by Mark Rabinowitz
[The following editorial solely represents the views of the author, and
does not necessarily reflect the views of this publication.]
On April 10th, 1952, Elia Kazan, one of the pre-eminent film and theater
directors in the United States testified before the House Committee on
Un-American Activities (HUAC). By doing so, he became a participant in
one of the most shameful periods of our nation’s history, naming 11
individuals, among them friends and colleagues, as Communists. On March
21, 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will
bestow an Honorary Award on Kazan, adding to the two Best Director
Oscars he received for “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1948 and “On the
Waterfront” in 1955. According to an Academy press release, the award is
“in appreciation of a long, distinguished and unparalleled career during
which he has influenced the very nature of filmmaking through his
creation of cinematic masterpieces.”
There is no doubt that he was a great film and theater director (he won
three Tony Awards for directing), and that these honors were bestowed
upon him legitimately. The real question is, however, does someone who
informed on friends and co-workers, thereby helping to legitimize a
modern-day witch hunt, deserve additional accolades? After some
consideration, my answer would be no. This decision is not an easy one,
however. By the definition in the Academy’s release, there can be
little argument as to Kazan’s ability and achievement as a director,
but as a human being, he has some shortcomings.
This is not the place to go into a lengthy discourse on the history of
the “Red Scare” of the 1940’s and 50’s, as that is the subject of many
much longer articles and books, some of which are mentioned at the end
of this piece. It is also very important that it be noted that the even
larger villains of this sad tale are Senators Joseph McCarthy and James
Eastland, lawyers Richard Arens and Roy Cohn, and other such vile
characters. These four, along with many others, systematically
destroyed the lives of not only many artists and writers, but
thousands of teachers, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors and others,
most of whom lost the ability to make a living.
This is, however, the place to address my feelings on the subject of Mr.
Kazan’s honoring by AMPAS. I was raised in a house rife with leftist
politics, including a healthy distrust of the government and a thorough
dislike for informers. My father was on the front lines during the cold
war, working as a lawyer defending any and all who came to him after
being called to testify before HUAC and the various other committees and
subcommittees terrorizing certain sections of the American population.
When I was three, my mother overheard me talking in my sleep, saying
something like “Shhhh, be quiet – the walls have ears.” As an adult, it
makes my flesh crawl to think about anyone who collaborated with the
McCarthy-era hysteria, receiving any award…for anything.
In the March 22nd issue of The Nation, playwright Arthur Miller, himself
a victim of the anti-Communist hysteria of the time, addresses the
subject of Kazan’s upcoming honor, drawing a distinction between a
person’s artistic achievements and their political actions. “So I am
perhaps overly sensitive to any attempts to, in effect, obliterate an
artist’s name because of his morals or political actions,” wrote Miller.
As fair and true a statement as can be made on the subject, to be sure,
but by applying this statement to Kazan, Miller seems to draw a parallel
between artists who were blacklisted due to leftist politics, either
real or perceived, and those whose very political actions contributed to
the blacklisting of other artists. Kazan, along with Lee J. Cobb,
Clifford Odets, Sterling Hayden, Jerome Robbins, Robert Rossen, Bud
Schulberg, and many others, testified before HUAC, thereby caving into
the badgering and subpoenas of a government gone awry. Those named to
the committee saw their lives ruined, some even wound up having their
lives ended as a direct result of being named before a committee.
Some have said that one should let bygones be bygones. The past is done,
let’s move on with our lives. I can’t object more strenuously. If the past
is not remembered, it WILL repeat itself. It has happened time and time
again. The only way to even try to ensure that it doesn’t, is to remember.
One of the only good things that can come out of Kazan’s honorary award on
Sunday night is that this horrible part in America’s history is again being
brought to light. Maybe if members of the audience do stand and walk out,
those watching the telecast will be prompted to go to their local book store
or library and read up on the subject. The McCarthy-era was a dark era in
our history. It rivals periods of political repression that have taken
place in many countries throughout human existence. Thousands of people
lost their livelihoods and their lives due to fear, hatred and ignorance.
Kazan has received his awards. Two Oscars and three Tonys. To many who
lived through the times, Kazan is a man without honor. To give him an
honorary award is simply wrong.
The following are some books on the subject that might be of interest to
those who would like to learn more about this period in our history.
While three of the four books here are available at Amazon.com, I urge
those of you so inclined, to search out an independent bookstore in your
town, or visit your local library. They can use your support.
“Unrepentant Leftist: A Lawyer’s Memoir,” by Victor Rabinowitz. What can
I say, Pop made me who I am, in addition to being a hero and advocate for
the poor, oppressed, underfed and underpaid people of the world. This
kind of praise would make him uncomfortable, but it’s due and accurate.
“It Did Happen Here: Recollections of Political Repression in America,”
by Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz. It did happen here.
“Naming Names,” by Victor Navasky-This book is out of print, but I urge
you to look for it. Amazon.com does have a search for out of print books,
as do many second hand book stores.
“Only Victims,” by Robert Vaughn. Yes, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wrote a very
interesting study of show business blacklisting.
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