Elia Kazan died last month.
From any perspective, he lived a long and succesful life. He was 94.
Kazan was a good theatre director, not a great director, but a major influence during the time that "method acting" was mopping the stages of New York. He was also a good film director, not a great one, and certainly not a filmmaker. But he won his Oscars and he wielded influence in that medium as well. When Film broke loose in technology and form and audiences changed with it, Kazan found himself unwilling to grow with the change. So he turned to writing. He was a mediocre writer, but he made a lot of money with his name and his insider reputation.
As with all good directors, Kazan began his career as an actor. He was at the core of the Group Theatre in the 1930's and even appeared in a film or two. He founded The Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and broke away from it because he found Strasberg to be a 'menace', but mainly to follow his own ambitions. In the ensuing wake after his death, you can find myriad listings of Kazan biography and filmography. It's quite impressive.
It's the mirror image of Kazan, as mirrors will have it where the face is flipped and the hands look strange, it's that image that haunted the man. And it appeared during the Hollywood witch-hunt of the early 1950's.
In all of the myth-making, haunting hoopla of "McCarthyism" and the terror that it invoked, there was an insidious piston that drove its engine: the House Un-American Activities Committee. This limb of the American Congress found its true calling just as the Cold War froze a society's paranoia in place. It wasn't an aberration. American history begins with the hunting of witches and carries this cultural purgative through the 20th century right through today. (I'm sure the current U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft, has a shrine to HUAC in one of his closets.) In 1919, the then Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, went out across the land gathering up communists; over 3000 were arrested. In 1938, HUAC was born, headed by a belching Texas congressman, Martin Dies. He was savvy enough to realize where to find his 15-minutes of fame: he attacked Hollywood. But first, he launched a hunt to sterilize the only comprehensive move toward a publicly supported, nationwide theatre: The Federal Theatre Project. Dies effectively dismantled it.
World War II and the off-again, on-again alliances with the Soviet Union quieted the urge to hunt. After the war, HUAC emerged with a new mandate and a new chairman, Parnell Thomas (also on the committee – Richard Nixon). Standing behind him, in the shadows, America's unrestrained hunt-master, J. Edgar Hoover. Their agenda: homosexual, liberal, Jewish Hollywood. (What stunning irony that so many of our loudest, most strident cross-burners are secret-sharers in the "sin", a much studied pathology.... remember Jimmy Swaggert? So it was uncovered, some years later, that both Thomas and Hoover were closeted cross-dressers and Gay. And Thomas was eventually booted off the committee, out of Congress, and into prison for screwing with the committee's expense budget. And Nixon – well, we know where he went.)
The headline highlight of HUAC's Hollywood harangue was the "Hollywood 10", a group of some of the best writers and directors who refused to genuflect to the committee. This was borderline suicide because anyone who refused to cooperate with the committee was cited for contempt and jailed. Anyone who did cooperate had to "name names" – slander themselves and others. And anyone who invoked their Constitutional right not to self-incriminate, as guaranteed by the 5th Amendment, was branded and blacklisted – end of career, end of livelihood, end of membership and its privileges of money, glamour, and special status in the Hollywood club – a culture unlike any on the planet. Almost everyone in a position of power, for a diversity of reasons, accepted and employed the blacklist. Lester Cole, a prolific screenwriter of the time (see bio at D'Arcy-Kane) told a story of his summons into the office of MGM's Louis B. Mayer who said – "why don't you give up this communist crap and I'll let you direct your own picture. All you writers want to be directors. Do it!" Cole didn't and he lost almost everything. (see Hollywood Red, pub: Ramparts and AviarPress).
It was all a searing nightmare. It was a no-win situation that destroyed many careers and even killed some of the people who were tainted.
The "10's" tactic was not to refuse to cooperate, not to invoke the 5th, rather to stand behind their right to free speech, the 1st amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Their novel stance was that this right also guaranteed their right to be silent. They would appear but they would not answer. Thomas and HUAC gaveled their position into dust and down the line, the U.S. Supreme Court also dismissed it. (25 years later, the Supreme Court reversed its decision on silence and free speech in case that involved a religious group. Fancy that!) The ten were cited for contempt and sent to prison for a year at Danbury, Connecticut.
Now who do you think they ran into in their early days at Danbury? Why Mr. J. Parnell Thomas, of course, the man who sent them there.
In 1952, Elia Kazan received his subpoena to appear before HUAC. He faced the same double-edged sword. His career was riding high and as he said many years later, those people were wrong and he wasn't going to sacrifice everything he had achieved for them. He testified in an executive session (behind closed doors) and "named names", especially his comrades in the Group Theatre. Just as the news of his testimony broke the next day, so did an ad by Kazan in the New York Times, which explained, apologized and justified his position. Kazan was a powerful figure at the time both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Some believe that Kazan was "too important" to be trampled by the committee if he had appeared as a hostile witness. They believe that he might even have been able to break the Blacklist by refusing to cooperate.
There was another issue at hand, however, that was larger than the questions of patriotism and the street-wise morality of to-be-or-not-to-be a stool pigeon. It was what the House Un-American Activities was, what it represented, and what its corrosive process did to the individual rights and freedoms of American society. It was an issue of cooperation making the process legitimate, of legitimizing the "witch hunt."
But Kazan, an immigrant Greek kid, who had scrapped his way into the New York theatre and beyond, refused to take any chances. It was a decision that haunted him until last month. Over the years, he maintained a striking silence, refusing to discuss what he did and why in any detail. As Victor Navasky said, in his landmark book, Naming Names (Viking), "His silence...has resonance."
As recently as 1999, when Hollywood decided to give Kazan an honorary Academy Award in recognition of his lifetime achievement, there was another uproar and protests and the surfacing of 47 years of bad feelings. Kazan was still dragging the stone.
Now he's gone. Hopefully, he's finally free of it.
©2003 Arthur Meiselman
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