave threat to the republic rates high in the annals of Congressional asininity.” Still, the matter of informing remains an emotional sore spot for many.
Let's go back to that ad I mentioned, the one Kazan took out in The New York Times after he appeared before the committee (see box on opening spread). He admitted he knew of nothing wrong that had been done by any of the more than a dozen people he named in his testimony, no crime any of them had committed. He says he waited so long to tell his story out of “concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the party years ago.” Yet he overcame that concern.
Dalton Trumbo (my father) was blacklisted in 1947 and served nine months in prison for contempt of Congress. Forced to write scripts under aliases, he was awarded two Oscars under other men's names. He noted in a letter to a friend that there is a difference between testifying in a civil or criminal matter, and informing:
“If a man joins the Communist Party and finds treason, espionage and violence afoot, he has no choice but to report everything, including names, to the authorities, exactly as he would report a murder. He doesn't do it to get a job or to make some money or to clear himself: He does it to fulfill a legal and moral duty. He is not an informer; he is a good citizen and a patriot. But show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself. I do not know of one Hollywood informer who acted except under duress and for money; such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.”
AS IT WORKS OUT IN THE WORLD WE LIVE in, these ethical differentiations tend to be highly individual. Each person must perform a private moral calculus to determine what constitutes being an informer, stool pigeon or snitch — and how to avoid being one — and what is required as a public act by a responsible member of the community. Seldom do any of us get confronted with such decisions, and we should be grateful that we don't.
Ultimately, we come to realize that the true problem is the committee and the blacklist, not Elia Kazan. Kazan is just another informer — an important one, but still, just another informer, a diversion in the greater game. The Great Satan of Kazanomania is the committee. Through the committee, the people he named and the other men and women who were blacklisted were deprived of the right to work in the professions they had chosen. The loss is not only theirs, it is ours. The dramas never written, the motion pictures never directed, the roles never played — that is our loss, that is the cultural damage, that is the triumph of politics over art. That is what the blacklist brought us, that is how it diminished us.
What the committee sought to do that is so terribly dangerous, what it succeeded in doing for more than a decade, was to establish a political standard for employment. Not just for Hollywood, but in all areas. Answer the committee's questions correctly, you work. Refuse to answer, or answer incorrectly and refuse to modify your beliefs to square with the committee's current notions, you are unemployed. And should the committee adjust its ideas as the political climate changes — and it always changes — you are again subject to investigation. You may well be placed in the position of recanting the ideas you adopted in order to get the job you currently have in order to keep it. When you eventually become too tired or too disgusted to continue the charade, you will end up on the blacklist. The law of the committee would be this: To dissent is to starve.
For many, Elia Kazan has become symbolic as a man who informed on his friends and performed a stellar role in one of “the most indefensible, scandalous and cruel episodes in the entire history of legislative investigations.” At the 71st Academy Awards he will receive another Oscar, the ultimate symbol of the motion-picture industry's approval. It is estimated that perhaps a billion people will watch the ceremony.
I don't know what a billion people are going to think when they watch Kazan re-ceive the Academy's sleek golden statue. But I'm willing to speculate what the mem-bers of the House Committee on Un-American Activities would think if any of them were still alive. I think they would love to have a billion people watch their star witness receive another Oscar.
On April 12, 1952, a day after he voluntarily returned to give a second statement to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Elia Kazan took out a full-page ad in The New York Times justifying his actions. The following is excerpted from that advertisement.
by Elia Kazan
In the past weeks intolerable rumors about my political position have been circulating in New York and Hollywood. I want to make my stand clear:
I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem. That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien conspiracy and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.
I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about communism. All the facts.
Now, I believe that any American who is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known, either to the public or to the appropriate Government agency.
Whatever hysteria exists — and there is some, particularly in Hollywood — is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy. Hard and exact facts will cool it.
The facts I have are sixteen years out of date, but they supply a small piece of background to the graver picture of communism today.
I have placed these facts before the House Committee on Un-American Activities without reserve and I now place them before the public and before my co-workers in motion pictures and in the theatre.
Seventeen and a half years ago I was a 24-year-old stage manager and bit actor, making $40 a week, when I worked.
At that time nearly all of us felt menaced by two things: the Depression and the ever growing power of Hitler. The streets were full of unemployed and shaken men. I was taken in by the Hard Times version of what might be called the Communists' advertising or recruiting technique. They claimed to have a cure for depressions and a cure for Naziism and Fascism.
I joined the Communist Party late in the summer of 1934. I got out a year and a half later.
I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies. Nor did I understand, at that time, any opposition between American and Russian national interest. It was not even clear to me in 1936 that the American Communist Party was abjectly taking its orders from the Kremlin.
What I learned was the minimum that anyone must learn who puts his head into the noose of party “discipline.” The Communists automatically violated the daily practices of democracy to which I was accustomed. They attempted to control thought and to suppress personal opinion. They tried to dictate personal conduct. They habitually distorted and disregarded and violated the truth. All this was crudely opposite to their claims of “democracy” and “the scientific approach.”
To be a member of the Communist Party is to have a taste of the police state. It is a diluted taste but it is bitter and unforgettable. It is diluted because you can walk out.
I got out in the spring of 1936.
The question will be asked why I did not tell this story sooner. I was held back, primarily, by concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the party many years ago.
I was also held back by a piece of specious reasoning which has silenced many liberals. It goes like this: “You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack them or expose them, because if you do you are attacking the right to hold unpopular opinions and you are joining the people who attack civil liberties.”
I have thought soberly about this. It is, simply, a lie.
Secrecy serves the Communists . . .
The motion pictures I have made and the plays I have chosen to direct represent my convictions.
I expect to continue to make the same kinds of pictures and to direct the same kinds of plays.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.