Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Academy Awards are the annual pageant of glitz and glamour, when traditionally the biggest controversy of the evening erupts over the best--and worst--dressed movie stars. But this year, the Academy Awards have been steeped in a political controversy over the Academy's decision to give a Lifetime Achievement Award to director Elia Kazan--whose most significant lifetime achievement is not as a film director, but as an informer to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s.
On 21 March the stars posing for cameras outside the Shrine Auditorium were partly upstaged by demonstrators protesting at the award, led by a group of formerly blacklisted screenwriters. On the inside, protesters encouraged those who disapprove of the award to 'sit on their hands' instead of joining in the applause. The protesters took out ads in various Hollywood papers, which read, 'Do not stand and applaud Mr Kazan. Sit on your hands. Let audiences around the world see that there are some in Hollywood, some Americans, who do not support blacklisting, who do not support informers.' The protest has the sympathy of a number of actors who lived through the McCarthy witch hunt. Rod Steiger, who starred in Kazan's On the Waterfront, recently stated that, when he found out Kazan had informed to HUAC in 1952, 'it was like I found out my father was sleeping with my sister. The passing of time can do nothing to ease the pain of those who suffered.'
Kazan's award has forced Hollywood to revisit its own role in furthering the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s. The Hollywood blacklist began in 1947, when ten screenwriters refused to answer questions when called to testify before Congressional hearings into Communist involvement in the film industry. Known as the 'Hollywood Ten', all were charged with contempt of court, fired by the studios and sent to prison in 1950. The studios joined forces to purge the industry, forcing actors and writers to sign statements that they had never been members of the Communist Party--all the while churning out anti-Communist films.
Victor Navasky, author of Naming Names, described the atmosphere: 'No Hollywood Communist or ex-Communist who had ever been accused, or called to testify, or refused to sign a studio statement would get work in the business--at least under his own name--unless he went through the ritual of naming names. Ronald Reagan, then head of the Screen Actors' Guild, kept the FBI informed about 'disloyal' actors. Testimony before HUAC accused such acclaimed actors as Lionel Stander of 'crimes' like whistling the 'Internationale' while waiting for an elevator. Ginger Rogers' mother complained to the committee that her daughter had been forced to speak 'agitprop' in the 1943 Dalton Trumbo film, Tender Comrade. Her subversive words were, 'Share and share alike, that's democracy.'
Elia Kazan played a crucial role in whipping up the anti-Communist frenzy, as the most celebrated witness to capitulate to McCarthyism. Having directed Broadway's A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, and having already won his first Oscar for A Gentlemen's Agreement, which condemned anti-Semitism, Kazan had established himself as a talented director with a left wing reputation when he was called to testify before HUAC in January 1952. Had he stood up to the witch hunt, he could have given confidence to others to do the same. 'He could have made the committee look bad,' argues blacklisted playwright Arthur Laurents. Stander, for example, had told HUAC that he could not name any Communists, but he could identify 'a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the constitution'--the committee itself. For every Hollywood informer there were two who refused to name names.
At first, Kazan maintained his integrity. He admitted having been a member of the Communist Party from 1934 to 1936, but refused to name names. Four months later he had an abrupt change of heart. He returned to testify before HUAC, this time giving the committee the names of eight Hollywood leftists--the best known being playwright Clifford Odets (who became an informant himself a month later), Paula Miller, wife of Lee Strasberg, and director Morris Carnovsky. The day after Kazan's testimony was published in newspapers, he paid for an ad in the New York Times, which stated defiantly, 'Secrecy serves the Communists. At the other pole, it serves those who are interested in silencing liberal voices. The employment of good liberals is threatened because they have allowed themselves to become associated with or silenced by Communists. Liberals must speak out.'
Kazan feels no remorse for his actions. When asked whether he would consider apologising on Oscar night, his spokeswoman replied, 'For what?' Kazan's defenders portray him as a victim of circumstance, who, now aged 89, should be honoured for his artistic achievements without regard for his role in politics. 'The only criterion for awards like this is the work,' argued Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan. 'It's a slippery slope when you start pulling in other criteria.' This argument--that art and politics should be judged separately--was not offered to the hundreds of victims of the Hollywood blacklist, 90 percent of whom never worked in Hollywood again. Most found themselves out of work, shunned by their peers, and blacklisted.
Moreover, this argument begs the question of what those who were blacklisted might have achieved. As Rod Steiger said, 'Who knows how many great films would have been made if some of these people had been allowed to continue working in Hollywood?' Charlie Chaplin, for example, was refused re-entry into the United States in 1952 after a trip to Europe for his sympathy to Communism--returning only once, 20 years later, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award, the only apology Hollywood has ever given him.
Elia Kazan was no victim of circumstance. He helped fuel the anti-Communist witch hunt in Hollywood, mirrored in workplaces and unions throughout the US. And by claiming, as he did, that he was defending the cause of liberalism he paved the way for other liberals to follow suit. By giving Kazan this award, Hollywood is letting itself off the hook for its own role in destroying the US left during the 1950s.