Elia Kazan: feted but not forgiven
Hollywood mythology aside, the great director recognized Stalinistterror for what it was, while others remained silent
The campaign to disrupt this year's Academy Awards has what Hollywood calls a "back story." While claiming to protest an honorary Oscar for Elia Kazan, the campaign is part of a long-standing cover story about the major mass movement of our time, communism, and one of its leading characters, Joseph Stalin.
Elia Kazan learned his craft in the early 1930s in New York's Group Theatre. In those Depression days, it seemed to many that democratic capitalism was finished, and that the Soviet Union represented the wave of the future.
When Kazan joined the Communist Party in 1934, he thought he had enlisted in "the victorious army of the future." But he quickly discovered that the party, like the Soviet regime that funded it, was a police state that told its artists what to do.
Though Kazan quit the party in 1936, he remained a man of the left. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities began investigating communism in Hollywood in 1947, he was directing "Gentleman's Agreement," for which he won his first Oscar, and was not called to testify. By the time those hearings resumed in 1951, the world had changed.
Through the help of American Communist spies, the Soviet Union had acquired nuclear weapons. Stalin launched a new series of anti-Semitic purges that claimed thousands of writers and artists, including Kazan's mentor Vsevolod Meyerhold. By this time Kazan had become, in his words, "another man," a premature anti-Stalinist.
Kazan believed that Stalinist penetration of American institutions posed a threat to democracy at home and abroad, and that the government had a duty to investigate a political party that dutifully served as an adjunct of Soviet policy. He cooperated with the House committee, naming names of former comrades in the Group Theatre. Though vilified by a party whose members avoided or defied the committee, Kazan refused to apologize and defended his stand in a New York Times notice and in the film "On the Waterfront." Accused of "ratting" on his buddies, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) shoots back, "I'm glad what I done to you. You hear that?"
Kazan directed "East of Eden" and "A Face in the Crowd," and also wrote novels such as "The Arrangement." By the late 1980s, there were few parallels to his body of work, but those who hand out the awards operated under a double standard that considered "stool pigeons" worse than Stalinists and made heroes out of those who refused to state their true beliefs before the committee.
In 1989 the American Film Institute rejected Kazan for a lifetime achievement award, and in 1996 the Los Angeles Film Critics Association passed him over in favor of Roger Corman, pioneer of low-budget horror movies such as "Attack of the Crab Monsters."
This year the same group gave a career achievement award to Abe Polonsky, one of Kazan's most bitter critics. Polonsky, screenwriter for "Body and Soul," played a major role in the Communist Party's inquisition of Albert Maltz, a novelist and screenwriter whose crime was to write an article disagreeing with the party doctrine that art must be a weapon. Maltz was forced to publicly denounce his stand and write a humiliating retraction.
This year's announcement of an honorary Oscar for Kazan touched off a protest led by writer Bernard Gordon, co-scriptwriter of "55 Days at Peking," who called the committee hearings a "reign of terror," and revealingly added: "We must protest everything Citizen Kazan stood for."
Kazan stood for democracy and openly opposed Stalinist communism when it posed a clear danger to the United States. That is something Kazan's leading critics have never done, not even after the demise of the cold war and full revelation of Stalin's crimes, a revelation more eagerly received in Russia than America.
Kazan has been blacklisted by a campaign of carefully fondled hatreds. As actor Karl Malden has noted, the director deserves to be considered for his body of work alone.
The campaign of vilification against Elia Kazan obscures the little publicized reality that many in America remained silent, and even approving, in the face of Stalin's reign of terror. These are the ones who owe the apology, Kazan argued in his 1988 autobiography.
The record of Stalinism in America is something those who will take the nation into the next century need to know. This year's Academy Awards is a good place to start learning.
*Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley is the author of 'Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s' (Prima, 1998).