Thursday, May 17, 2007

Elia Kazan: Enough Already

Not content with his career as a political prognosticator and analyst, Mark Steyn makes occasional forays into film criticism. The death of Bernard Gordon, a blacklisted screenwriter of the 1950s, reminded Steyn of an old grievance, and led to his reprinting a 2003 Atlantic Monthly defense of Elia Kazan. "The arts have little time for anti-communists," declares Steyn.

The mechanism by which Elia Kazan became a pitiable victim of Hollywood liberalism puzzles the Siren no end. Here is a list of the films Kazan managed to complete after testifying before HUAC.

The Last Tycoon (1976)
The Visitors (1972)
The Arrangement (1969)
America, America (1963)
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Wild River (1960)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Baby Doll (1956)
East of Eden (1955)
On the Waterfront (1954)

Here is an abridged list of awards that Kazan was either nominated for or won subsequent to his HUAC testimony.

Academy Awards
1964 Nominated, Best Director, for America, America (1963); Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, for America, America (1963)
1956 Nominated, Best Director, East of Eden (1955)
1955 Won, Best Director, for On the Waterfront (1954)

Berlin International Film Festival
1996 Honorary Golden Berlin Bear
1960 Nominated, Golden Berlin Bear, for Wild River (1960)

Cannes Film Festival
1972 Nominated, Golden Palm, for The Visitors (1972)
1955 Won, Best Dramatic Film, East of Eden (1955); Nominated, Golden Palm, for East of Eden (1955)

Directors Guild of America, USA
1987 Lifetime Achievement Award
1983 DGA Honorary Life Member Award
1964 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for America, America (1963)
1962 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for Splendor in the Grass (1961) 1958 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for A Face in the Crowd (1957)
1956 Nominated, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for East of Eden (1955)
1955 Won, DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, for On the Waterfront (1954)

Golden Globes, USA
1964 Won, Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Director, for America, America (1963)
1957 Won, Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Director, for Baby Doll (1956)
1955 Won, Golden Globe Best Director, for On the Waterfront (1954)

National Board of Review, USA
1996 Won, Special Citation for lifetime achievement in direction.

Venice Film Festival
1955 Won, OCIC Award, for On the Waterfront (1954)
1954 Won, Italian Film Critics Award, for On the Waterfront (1954); Silver Lion, for On the Waterfront (1954); Nominated, Golden Lion, for On the Waterfront (1954)

Writers Guild of America, USA
1964 Nominated, WGA Award (Screen) Best Written American Drama, for America, America (1963)

What an odd parallel universe is inhabited by Mr. Steyn and those like him, one where Kazan's accomplishments are considered incomplete because Hollywood failed to grant him a 10-minute standing ovation, and didn't get rid of those pesky protesters outside the theater. The honorary Oscar was voted unanimously. The Siren watched the Oscar ceremony and saw Kazan accept his award. The television cameras showed her at least half in the auditorium were on their feet and applauding. She heard no boos. But the presence of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro onstage, Warren Beatty on his feet applauding, that means nothing to Steyn if Ed Harris and Nick Nolte and some other weenie libs are sitting quietly in their seats.

For Mr. Steyn and the professional indignation specialists over at Libertas, it will never be enough that Kazan went on to have a distinguished, artistically fulfilling and lucrative career after his testimony. He must be loved, not despite, but because of his having named names.

Well, to quote something Samuel Goldwyn probably never said, include me out. The Siren loves Kazan's films. As a man? Let us hear Irene Mayer Selznick on that matter. She produced A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. At the time Kazan was called before the committee she was his close friend, and they were working to produce a play that later flopped. She thought her left-leaning Hollywood friends were exaggerating the danger; Kazan in turn told her to read I.F. Stone and the Daily Compass, showing her a picture of a camp allegedly being readied for dissidents. He told Selznick that he would never testify, that he was prepared to work in Europe if necessary.

That was brave talk, and I admired him for it. To those in comparable trouble, some bigshots included, he gave advice and strength. ...

One evening during our brief run I was approached in a restaurant by Gadge's movie agent, who told me that Gadge was a hero and I would be proud of him; all I had to do was pick up the bulldog edition of the Times.

I read the paper with total disbelief. My head reeled. The unimaginable was there in print: Gadge had done an about-face politically. He had caved in and named names. He also had bought a quarter-page for an ad, defending what he had done and exhorting others to follow his lead. ...

However much he had wanted to stick to his principles, he simply didn't. He let down those who believed in him. I was the least of his victims, I only lost some illusions.

I made no effort to get in touch. From then on, when we met, [Kazan's wife] Molly cut me dead. Gadge was tentative. For years his action estranged him from a lot of people he cared about, and I include myself among them. Some never forgave him. He was, on the whole, the man who was least forgiven, because he had been the epitome of courage and strength. After Molly died, he and I drifted back together and we're friends today--I think.

As Jacob Weisberg pointed out in Slate, no recent revelations, including the Venona transcripts, improve "the case that Hollywood Communism was a significant threat to democracy." Steyn may or may not realize that he would look ridiculous arguing that the crowds yelling "Tovarich! Tovarich!" at the end of Action in the North Atlantic were a danger to our American way of life. Perhaps that is why, despite asserting that aiding the blacklist was no sin, he works so hard to absolve Congress (and, far from coincidentally, the party running it at the time) from blame:

Nor is the fact that Hollywood’s belief in its own heroism derives from a moment of colossal Hollywood cowardice any obstacle. The blacklist “victims” weren’t blacklisted by the government but by the studios–Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney–the same folks who run Hollywood today.

This rather elides the fact that the first blacklist was established the day after the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress. Implying the government had nothing to do with it is disingenuous at best. “Placement of primary political and moral blame on HUAC for what happened to people during the blacklist is obviously correct," wrote Art Eckstein at that bastion of Bolshevism, Front Page Magazine. And whence this alleged Hollywood "belief in its own heroism" that Steyn condemns? As Selznick makes clear above, the hell of the era was the spectacle of friends and colleagues turning upon one another like rats in a trap.

The blacklist ultimately did no one any good--neither those who testified, nor those who refused, nor those who avoided all involvement, nor those who were just out in the hinterlands buying tickets. Certainly if Steyn were a real cinephile, as opposed to an ideologue, he would realize that the sadly truncated filmographies of people like Marsha Hunt, Dorothy Comingore and Zero Mostel are the real blot on the film world, not a tepid ovation. Kazan went on to flourish. By testifying he was, quite obviously, trying to save his own career. As Weisberg says, that doesn't make him a villain.

It doesn't make him a martyr, either.


Dan Leo said...

Well said, Siren. A lot of people just can't separate their opinions of artists' lives (their behavior -- like that of "regular people" -- so often bad; their politics -- like that of "regular people" -- so often stupid) from their opinions of the artists' work. The weird and wonderful truth is that greatly flawed human beings often produce brilliant and great works of art.

Bob Westal said...

Ms. C --

Great stuff. I'd read Mark Steyn's piece but it'd likely get me so mad I'd have to write my own takedown, but you've done such a lovely job. And, always fun to take shots at the Libertas gang...but then why do they get to go on TV and you don't? Life, she is so unfair.

In any case, the best revenge is that Steyn's team is going down in flames, even if they are taking the rest of us with them. I really wonder how people like him sleep, but then I forget that being a putz probably helps.

Mike Phillips said...

Bravo! I so admire your willingness to take on the Steyns of the blogosphere. So often I read something that gets my hackles up, but when I think about the effort involved in responding, I wilt.

It's really important to remember, as you did, the great loss the blacklist caused. John Garfield and Canada Lee, both of whom were great actors (Garfield would have become the greatest actor in Hollywood had his career not been cut off), were essentially killed by the blacklist. I recently rewatched Body and Soul, and it really made me sad to know that both men would be dead within five years.

The Siren said...

Thanks guys. Michael, Canada Lee is an especially heartbreaking case, although racism of course played a huge part in his downfall as well. (The anti-Semitism underlying a lot of the HUAC investigations also was impressively detailed by Neal Gabler.)

Noel Vera said...

Good stuff, Siren. Kazan and what he did should be remembered but never rehabilitated.

The Siren said...

Noel, I honestly don't care that much about Kazan's politics, although I don't think he was ever truly honest about why he testified. Others like Edward G. Robinson testified and didn't spend years trying to turn it into an act of honor. And if I recall correctly, Kazan named names that the committee already had. What bothers me more is that the string section playing for Kazan, and the huge diss he allegedly got from the Oscar ceremony (puh-leez), is usually the overture to Why The Blacklist Was Entirely Justified, and Even If Wasn't, It Was Liberal Hollywood's Fault.

Rich said...

Love the blog, but I think you got this wrong. He was a villain.

I can't think of Kazan without thinking of Jules Dassin. Both came up through the studio system, both worked in film noir in the late 40's, both tried to make movies that mattered. Kazan kept his swimming pool and ratted out his friends. Dassin left everything behind, and went on to do great work in Europe.

When it really mattered, Kazan folded. His cowardice gave "cover" to the other villains who needed to justify what they were doing.

I once saw a production of "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been" in New York" -- a play in which actors read the real words of the folks who testified in front of HUAC. The actor playing Lionel Stander got a standing ovation. The actor playing Kazan got gasps of laughter, followed by well-earned boos.

Kazan didn't even have the decency to feel guilt over what he did, like Sterling Hayden and Lee J.Cobb.

Noel Vera said...

Yeah, Kazan handed over names that were already known. I agree with you tho, that doesn't make him a hero. And as rich pointed out, he kept his pool; Dassin went on to make Never on a Sunday--which gets my vote for The Happiest Film on Earth.

Uncle Gustav said...

Elia on the side (cut & paste):

The Siren said...

Rich, thanks very much for the reasoned and polite dissent. I don't think we are that far apart, though. Certainly I don't admire Kazan's actions, which may not be completely clear since this post was written at top speed. Steyn wants us to see Kazan as making a conscious decision to strike a blow against the gulag, an idea which falls apart under any scrutiny at all. Since you mention Dassin, did you see his interview with French TV? I think it's an extra on the Criterion Night and the City. Dassin describes how Kazan spent the night before the hearing calling up people and telling them they had nothing to worry about. That doesn't sound like a man on a righteous mission, does it?

I should have emphasized more the point of Selznick's excerpt, which is that although he spent 50 years spinning it as an attack of conscience due to Seeing the Light About the Spectre of Communism, Kazan acted from the purest self-interest. As you state, Lee J. Cobb, Sterling Hayden and others (I think of Edward G. Robinson, who described himself as "sick in my soul" when he testified) experienced a great deal of guilt. Kazan always defended his decision.

Despite all that, I find it hard to condemn Kazan out of hand, simply because I can't honestly say I would have done differently had it been MY (figurative) swimming pool at stake. It's nice to think I would have been Jules Dassin, running off to Europe to make Rififi, but I don't know. Kazan's kind of success would have been hard to give up.

Noel, I saw Never on Sunday recently and was more charmed than I expected to be. Mercouri is like no prostitute I have ever heard or expect to hear of, but the movie sort of vaults your disbelief and draws you in anyway.

Rich said...

Campaspe -- Point well taken.

I think I've read just about every book on the blacklist there is, and I've come to appreciate what a horrible dilemma these people faced. Lee J. Cobb's account is gruesome -- from being a successful, working actor, he became a pariah. He had FBI agents tailing him 24/7. If he applied to be a dishwasher somewhere, the FBI agents would immediately find the owner of the restaurant and say something like, "We're not telling you who to hire, just know that this man is suspected of being a subversive." Cobb eventually gave up the names because it was either that or let his children starve.

One point that's vital to this discussion that almost no one mentions -- the entire "appear before HUAC" process was never about trying to uncover subversion in the movie business. It was always about right-wing demagogues showing artists "who's boss." Think about it -- artists were GIVEN NAMES, told that "since we already have the names, you're not hurting anyone" and "encouraged" to show "contrition" about being "brainwashed." Can you see any actual information being exchanged here? Isn't this just Mr. McCarthy and his minions saying, "I can make you truckle. I can make you renounce your most sacred beliefs in morality and social justice."

This was a terrible, terrible dilemma. The system would only work if HUAC could break people COMPLETELY (see Lee J. Cobb, above). My problem with Kazan has always been that felt no contrition, justifed his betrayal self-righteously, and became a tool for the demagogues.

I was happy to see the blowback at the Oscar ceremony. I think it was part of Kazan's calculation that the whole thing would "blow over" in a couple of years, and be forgotten. I was glad to see that people like Bernard Gordon and Abe Polonsky (a tragic figure -- see "Force of Evil") tell the truth about him.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Had Steyn done more extensive reading he would know how great the impact of the blacklist was. Aside from the Hollywood Ten, even card carrying Republicans like Frank Capra and Joe Mankiewicz had to watch their respective backs. That HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas was imprisoned for illegal activities, should also be a reminder the Libertas gang to pay closer attention to history.

ajm said...

Another prize you didn't mention -- Kazan was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in 1983. AFAIK, there was no widespread left-wing protests over this, though when Pete Seeger was given the same award in 1994, the Right had a field day.

The Siren said...

Rich & Peter, Neal Gabler also makes it clear in 'An Empire of Their Own' that the actions of the studio bosses were based in part on a well-founded perception of anti-Semitism within HUAC. This makes Steyn's invocation of Gentlemen's Agreement a good deal more ironic than he intended.

RLMilner: You are right. I got the list of awards off IMDB and I had forgotten the Kennedy Center honor, which is surely our country's highest award in the arts. It is an interesting and curious thing that of all the awards Kazan racked up over the years, the honorary Oscar is the one that everyone, right and left, got worked up over. Whatever you think of them, there is definitely something about the Oscars.

The Derelict said...

Nice piece, Siren. I admit I know very little about the blacklist era, but I suspect the truth is something other than the caricatures offered up by both the sound-byte Left and Right. That quote from Irene Selznick was revealing. I love Kazan as a filmmaker, have very little sympathy for communists, and I still think he testified not as some great act of conscience but merely to save his career. It hurts the Right when we descend into obscuring facts to make some "point."

Steyn is a wonderful writer when he's writing about music and theater, but I don't think I would classify him as a cinephile though I'm sure he styles himself a film buff. I've read his movie reviews and commentary for a few years now and he strikes me as the Republican version of Anthony Lane -- someone who can write a witty, devastating pan, but who doesn't actually LOVE movies the way a real movie buff does, if that makes any sense. I would say his real love is American musical theater and Tin Pan Alley stuff; he certainly knows more about those subjects than he does movies. Though I still kinda love his review of the Kiera Knightley Pride and Prejudice (which unfortunately I can't find online).

Also, I thought the commentary on the Crossfire DVD with Edward Dmytryk was really interesting. He talked about his experiences with a lot of candor and he didn't seem too bitter about the whole thing, for which I give him a lot of credit. I can't remember the specifics too well, but I would suggest watching the film again with the commentary, it was really good.

The Siren said...

Derelict, thanks as always. I did some back-reading of Steyn's criticism (he started out an arts commentator) and I think your Lane comparison is apt. Some of his pieces on musical theater were funny, including one at Slate on Bob Merrill called "The Worst Songwriter of All Time." Of course for that one, just quoting "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake" did more than half his work for him.

The Crossfire DVD is part of my collection so I will give the Dmytryk commentary a listen. I admit, I am not a big comment-track person. My usual impulse is to yell "shaddap!" at anyone talking during a movie, no matter how knowledgeable. But in this case it sounds worthwhile.

Noel Vera said...

Siren: Giving up names, no, you're right, we can't be too harsh on him--we don't know how we'd react ourselves.

But defending the righteousness of it all till death is a bit much.

AGreed, Malina's character is a stretch, but if you see her as representing Mediterranean hedonism opposing American puritanism, the movie makes more sense (and seems less, well, a product of a man's fantasies). But, as you say, she plays it with such ebullience she wins you over anyway.

Larry Aydlette said...

Siren, just an FYI. My blog has changed addresses. Click on my name to find the new place. Same old Shamus, though.

The Siren said...

Thanks, Shamus. But I am almost afraid to ask -- what has happened to that round-headed kid? You didn't rough him up, did you?

Juanita's Journal said...

I must admit that I never understood HUAC's belief that Communism spouted by Hollywood artists was a threat to the American way of life. It was just a political party. Nor do I feel that Elia Kazan did the right thing. On the other hand, I would never claim that I would refrain from doing the same. I honestly don't know what I would have done.

However . . . Kazan had been receiving that special Oscar for his body of work as an artist, not his political beliefs. And the fact that some in Hollywood had continued to wallow in their stance of unforgiveness over something that happened decades ago struck me as rather petty.

And by the way . . . Hollywood is not as liberal as many would believe.