This article was originally published by Salon on February 10, 1997.
At a time when its latest heroes are a fascist (Eva Peron) and a misogynist (Larry Flynt), it is perhaps not surprising that Hollywood is experiencing a crisis of conscience in finding a place in its heart for a patriot like Elia Kazan. Last month, the Hollywood establishment, in the form of the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, denied Kazan a lifetime achievement award, thereby continuing to shun one of its most accomplished artists. Even the subsequent defenses of the filmmaker that appeared in Variety, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other periodicals lacked conviction. Not one of them has managed a forthright defense of Kazan as what he is: the longest-standing victim of Hollywood’s McCarthy-era blacklists.
Elia Kazan is probably Hollywood’s greatest living legend. And yet the director of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront,” the man who launched the careers of James Dean and Marlon Brando, the first artistic choice of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, cannot get an award from his own creative community because of the unforgivable sin he allegedly committed in appearing as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities more than 40 years ago.
I use the plural in speaking of blacklists advisedly. For as Kazan himself wrote, defending his decision to testify, the communists in Hollywood were the first to blacklist artists in any organization and on any project they happened to control. One of the questions Kazan asked himself was, “Why should I defend people like this?”
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the recent spate of articles and editorials about the Kazan affair is the amount of print the “defenders” of Kazan have expended in attempting to justify the extension of “forgiveness” to him after all these years. Why does a man have to be forgiven for defending his country? This question does not even seem to have occurred to his public champions. Perhaps most flagrant in this regard was a piece by the theologian Martin Marty, which appeared in the Opinion section of the L.A. Times. Marty noted that a usual prerequisite for forgiveness was repentance, and that Kazan had not repented. He nonetheless called for a “creative forgetting” to allow the 87-year-old artist to be readmitted into decent society.
To many, no doubt, the gesture appeared gracious. But to others this call for repentance had a peculiar ring. What about all those communists in Hollywood and elsewhere who betrayed their country, its democratic ideals and human decency itself in order to support a mass murderer like Joseph Stalin and to lend a helping hand to an empire that destroyed the lives of millions of human beings? Did anybody demand that the Hollywood Reds repent their sins in order that they be forgiven? Were they required to put on sackcloth and ashes before the entertainment industry made them heroes of the First Amendment in films like “The Front,” “The Way We Were” or “Guilty by Suspicion”? In fact, no such humility was required. As Marty observed, the code of E.M. Forster prevails: It is better to betray your country than your friends.
But even if one were to accept the debased ethic of an alienated writer like Forster, who said the people Kazan named were his friends? In his autobiography “A Life,” Kazan makes very clear that the communists whom he named had not only betrayed his country, in his eyes, but betrayed him, as an artist and man, as well. Why, he said to himself, should I sacrifice my career for people like this?
It is not necessary for us to rehearse every detail of what went on 40 years ago or to take sides in personal matters, however, to draw certain conclusions. The release of the Venona transcripts and other Soviet documents in recent years makes clear beyond any doubt that American communists were part of a conspiracy to betray this country and were in fact engaged in acts, orchestrated from the Kremlin, to undermine the security of this democracy and to render it defenseless in the face of its totalitarian adversary. Propaganda, which was what Hollywood excelled in, was no small national asset. If Hollywood’s communists need make no apologies for their role in trying to deliver this asset to America’s enemies, then why should Kazan apologize for defending America against them? If the opponents of the blacklist argue that it is such an evil in itself, why then is it acceptable to blacklist Kazan?
Unless one insists on a double standard — one rule for communists, another for patriots — then only one conclusion is possible: The time has come to lift Hollywood’s longest standing blacklist and honor Elia Kazan — not only as one of its greatest living artists, but as a man who stood up for what he believed, and who braved years of persecution to defend his ideals.