Must there be yet another reason to resist the upcoming Academy Awards? I've got one: the forgive-and-forget honorary Oscar being bestowed on 90-year-old filmmaker Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, East of Eden), who, in 1952, disgracefully "named names," finking on his show-business compatriots before the notoriously rightist House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). A willing and eager witness in Washington, Kazan offered up a ripe list of theater and movie people whom he claimed had been Communists, including those with whom he worked on Broadway in the 1930s in the agit-prop Group Theatre.
There's no doubt that Kazan is a formidable filmmaker. I go beyond his canon (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata) with my admiration for the lesser-known A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and The Arrangement. Yet is this the person who, beyond the individual films, deserves an Oscar from his thespian peers? This is someone who, at the height of his reputation after directing Streetcar on stage and film, pointed an accusing finger at his less-powerful peers - "COMMUNIST!" he called them.
Maybe they were; maybe not. But it was the darkest time of McCarthyism, the "Blacklist" was operative, and anyone with an alleged Communist past who hadn't publicly recanted and repented would be fired on the spot, and remain unemployed in Hollywood and in theater. Kazan knew the score. It's all there in his 1988 autobiography, A Life. On page 432, he acknowledges that a frightening appearance before HUAC had helped kill actor Joseph Bromberg, and that actress Mady Christians had died of a cerebral hemorrhage after a series of blacklistings when she tried to get work.
At his first HUAC appearance, Kazan actually balked at delivering to New York congressman Kearney the names of Party members from the Group Theatre. On page 447 of A Life, he reveals, "I said I would not, that even though he would claim the committee was not deliberately trying to harm people, nevertheless any person I named would find his career in jeopardy, and any person known to have been at a meeting with them and not cooperated fully would have his employment in TV, radio, and films cut off." Exactly!
But the next time he was called to testify, Kazan squealed and squealed. He has claimed it was because of his hatred of international Communism, but what does that have to do with actors in the USA in the 1930s? He has also admitted, in the 1974 book Kazan on Kazan, that it was his revenge after being purged by the Communists in the 1930s: " . . . I've never denied that there was a personal element in it, which is that I was very angry, humiliated and disturbed -- furious, I guess -- at the way they booted me out of the Party." Delusional in his autobiography, Kazan succumbs to a "get them before they get me" mind set. On page 448, he fabricates words from a 1951 analyst (how could he remember?), spooning his own paranoid thoughts into the mouth of the shrink: "`I'm wondering,' he said, `if your fellow members would do the same for you if they were called upon to protect you by endangering their careers.'"
There it is. Doing the rotten deed he believed they'd do, Kazan betrayed his ex-pals which also guaranteed his continued employment in Hollywood. While they crumpled, he, the informer, made pictures. First the mediocre, fervently anti-Iron Curtain Man on a String (1953); then the brilliant, fervently fink-as-hero On the Waterfront (1954). When Brando's Terry Malloy spills the beans in On the Waterfront to the congressional investigators, that's Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg justifying their down-on-their-knees before HUAC.
What did Kazan actually say in Washington? About a decade ago, I located the microfilm text of his testimony (never published) at the BPL. It was odious pages and pages of careerist butt kissing and flag waving, Kazan going through the plots of each of his movies, explaining laboriously why they were very anti-Communist and (coming from an immigrant lad from Greece) very, very pro-American. And he named names to HUAC. Lots and lots of them.
One of my oddest experiences as an interviewer was talking a few years ago to actress Phoebe Brand, widow of the great Shakespearean performer Morris Carnovsky. Brand (Vanya on 42nd Street) was a member of the Group Theatre in the 1930s. She acted there with Elia Kazan. I told her of reading Kazan's testimony and confirmed what she had always suspected: Kazan had implicated her before HUAC. Brand nodded when I said I'd read her name. Traumatized anew, she began crying.
Kazan has conceded that, at first, after being attacked everywhere for his testimony, he wondered whether what he'd done was "repulsive." But this attack of conscience quickly dissipated. On page 465 of A Life, he says, "Do I now feel ashamed of what I did? . . . The truth is that within a year I stopped feeling guilty or even embarrassed." Kazan, a rock, has never sought out those unfortunates he sacrificed to HUAC. "Reader, I don't seek your favor," he writes on page 460 of A Life. " . . . But if you expect an apology now because I . . . name(d) names to the House Committee, you've misjudged my character." The envelope, please!
(Boston Phoenix, March 14, 1999)