Hollywood is a master of revisionist history, especially when that history is its own. One of the defining moments in the histories of both Hollywood and America was the series of Congressional hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, and led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s in order to ostensibly eliminate Communism from the United States. Hollywood was intimately involved in the HUAC hearings, and one of those targeted most viciously in the controversy was acclaimed film and theater director Elia Kazan.
Despite an illustrious career in which he directed nearly two dozen films, among them such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden, and collaborated with Pulitzer-prize winning playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams for both the stage and screen, Kazan is remembered by many only for his testimony in front of this committee.
This point is illustrated by the heated controversy surrounding the director’s Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented to him at the 1999 Academy Awards. Kazan’s importance to the world of cinema is undisputed, but Hollywood remains divided by a single political affair that took place over half a century ago. The Academy Award was therefore protested by some and supported by others. But should Elia Kazan still be regarded with such contempt by his peers and contemporary members of the Hollywood community? Should his legacy be based on this one transgression, rather than his long history of cinematic achievement? And has Kazan already put the entire subject to rest in On the Waterfront, perhaps the best work of his entire career? I hope to answer these questions in an essay that will discuss the tumultuous life of one of Hollywood’s most influential directors.
Elia Kazan joined the Communist Party in 1934, “believing that it was alerting the world to the evils of fascism,” but left soon thereafter in 1936. In that short time he had become disillusioned with the party and its members. He had wanted to keep the Group Theater separate from the Communist Party and its propaganda, but some of its other members combined with outside pressure and turned against him. He was “put on trial” by the Communist cell he was a part of and asked to apologize, which he refused to do. He then resigned after confirming his “contempt for the party” and said that he had learned in 18 months all that he need to know about the Communist Party. This hatred for the movement surfaced years later when Kazan finally testified as a “friendly witness” at the HUAC hearings in 1952 and “named names” of several of his friends and colleagues who were associated with the party.
The circumstances surrounding Kazan’s testimony are complex and unclear, but the results of his actions are more easily assessed. Although he avoided the blacklist that was ruining the careers of so many Hollywood players, he was ostracized by many members of the Hollywood community, including several of his onetime friends. The House Un-American Activities Committee was known for targeting the major Hollywood players with character assassination which masqueraded as the exposure of a threat, and ruined many careers as a result. In his article “Elia Kazan and the House Un-American Activities Committee,” Roger Tailleur notes that California, the “capital of subversion,” provided “more than one-third of the inquiries and hearings of the committee,” and most of that number came from Hollywood. The resentment of those in the community is therefore justified, as Tailleur assesses HUAC’s sinister workings:
The role of HUAC, to which the Constitution forbids any legislative function in the very domain it has staked out for itself, is to collect information and to find victims, who are subjected immediately to the most noisy publicity and who are nailed to the pillory of public prosecution.
Ironically, it seems that in order for such a system to work, Hollywood would have needed to be as much a partner in the blacklist as it was a victim. This is evidenced in conversations between Kazan and Spyros Skouras, the president of 20th Century Fox who threatened the director that if he did not become a “friendly witness” for HUAC, “he would never make another movie in Hollywood.” Kazan was heard to say “I have to testify or else.”
However, Kazan’s motivations in finally agreeing to testify to the committee were not as clearly defined as this would suggest. He was deeply conflicted over the issue, on the one hand holding a deep hatred for the Communist Party and fearing the blacklist, but on the other hand concerned for the effect his words would certainly have on his friends and colleagues. In addition, several of the people Kazan “outed” as Communists were already known by the committee, including Clifford Odets and Art Smith. Odets had actually already named Kazan in his own “friendly testimony” on May 19, 1952. Nevertheless, Kazan became a major scapegoat in the HUAC controversy, and today his is perhaps the name most associated with the era. He lived with the consequences for the rest of his life.
Kazan’s first major hit after the fiasco of HUAC was 1954’s On the Waterfront, which opened with great critical and commercial success after the director’s two previous box office failures. Arthur Miller, who in 1951 had written the initial screenplay titled “The Hook,” left the project because he refused to meet film executives’ demands that the film’s villainous union crooks be Communists. According to Miller, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures sent him a letter telling him it was interesting that he had resisted Columbia’s desire to make the movie pro-American. Miller would also not talk to Kazan for nearly a decade following his testimony in front of the committee, even though the two had originally intended to collaborate on the film. Kazan then worked with screenwriter and fellow HUAC informer Budd Schulberg on the film, which is based on real events but was also clearly influenced by the filmmaker’s own recent experiences.
The story of dock workers struggling against a corrupt union boss and racketeers is often considered in terms of its relationship with the Communist witch hunt of the early 1950’s, and specifically the effect Kazan’s “traitorous” testimony had on his career and personal relationships. Marlon Brando, who at first refused to work for Kazan because of his damaging testimony, plays Terry Malloy, a longshoreman who becomes entangled with the corrupt waterfront bosses. He is inadvertently involved in a murder by two of mob boss Johnny Friendly’s thugs, and later meets the dead man’s sister and feels responsible for his death. But when the Waterfront Crime Commission conducts an investigation into the murder and asks him to testify, Terry is unsure what to do. He is torn between his allegiance to his brother and the mob, and his new love interest in the dead man’s sister Edie Doyle. Eventually Terry testifies and informs on Friendly, and the likely consequences in his personal and professional life are realized.
The parallels are obvious. Just as Terry is viewed as a disloyal “stool pigeon” and informant against his supposed friends, Kazan is ostracized in his society and faces similar, if less dramatic, costs as Terry. But what is more interesting are the ways in which Kazan infuses a commentary about the Communist party and the fallout over his HUAC testimony into the more superficial themes of the film.
Most importantly, Terry is clearly not apologetic about his actions against the union bosses, even though he was conflicted in deciding the right thing to do. Kazan is most often criticized for the fact that he never apologized for voluntarily testifying to the Congressional committee. Patricia Bosworth quotes a screenwriter, who preferred to remain nameless, in an article on Kazan written shortly after the director received his lifetime achievement award: “He’s never been forgiven, because he won’t apologize. He should have at least apologized for ruining so many careers.”
However, if Kazan feels, like Terry, that what he did in the end was the right thing to do, he should not have felt the need to apologize. Bosworth goes on to say that Kazan “scoffs at the idea that [On the Waterfront] was an apologia for informing or that it made informing honorable.”
While the film does not try to act as an apology for HUAC, it does seem that Kazan makes an attempt to justify his actions. He once said, “Terry Malloy felt as I did. He felt ashamed and proud of himself at the same time. He wavered between the two, and he also felt hurt by the fact that people – and his own friends – were rejecting him. He also felt that it was a necessary act.” Perhaps as catharsis, Kazan creates a character in Terry who is far more outspoken than Kazan’s own position would allow. Kazan’s anger is directed more towards the entire Communist party than a single individual, though. When Terry tells Friendly, “I’m glad what I done to you,” the contemporary viewer senses Kazan would have liked to say the same thing to the Communist party but was only able to do so through characters in a fictional film.
Part of the problem is Kazan’s lasting ambivalence regarding his own actions of 1952. Aside from forgoing an apology, Kazan has wavered on his own feelings about HUAC and his involvement ever since. This is reflected in Terry’s character throughout the film. “Terry Malloy miraculously fuses selfishness and selflessness, but as an individual staggering beneath the burden of moral decisions, he remains unconvinced of the rightness of either extreme,” writes Kenneth Hey in his article “Ambivalence as a Theme in On the Waterfront.” Kazan has often been described in identical terms, not only regarding HUAC but in his personal life as well. The film as a whole tackles the same issue on a broader scale. Hey says:
The film argues openly that injustice can be remedied through existing political institutions; but it grafts onto this basic liberal position the suggestion that individuals are frequently the casualties of the conflict between right and wrong in society and that the individual’s response to the clash of absolute moral standards is ambivalent.
In this view, Kazan has painted himself as the victim of opposing forces, not an aggressor who actively sought to ruin lives. Rather than ask for forgiveness, he tried to make people understand his thorny situation. Bosworth writes that, in defense of Kazan, Warren Beatty “said during various television appearances that it was difficult to make judgments about Kazan and other informers, given the pressures they had faced when they testified in front of the committee.”
In addition, the ending of On the Waterfront seems like a probable fantasy of the reception Kazan would have liked to receive from other members of the Hollywood community after his testimony. Terry is initially reviled and abandoned, in effect “blacklisted,” by his friends and others in the community, but he eventually earns back their respect and affection. Only when Terry, a former prizefighter, is beaten up by Johnny Friendly and his goons do the men on the dock embrace him once more. One worker suggests that he is “one of theirs anyway” until he sees that Terry is fighting not only for himself but for all of them. The men therefore respond to his personal courage and eventually take his side as they follow him back to work. Kazan never achieved such a miraculous exoneration, and it took him years to reconcile with many of the friends he had lost. One can argue that the director dreamed of having Terry’s bravado to speak his mind, when he could in fact only suffer and endure the lasting consequences of his actions.
It seems clear that Kazan tried to put his controversial involvement with HUAC to rest with this film. While he felt that no apology was necessary, and maintained that stance for the rest of his life, he certainly hoped to explain himself through his art in a way he could never do in his own words. He also proved that he was once more a bankable director, and continued to work with some of Hollywood’s greatest stars, including Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, Montgomery Clift and countless others, as he continued to make films that American critics and audiences embraced.
Why, then, did Kazan never overcome the stigma of the Congressional hearings in the eyes of so many? After testifying in front of HUAC and then pouring his heart into On the Waterfront – arguably the best film of Kazan’s illustrious filmography – the director continued to make some of his most important and artistically relevant work in the second half of his career as a filmmaker. He followed the success of On the Waterfront with such critically acclaimed films as East of Eden, Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, and Splendor in the Grass. Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel says, “[Elia Kazan’s movies] shaped the conscience and the sensibility of a generation far more powerfully than any purely political act or ideological expression ever could.”
Those that came before McCarthyism and the 1950’s should also be considered: Gentleman’s Agreement, Panic in the Streets, and of course A Streetcar Named Desire, among others, had launched Kazan’s career into the stratosphere and made him one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood by the time he delivered his fateful testimony. Schickel recognizes the importance of evaluating the filmmaker’s body of work, not his personal failings, in honoring the man with the Academy Awards for Lifetime Achievement.
Perhaps even more importantly, Kazan had already been forgiven by many of those directly involved in the Communist witch hunt long before the controversy over the award began in 1999. The previously mentioned Clifford Odets had told Kazan to “go ahead” and testify, and was apparently not concerned that his name would be included in whatever statement Kazan provided. Kazan also eventually reconciled with longtime friend and collaborator Arthur Miller, although the two did not speak for years following the hearings. Kazan told Miller he had hated the Communists for many years and didn’t feel right about giving up his career to defend them, and Miller later said, “History ought not to be rewritten; Elia Kazan did sufficiently extraordinary work in theater and film to merit its acknowledgment.”
Ring Lardner, Jr., who spent almost a year in prison for refusing to name names and was subsequently blacklisted, expressed a sentiment likely felt by many others who were involved in the McCarthyism of the 1950’s when he said, “For God’s sake, it’s just an award. Give him the award, and let’s forget about it.”
To some, on the other hand, Elia Kazan will always be “a McCarthy-era villain who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee,” according to Bosworth. This is because in refusing to apologize, or show any visible remorse, for being a “friendly witness” to the Congressional committee, he has made it equally difficult for anyone else to forgive or forget what he did. Even though Kazan’s testimony was essentially symbolic, and despite that fact that many others were guilty of the same crimes against Hollywood, his name has become the symbol most associated with HUAC.
As I mentioned at the onset, Hollywood is a master storyteller, especially when the stories it tells are about itself. In this case, Hollywood had to write its own ending to the story, since Kazan never apologized or offered any closure of his own on the subject. As a result Kazan became the antagonist more than even the Communists themselves. HUAC, in hindsight, was an ugly, embarrassing incident in American history that many would prefer to forget. Yet even after the death of Elia Kazan in 2003, the debate rages on.
Bosworth, Patricia. “Kazan.” Vanity Fair Fall 1999: 322-342.
Hey, Kenneth. “Ambivalence as a theme in On the Waterfront (1954): An Interdisciplinary Approach to Film Study.” American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5. Winter 1979. pp. 666-696.
Neve, Brian. “The 1950s: the case of Elia Kazan and On the Waterfront.” Cinema, Politics and Society in America. Ed. Philip Davies and Brian Neve. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981. pp. 97-118.
Tailleur, Roger. “Elia Kazan and the House Un-American Activities Committee.” Film Comment Fall 1966.
This essay was written May 2005 for the NYU Cinema Studies course devoted to director Elia Kazan.