|Photo by Jenafer Gillingham|
ABRAHAM LINCOLN POLONSKY SPEAKS WITH A candor one rarely encounters in the movie industry. A writer-director whose résumé includes the John Garfield classics Body and Soul and Force of Evil, Polonsky is 88 years old now and figures he's got nothing to lose by speaking his mind. Polonsky knows when to shut up, too, and that's what he did in 1952 when he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the tribunal bent on rooting out any trace of communism on American soil.
“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.”
For the next 15 years, Polonsky would write for television and film under an alias; among the movies he pseudonymously doctored was the late film noir Odds Against Tomorrow. He has also published three novels, including 1951's The World Above, which was recently reprinted by the University of Illinois Press as part of its series “The Radical Novel Reconsidered.”
Polonsky emerged from the underground in 1968 with a screenplay credit for Madigan, then went west again to direct Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, a politically charged film about Native American rights starring Robert Redford and Robert Blake. In 1971, he directed his last film, Romance of a Horsethief; ill health prevented him from making more movies. In retrospect, he says now that he regrets having made the attempt at all.
“I supported Mao and Stalin and made a lot of mistakes, but the stupidest thing I ever did was go to work for the movies,” he declares. “When I received the Los Angeles Critics Career Achievement Award, I had to make a speech. I said that toward the end of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Swann looks in the mirror and says, 'I spent the best years of my life making love to a woman who wasn't my style.' That's the way I feel about the motion-picture business. I spent the best years of my life working for people I hated. I'm an artist. I believe film is a great art form. The movie business regards film as fish that exists only to be sold.
“I've come to the conclusion that America doesn't work. Early on I thought it could work, and that's why I bothered criticizing it, but it's only gotten worse. All you have to do is look at the stock market to see that we're in the final stages of global finance capitalism. Billion-dollar corporations getting together with other billion-dollar corporations — Karl Marx predicted it all, and we'll soon have a crash. Then it will begin again, the endless cycle in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
When I point out that Communism and Marxism haven't panned out too well either, Polonsky agrees.
“They worked terribly!” he laughs. “So what should we do? We can all drop dead. Or we can join a gym, learn to swim and eat farina.”
See Revival Pick for screening information.