Some Actors Outraged by Kazan Honor

             Sat, 13 Mar 1999 10:39:21 PST
    (AP / JERRY SCHWARTZ, AP National Writer)
             Copyright 1999 by The Associated Press (via ClariNet)

See this report on the protest against Kazan's award.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Phoebe Brand cannot excuse Elia Kazan. She cannot forget that nearly 47 years ago, the great director named names.

She cannot forget because hers was one of those names. ``I forgive,'' she says. ``I forgive a lot, but I don't think I can forgive Kazan.''

When Kazan told a congressional committee that Miss Brand had been a member of the Communist Party, he punched her ticket for the blacklist. Forty years would pass before the actress would appear in a film.

But at that same moment, Kazan sealed his own fate. For the rest of his life, Kazan would be known as Broadway's best director -- AND as a McCarthy-era Judas. He would be remembered for films like ``On the Waterfront'' and ``East of Eden'' -- AND for destroying colleagues' careers.

He is 89 years old now. Next Sunday night his own career will be crowned with a signal honor, an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. But the honor has been overshadowed by screams of outrage.

``Age and ability in the arts or anything else, in my opinion, does not excuse a crime,'' says Rod Steiger, star of ``On the Waterfront.''

``Sometimes the good guys win,'' rejoins Charleton Heston.

Usually, the lifetime achievement award is a deathless pause in the Oscars' relentless pageant of glitz.

But this year will be different. Expect protests and counter-demonstrations, lusty cheers and stone silence -- all because of something that happened before many of us were born, at a time when Americans hated and feared the Soviet Union, a country that no longer exists.

More than any other figure who testified, Kazan remains a lightning rod for those who despise what happened in those days, even as others applaud him as a truth-telling hero.


Because a half-century after America went on a hunt for Communists in its government, its media and all its closets, the hunt -- and the fruits of that hunt -- remain a matter of contention. And because Kazan was the most celebrated witness to give the House Committee on Un-American Activities what it wanted.

``In my opinion, he was the best director of the theater in my time,'' says playwright Arthur Laurents, himself a victim of the blacklist.

Kazan brought ``Death of a Salesman'' and ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' to the stage and continued to direct the best work of two titans, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. He won praise for films like ``A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,'' and an Oscar for ``Gentleman's Agreement.''

``Every play of worth intended for Broadway was offered me first. I had to shrug them off,'' Kazan recalled in ``A Life,'' his 1988 autobiography. ``In films it was only a matter of what I wanted to do, name it.''

If he was at the top of the entertainment world, he wasn't born anywhere near it. He came into this world as Elia Kazanjioglou, and arrived in the United States from Turkey when he was 4. Always, he wrote in his memoirs, he has felt like an outsider.

Kazan rejected the life his father expected of him: working at the family carpet company. Instead, he wound up at Yale Drama School, and then at New York's Group Theatre.

The Group was devoted to performing new plays that turned a penetrating light on American life. Its leaders were Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, perhaps two of the most influential figures in the history of the American theater.

It was Kazan who shouted ``Strike!'' at the end of Clifford Odets' ``Waiting for Lefty,'' a 1935 play about a taxi drivers' walkout. The audience roared ``Strike!'' in response -- an electrifying, legendary moment.

By this time, Kazan was a member of the Communist Party -- there was and is no law against it -- and he was not alone among members of the Group. In his book, he said there was a cell that met on Tuesday nights in actor Joseph Bromberg's dressing room.

According to Kazan, the success of ``Waiting for Lefty'' encouraged party leaders to take a stronger hand. They told Kazan to inform the cell that it must lead other actors in an insurrection, taking control of the Group from its directors.

Kazan says he did as he was told, but then told the cell that he disagreed with the plan. The party pressured Kazan to change his mind.

Instead, he quit. He had been a member for less than two years, from the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1936.

So much changed in the next 16 years. The Depression ended, taking with it many of the radical impulses of a nation in peril. And with World War II and its aftermath, feelings toward the Soviet Union evolved from suspicion to camaraderie to enmity.

The blacklist began in 1947 when hearings into Communist involvement in the film industry led to contempt charges against the Hollywood Ten, screenwriters who would not answer the committee's questions.

Your career could be destroyed because you refused to talk, or because you were named as a party member, or because ``Red Channels'' or some other publication reported that you were politically suspect.

``It was a nightmare, it was, and even as I talk to you about it now, I can feel my body being disturbed,'' says Betsy Blair Reisz.

Mrs. Reisz, first wife of actor Gene Kelly, was listed in ``Red Channels'' though she was not a Communist.

At Kelly's insistence, she was given a major part in the movie ``Marty,'' for which she received an Oscar nomination, but that was just a chink in the blacklist. Aside from one B movie in 1959, Hollywood shunned her. She moved to France, then England making films in Europe.

``It knocked people out of the box for 15 years,'' says Victor Navasky, editor of ``The Nation'' and author of ``Naming Names.''

In January 1952, Kazan testified before the House committee. Yes, he said, he had been a Communist. No, he said, he would not name others he knew to be members of the party.

Four months later, he did just that.

What happened in the meantime? Kazan, in his book, said that producer Darryl Zanuck's pleas did not move him to name names; instead, he said he came to realize that he no longer agreed with the Communist program, and he abhorred the party's stealth.

And so he named:

Lewis Leverett. Joseph Bromberg. Phoebe Brand and her husband, Morris Carnovsky. Odets. Paula Miller (Lee Strasberg's wife). Art Smith. And others he knew who were not members of the Group Theatre.

Most, if not all, had been named by others. Bromberg had died that year; he was already blacklisted, and had gone to London for work despite a weak heart. Kazan said he and Odets had agreed to name each other.

Kazan testified in executive session. The next day, the committee released his testimony. And the day after that, Kazan placed an ad in The New York Times -- a defiant explanation of what he had done, written by his wife, Molly, under his name.

``Secrecy serves the Communists,'' the statement insisted. ``At the other pole, it serves those who are interested in silencing liberal voices. The employment of good liberals is threatened because they have allowed themselves to become associated with or silenced by the Communists.

``Liberals must speak out.''

The response was immediate. Old friends -- friends who knew him by his nickname, ``Gadg,'' short for ``Gadget'' -- cut him dead, turning their heads when they saw him on the street. The statement in the Times didn't mollify them; it infuriated them.

Actor Karl Malden gave him tickets for his new play, ``The Desperate Hours.'' He also gave tickets to actor Sam Jaffe, but when Jaffe learned that Kazan would be sitting in the same row, he canceled his plans.

When Tony Kraber, a fellow member of the Group, was called to testify, he was asked if Kazan's testimony was accurate.

``Is this the Kazan who signed a contract for $500,000 the day after he gave names to the committee?'' Kraber replied.

Kazan denied it. But even if it wasn't true, Kazan's detractors said, he was wealthy and could have lived well without the movies. He could have hewed to the stage, where no blacklist existed. ``Also,'' says Arthur Laurents, ``he was in a very strong position. ... He could have made the committee look bad.''

Says Navasky: ``He was at the top of his form when he was called, and people felt if he couldn't resist, how could they?''

Also, he was known as a director with a social conscience, creator of such films as ``Gentleman's Agreement,'' which condemned anti-Semitism. ``He was thought to be a man of moral fiber,'' says Navasky, so many on the left were shocked at what they considered a betrayal of friends and colleagues, and his reasons are disputed to this day.

``He DIDN'T name everyone in the cell,'' says Patrick McGilligan, co-author of ``Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist.''

``He named the people he didn't like. He named the people who he felt condescended to him. ... He was a cutthroat guy.''

To many on the right, Kazan acted as a hero.

``The villains and victims have been inverted. The Communists should have apologized. They should have been charged with treason,'' says Scott McConnell, a spokesman for the Ayn Rand Institute who is organizing counter-demonstrations in Los Angeles to support Kazan on Oscar night.

McConnell insists that Communists did subvert films, both with overt propaganda in movies like ``Mission to Moscow'' and ``Song of Russia,'' and with other movies that glorified self-sacrifice and collective work.

Nonsense, says Laurents, whose newest play, ``Jolson Sings Again,'' is the story of a director who informs. ``Nobody has been able to point to one movie that was propaganda for the Soviet Union.''

As for the Group Theatre, ``it was not political. Everyone tried to make it seem so, and it was not,'' says Phoebe Brand. It is an argument that is still played out in any discussion of the Red Scare. American Communists were subversive agents of Stalin, says one side. No, says the other: They were well-meaning Social Democrats, though perhaps they were naive.

For some, the argument is an unending loop, and they cannot bear to discuss it or Kazan any longer. ``I won't talk about that. Not a word. It makes me sick,'' says Jules Dassin, the director who fled to Greece when he was blacklisted.

``No, I can't talk about it,'' says Karl Malden, who as a member of the Academy's board proposed the lifetime achievement award for Kazan.

Kazan himself is not talking. He told his story in ``A Life,'' and some would say he told it in ``On the Waterfront,'' in which informing is a virtue. His lawyer, Floria V. Lasky, says he will not apologize when he receives the award. ``Apologize for what?'' she asks.

Eric Bentley believes Kazan deserves the honor, and he thinks the firestorm he must endure is unfair. The Communists were shifty, he says, and Kazan acted out of principle. Bentley didn't always feel that way. Once, he wrote a play -- ``Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?'' -- in which Kazan was one of the villains. Relations between the two men were less than friendly.

Recently, he encountered Kazan at a gathering at cartoonist Al Hirschfeld's place. Someone who was unaware of their history tried to introduce them.

Kazan is ``quite coherent when he speaks ... (but) his brain is somewhere else a lot of the time now,'' Bentley says. ``He put his arms around me, which is pretty hard to do, because he's a lot shorter than I am. And he said, `Eric, we always got along fine, we did.' And I thought, `No, we didn't.' But I didn't say anything.''


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