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THE BLACKLIST LEGACY : A New Generation in Hollywood Takes Political Sides Again, but Remembers the Red Witchhunt

October 18, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON

There was excitement in the air outside the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills as people gathered for the premiere screening of the PBS documentary "Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist."

It was a curious mix of emotions: nostalgia, sadness, delight. This, after all, was a commemoration. Forty years ago the House Committee on Un-American Activities Committee began its investigation into alleged subversion in the entertainment industry. On the audience's mind was the "Hollywood Ten" and the hearings that produced shock waves of division and distrust, that prompted job blacklists and so-called graylists, that set off a second wave of hearings in 1951 which changed hundreds of lives.

Here were the survivors and their friends from both sets of hearings. Families of the Ten were meeting and reminiscing. A former blacklisted writer like Frank Tarloff, alias David Adler, his nom de plume on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," ran into that show's head writer, director Carl Reiner. The time has long since passed when the blacklisted--those who were barred from movie sets and television and radio programs here and in New York--have been welcomed back, and indeed have achieved a certain folk-hero status.

At the same time, those who "named names" before the committee informing on the alleged political affiliations of their colleagues are now almost like pariahs, hoping people will forget.

The passing of time has brought major changes in Hollywood's outlook. Where once the post-hearing reaction was fear and withdrawal, today's mood is more open and outspoken.

The buzz on this night of the screening, for instance, was also about Judge Robert H. Bork--a triumph of sorts for a good number in the Hollywood community who have openly opposed his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Only hours earlier in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-5 to reject the Supreme Court nominee President Reagan called "one of the most qualified . . . ever."

Forty years after the Oct. 20, 1947, opening of the hearings on Communist influence in Hollywood, the legacy of that era is uncertain. Directly under the surface of today's political openness, some see a lingering effect of the hearings. Some members of the younger, liberal generation wonder what impact their politics might have on their careers even though they have no direct memory of those times.

Actor Rob Lowe, who went to Capitol Hill to oppose Bork and is active in a variety of organizations, says: "You have to be careful. It's a very fine line. I don't know the answers. Jane Fonda paid a price. . . ."

Yet some Hollywood people remain politically engaged. A major film company executive, who heretofore had taken a very active role, attended a fund-raiser opposing the Bork nomination. "But I haven't come out in support of any candidate because I promised my partners I'd be in movies and not politics." He added that he didn't want to be quoted by name.

Forty years ago, the immediate fallout was that Hollywood removed itself from political activity. In the late '40s, the '50s and even into the '60s, actors and others in movies and television who were interviewed gave the standard disclaimer that they did not discuss politics. Now politics, on Hollywood's liberal, progressive side, is all over the lot--from the war in Nicaragua to issues involving America's homeless. This season it's Bork.

"There are certain issues like this, like Bork, that unite the Old Left and the new liberal left," said Barbara Corday, president of Columbia Pictures Television, just before the "Blacklist" documentary was screened. "How ridiculous for us to think Bork would never roll back these civil liberties that have been hard won over the years. Seeing this movie, particularly during Bork, will remind people things like this can happen."

Corday is one of the organizers of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, a political action committee formed three years ago by leading women in the entertainment industry to raise money for the 1984 Democratic presidential ticket--and as a reaction against President Reagan, who bragged that year that Hollywood was his town.

The Liberal List

Besides the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, which raised money for Norman Lear's People for the American Way anti-Bork ads, what remains on the entertainment community's progressive side?

Everything from Jane Fonda and Assemblyman Tom Hayden's 2-year-old Network--or a phone list of 500-or-so peers and brat-packers who meet every so often at the couple's Santa Monica home--to the even-newer Young Artists United, which seeks to raise artistic consciousness and to combat teen-pregnancy, teen-suicide and drugs. They say they want to find a better way to reach their younger brothers and sisters than Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No!" The organization claims that it is nonpolitical.

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