After being asked a question concerning her grandfather’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, actress Zoe Kazan drew attention this week when she opened up about her grandfather’s choice to name eight others who had been Communist Party members with him.
During the McCarthy era of Hollywood, Elia Kazan’s actions in 1952 made him a pariah in some circles. Actors and writers who refused to “identify names” were banned and prevented from finding work.
By filming “On the Waterfront,” Kazan has made himself an extremely divisive character in Hollywood’s political landscape. It’s a fantastic American film, without a doubt, but it also has a dark, little-noticed undercurrent running through it.
I thought a lot about how our country’s past influenced the history of my family, what it meant for my grandfather to be tested for his Americanness as an immigrant to this country, and the choice he took from that.
When asked about her grandfather’s role in the Hollywood witch hunts of the 1950s, Zoe Kazan had this to say:
The goal of “On the Waterfront” was to create “the fullest case for informing,” as Victor S. Navasky noted in his essential 1980 book “Naming Names,” one of the best studies of the McCarthy witch hunt ever published. Budd Schulberg, the film’s screenwriter, had also provided HUAC with 15 names.
Let’s take a look back at Zoe Kazan’s presence at the Television Critics Assn. event on Wednesday before diving deeper into the Elia Kazan case. The most startling thing about her words was that, 68 years after the fact, a member of the press brought up her grandfather’s background.
Or maybe it’s not that shocking after all. Protests erupted in 1999 when the Motion Picture Academy decided to honor Elia Kazan with an honorary Academy Award. When the then-89-year-old director walked the stage to accept his award, many in the audience refused to rise and clap. Kazan passed away in 2003, leaving no heirs.
According to Meredith Blake, Zoe Kazan was asked about her grandfather while participating on a panel to promote her latest project, a TV adaption of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”
First, the reporter expressed regret for bringing up the subject of “bad times for you.” “You’re not bringing up hard times for me,” Kazan retorted. “You’re dragging our country to a standstill.”
As she continued, “I’ve never wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history, partly because of the other people it involved in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life, so I’m not going to go into it.”
“But I will say that I thought a lot about how the history of our country affected my family’s history, what it meant for my grandfather as an immigrant to this country to have his Americaness tested, and the choice he made from that.”
“Those were the things that were on my mind as I worked on this,” Roth said, referring to “The Plot Against America,” based on Roth’s alternative history in which right-wing and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president.
Working on this project was an eye-opening experience for me on many levels: personally, politically, and creatively as well. And I spent a lot of time pondering my own decisions and how I want to live my life.”
There was a dark time in American politics and culture throughout the 1950s with the witch hunts. Since then, writers and artists have been grappling with the issue. One example is Philip Roth’s 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.”
“Trumbo,” a documentary on screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who refused to disclose individuals and was blacklisted for over a decade before winning two Oscars under a pseudonym, recently explored Trumbo’s life and times.
To this day, my favorite Woody Allen film is 1976’s “The Front,” in which the actor played a nebbishy nobody who is recruited to pretend to be a television screenwriter in order to help a group of blacklisted screenwriters get their scripts produced.
An amusing scenario shows Allen ordering at a book store counter: “All right, give me two Hemingways and a Faulkner” in order to impress his TV producer love interest with his knowledge of literature.
At the film’s end credits, the director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, actors Zero Mostel (1950), Herschel Bernardi (1953), Lloyd Gough (1952), and Joshua Shelley (1952) are all noted by the year they were blacklisted (1952). But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rather than rooting out Communist Party influence in Hollywood, the House Un-American Activities Committee sought to degrade its targets in front of the public on a routine basis.
Participants in this rite of passage confessed that they had been duped by communists into modifying their works to fit their ideological worldview, preferring to do so under cover of secrecy so as not to alert the unaware American public.
Those questioned were asked to provide the names of people with whom they had joined purportedly communist front organizations or with whom they had communist supporters on their minds. Since anti-communist organizations began identifying putative communists in 1950, these names were not secret.
Several surrendered when they appeared before the committee. It was done for a variety of reasons, including the notion that they were exposing subversives, a desire to protect their jobs from a possible blacklisting, and a desire to avenge a grievance.
Others spent years attempting to make amends with individuals they exposed or in counselling to come to terms with their own conduct; others lost themselves in booze or sadness. Actors Lee J. Cobb and Sterling Hayden were among those who provided information for the investigation.
Trumbo and other screenwriters who had written some of the most popular and well-received films of their time were among those who stood up to the Hollywood establishment.
The list of people who have been banned is extensive and disturbing. Actors Jose Ferrer, John Garfield, Judy Holliday, and Edward G. Robinson were among the 150 people named as “red sympathizers” in a controversial leaflet called “Red Channels.”
In addition to Eddie Albert, Orson Bean, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee, others were placed to the blacklist subsequently. Navasky refers to this as “self-abnegation” before HUAC, although it didn’t always necessitate disclosing information about other people.
In 1952, the committee called Elia Kazan to testify twice. Broadway and Hollywood were already calling his name. “From 1946 on, he enjoyed de facto first refusal rights on any Broadway-bound play,” writes Navasky. To close out his cinematic career, in 1951, he directed “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a theatrical adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
It was thought that Kazan’s appearance before the committee would assist dismantle the blacklist, but it didn’t. Many of his projects had been focused on social issues. As a powerful and prominent individual, he might have resisted the committee’s requests without fearing for his career.
Isn’t that what happens? While he confessed that he had been a Communist Party member between 1934 and 1936, he did not name any specific members during his first public appearance in January.
On his return in April, he named eight other party members and issued a four-square condemnation of the party’s “police-state” tactics to regulate his work. Clifford Odets, Morris Carnovsky, and his wife Phoebe Brand were among them. (The next day, The Times released the full list of the eight individuals.)
Kazan has remained an unrepentant informant throughout his life. He took up a full-page ad in the New York Times two days after testifying, explaining his choice and urging others to do the same.
For the sake of the United States’ “free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect,” he wrote that he had testified to protect his adopted country (he was born in Constantinople to Greek parents) from “a dangerous and alien conspiracy.”
“I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about communism.”
‘On the Waterfront’ was Kazan’s final attempt to justify his enlightenment. To put it another way, Navasky views the video as “a gallant effort to confound the public perspective of the subject.”
Kazan and Schulberg clearly emphasize informing above entertaining. To Marlon Brando and Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb, Terry Malloy’s “snitch” is Johnny Friendly, the thuggish and unscrupulous union boss who was the subject of the blacklist in real life. Terry makes the choice to go after Friendly after his brother Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, is killed by the boss.
There is no place for ambiguity in ‘Waterfront’ by Kazan-Schulberg, as stated by Navasky. “By killing Charlie, the viewer is deprived of any opportunity to evaluate honestly the equivocal and hazardous complexity of the informer issue,” says the author. Squealing may be subjective, but in “Waterfront,” it’s a requirement.
At the 1999 Oscars, the conflicting motives and acts of the 1950s Hollywood crises were brought to light. The issue has never gone away, as evidenced by the conversation between a TV reporter and Zoe Kazan. The strain on moral judgement in the entertainment sector, as well as in many other fields, is probably a positive thing.
For Kazan, naming names did not cost him anything in terms of money or time. For more than two decades following his testimony, the actor and filmmaker Martin Scorsese called him “one of the most important figures in the history of filmmaking,” and he wrote two best-sellers.
When it comes to one’s own life, the record is less clear-cut. New York Times author Arthur Miller delivered a copy of his play, “A View from the Bridge,” to Kazan in 1955, which dealt critically with the issue of informing, according to an unconfirmed story attributed to Navasky.
Kazan wrote Miller, “I would be proud to direct it.”
It was Miller who said, “You aren’t getting it.” That was not my intention, and I didn’t send it because I wanted you to direct it. This was my way of letting you know what I think of stool pigeons,” I wrote.