The Crucible of Hollywood's Guilt

Elia Kazan (1909-2003) 

You usually hear the tune on Oscar night, but not often the lyric, which is more to the point:

Hooray for Hollywood, Where you're terrific if you're even good.

When someone's really terrific, it's a different story. In a town where everyone from Johnny Depp to Janeane Garofalo is an "artist," Hollywood doesn't always know how to deal with the real thing. In 1996 the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, mulling over its Career Achievement Award, decided to reject Elia Kazan and honor instead Roger Corman, the director of Swamp Women, Attack of the Crab Monsters, and Teenage Caveman. Swamp Women and Attack of the Crab Monsters are good, and Teenage Caveman is not only good, it's also an eloquent plea for world disarmament—at least according to its then youthful star, Robert Vaughn. But On the Waterfront is terrific. This should not be a difficult call.

But apparently it is. Kazan can make a claim to be the father of modern American acting, having brought Stanislavskian techniques to Broadway and then to film through Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Rod Steiger. He was the best theater director of the forties and fifties, and later a fine novelist, and when he walked onstage in 1999 to receive a belated Lifetime Achievement Oscar, he might reasonably have expected the orchestra to be vamping Leonard Bernstein's theme to On the Waterfront for a good ten minutes while Hollywood roared its appreciation. Instead, outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion elderly hack screenwriters led protests, and inside, the likes of Sean Penn sat on their hands. For both Hollywood's ancient D-list Communists and its A-list anti-anti-Communists, there's only one thing about Kazan that matters: he "named names."

It's no fun being a socially conscious movie star if nobody's conscious of you. You want to be noticed. Not too noticed—not Salman Rushdie price-on-your-head noticed. But just a little bit of attention. And the only time anyone in power paid any attention to the political views of Hollywood people was half a century ago. In an ideal world—or if you were making a movie on the subject—the fellows who were politically "persecuted" would be a little more talented, or at least prominent; and maybe it would be better if they weren't subscribers to an ideology so thoroughly failed and so comprehensively rejected by anyone who's had the misfortune to live under it. But those are mere nitpicky details next to the towering feeling of validation the latter-day Hollywood activist derives from his McCarthy fetish. To the Richard Dreyfuss generation, what Kazan did is an affront to a deep conviction of their own heroism.

Nor is the fact that Hollywood's belief in its own heroism derives from a moment of colossal Hollywood cowardice any obstacle. The blacklist "victims" were blacklisted not by the government but by the studios (Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney)—the same folks who run Hollywood today. In 1999, when Penn and Dreyfuss were up in arms over Kazan's Oscar, old Lew Wasserman was still going to his office at Universal every day. Fifty years ago, had he chosen to, Wasserman and his talent agency could have broken the blacklist as decisively as he broke the studio system. But Wasserman and the suits were absolved, and their sins were subcontracted to one elderly retired director: as the former blacklisted screenwriter Norma Barzman told CNN, "Elia Kazan's lifetime achievement is great films and destroyed lives, and even a third thing, which is a lasting climate of fear over Hollywood and maybe over the country." Kazan became the crucible (if he'll forgive the expression) of the industry's institutional guilt over the McCarthy era.

To this day Barzman thinks that Kazan ratted because he had a halfmillion-dollar deal lined up for On the Waterfront—thus Hollywood's Communists were true to their principles, and its anti-Communists were in it for the money. This would be mere condescension if On the Waterfront were an Esther Williams aqua-musical, but it's rendered laughable by the fact that the film is instead the most cogent response possible to the likes of the Barzmans, beginning with the exquisite joke of its choice of analogy for Communist penetration in Hollywood: a waterfront union corrupted by racketeers. After all, until the director's detractors began insisting that personal loyalty trumps all other considerations, the notion that "ratting" was the ultimate sin was confined mostly to the mob.

Kazan had spent his first five years on the move—born to Greek parents in Istanbul, who moved on to Berlin and eventually New York. He understood the force of the big impersonal currents of history, because his family had been swept along in their wake. From 2003 it's difficult to appreciate the swiftness of the Red march in the postwar years: the Soviets very nearly grabbed Greece and Italy; their stooges seized Poland in 1945, Bulgaria in 1946, Hungary and Romania in 1947, Czechoslovakia in 1948, China in 1949; they were the main influence on the nationalist movements of Africa and Asia; they neutered much of what was left. You would have to be awfully convinced of American exceptionalism to think the republic was uniquely immune.

But the arts have little time for anti-Communists, especially premature anti-Communists, especially as premature as Kazan: he quit the party in 1936, after he'd refused to help it turn the Group Theatre into an actors' collective. Until then he was a conventional lefty, the stellar lefty of the Group's Waiting for Lefty, the one who ends the play by roaring the one-word injunction "Strike!" But if we were to frame Kazan's testimony to HUAC in terms of personal loyalty, what about his responsibility to, say, Vsevolod Meyerhold? When Kazan joined the Group, straight out of Yale, the company looked to the Russians for inspiration—not just to Stanislavsky but also to his wayward disciple, Meyerhold. The latter was a great mentor to the young Kazan and other Group members. This was a period, remember, when the Group frequently visited Russia; Lefty, for example, was staged in Moscow. Meyerhold loved the older stylized forms—commedia dell'arte, pantomime—and refused to confine himself to Socialist Realism. So Stalin had him arrested and executed.

Think about that: murdered over a difference of opinion about a directing style. As "persecution" goes, that's a little more thorough than forcing some screenwriter to work on a schlock network variety show under a false name.

Amid the herdlike moral poseurs Kazan was always temperamentally an outsider, and his work benefited after he became one in a more formal sense. But both before and after, his best productions concerned themselves with a common question: the point at which you're obliged to break with your own—your union, your class, your group, or, in Kazan's case, your Group. The 1947 Oscar winner Gentleman's Agreement strikes most contemporary observers as very tame, square Kazan. But in a curious way that's the point. When you start watching and you realize it's an issue movie "about" anti-Semitism, you expect it to get ugly, to show us Jew-bashing in the schoolyard and vile language about "kikes." But it stays up the genteel end with dinner-party embarrassments, restricted resort hotels, an understanding about the sort of person one sells one's property to. Dorothy McGuire and her Connecticut friends aren't bad people, but in their world, as much as on Johnny Friendly's waterfront, people conform: they turn a blind eye to the Jew-disparaging joke, they discreetly avoid confronting the truth about the hotel's admission policies, and, as Gregory Peck comes to understand, they are the respectable face of what at the sharp end means pogroms and genocide.

That's what all those Hollywood and Broadway Communists did. They were the polite front of an ideology that led to mass murder, and they expected Kazan to honor their gentleman's agreement. In those polite house parties Gregory Peck goes to it's rather boorish and tedious to become too exercised about anti-Semitism. And likewise, at gatherings in the arts it's boorish and tedious to become too exercised about communism—no matter how many faraway, foreign, unglamorous people it kills. Elia Kazan was on the right side of history. His enemies line up with the apologists for thugs and tyrants. Whose reputation would you bet on in the long run?