When Elia Kazan died last week at the age of 94, he left a staggering legacy for the entertainment world and the public at large. During his lifetime, this son of a Greek immigrant became a successful actor and author and a magnificent director.
With a great eye for dramatic talent, he helped launch the careers of such stars as Marlon Brando, Julie Harris and James Dean.
Almost everything he touched turned to gold. He directed such 1940s Broadway classics as Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. And Kazan’s talents made memorable such hit films as Streetcar (1951), Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront (1954) and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955).
He captured no fewer than three Academy Awards and scores of prizes for his stage productions.
But despite his outsized talent, Kazan became a virtual pariah among many in the stage and screen world for an unpardonable sin: He cooperated with the hated House Committee on Un-American Activities on April 10, 1952.
The famed director not only admitted that he had been a Communist Party member for 18 months in the mid-1930s, but he named eight people who had been in the party with him. He did not “denounce” them, as the Washington Post‘s Sharon Waxman erroneously reported, but suggested they probably joined for the same reasons he did, anger against Hitler and sympathy for the poor
Other former party members had appeared before the HCUA and outed ex-comrades, but none had been so brutalized over the years as Kazan. Why was his apostasy so enraging? Because he was not only the most illustrious former Communist from the entertainment industry to have cooperated with the HCUA, but by 1952 he had become a believing anti-Communist who thought cooperating with the committee and naming names was absolutely justified, even though he had been initially reluctant to do so.
Kazan also furnished illuminating information on how key Communist leaders would show his Red cell how to assist the party in supporting its “various front organizations” and how “to capture the Group Theatre and make it a Communist mouthpiece.”
Just two days after his appearance, Kazan took out an ad in the New York Times urging others who knew about this “dangerous and alien conspiracy” to inform the public or “the appropriate government agency.” The Left was apoplectic. They couldn’t stand such treason from one of their own. The Daily Worker, the vehicle that laid down the party line, branded Kazan’s testimony as a “belly-crawling,” “goose-stepping” statement and the “lowest moment of Kazan’s life.”
Very soon, Kazan recalled, “I heard of meetings organized by the Communist Party. . . to isolate me for attack. I’d become their primary target.”
Other leftist publications, including The Nation. and the New York Post, (then a far-left newspaper), went after Kazan, while playwright Arthur Miller (his longtime friend and collaborator) and Stalinist/writer Lillian Hellman were to join in the assault.
Just two years after his testimony, he directed On the Water Front, which he considered a metaphor about his life. Budd (What Makes Sammy Run?) Schulberg, an ex-Communist who pulled a Kazan in 1951, wrote the script. The product of these two Red renegades dazzled the public and Hollywood.
Brando won the Oscar for best actor, Kazan for best director and Schulberg for best writer.
Talent had trumped ideology, even in movieland. Waterfront was a terrible affront to the Left because it not only elevated the reputation of two anti-Communists, but it glorified informers.
Longshoreman Terry Malloy, the part made famous by Brando, testifies against his friends in the mob-controlled union, having been persuaded to do so by Father Barry, played by Karl Malden. Barry pleads with Malloy to publicly come out “for what you know is right against what you know is wrong.”
What’s “ratting” to them, he says, “is telling the truth for you.”
Kazan said he viewed the story as his own: “When Brando [Malloy], at the end, yells at Lee Cobb, the mob boss, ‘I’m glad what I done-you hear me-glad what I done!’, that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”
Kazan wasn’t through justifying his repudiation of communism. In his spectacular autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, published in 1988, he would thoroughly expose the Communist Party as a vicious, narrow-minded, oppressive entity, whose leaders were controlled by Moscow and mercilessly bullied even mildly questioning members.
Those Hollywood folk who remained Communists for any length of time deserved to lose their jobs, he argued. They weren’t fighting for civil liberties when they took the 1st or the 5th Amendment before HCUA, but were “protecting the party” and “their own pasts.”
For such unapologetic anti-Communist sentiments and behavior, the Hollywood Left would never truly forgive Kazan. And numerous liberals adopted the same attitude.
Thus for many years several prestigious film groups steadfastly refused to honor the director for his body of work.
In 1999, however, there was a thaw. Through the tenacious lobbying of Karl (The Streets of San Francisco) Malden, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts &Sciences (AMPAS), which sponsors Oscar night, finally bestowed on Kazan its lifetime achievement award.
The announcement of the event gave birth to some bitter protests and the doormat media made much of Kazan’s supposed “betrayal” of old friends.
The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd, the Washington Post’s Sharon Waxman and the Los Angeles Times‘ Robert Koehler all attempted to give credibility to the view that Kazan had behaved badly.
They had also mangled the facts. (See cover story in the March 19, 1999 issue of HUMAN EVENTS.)
The major media did not note that the “leaders” of the so-called protesters-such as Bernie Gordon, Abraham Polonsky and Norma Barzman-had all been longtime Stalinists, many of whom still have a dreamy view about Communism.
Polonsky, returning to his revolutionary roots, said he hoped on Oscar night that “someone shoots” Kazan.
Just this year Ms. Barzman published a book, The Red and the Blacklist, in which she glorifies the failed May 1968 revolutionary movement in France that called for a “classless society” and the “destruction of that [the capitalist] system.” (See page 418.)
Ms. Barzman boasts that her son was a part of the movement and she even faults the French Communists for being too timid in supporting it.
Kazan had turned his back on all this dangerous nonsense and on those who espoused it.
And that’s the sole reason he is still considered “controversial.”