Hollywood legends Abraham Polonsky and David Raksin both teach at USC; Raksin in the School of Music, Polonsky in the School of Cinema-Television. They've known each other for 50 years, but don't expect to see them strolling together on campus. If Polonsky spots Raksin, he walks the other way. In faculty meetings, they don't speak. When asked about each other, they respond with acerbic dismissals.
The two men, now in their mid-80s but energetic and opinionated, met when they were rising stars in Hollywood. Polonsky had just won an Oscar nomination for writing the boxing drama "Body and Soul"; Raksin had been nominated for his score for "Forever Amber," a romance set in the court of Charles II. One night Raksin had Polonsky to dinner at his farm in Northridge. Within months, he would be scoring Polonsky's "Force of Evil," a brooding drama about the numbers racket in New York that Martin Scorsese has called "a classic of the American cinema."
The rift between the two men derives from one of the most traumatic events in movieland history--the Hollywood blacklist. Fifty years ago this week, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began a series of clamorous hearings in Washington that sparked a campaign of anti-communist hysteria that swept through Hollywood, then the State Department, labor unions, academia and the armed forces.
It was the age of loyalty oaths and McCarthyism, a chilling time in which free speech and the 1st Amendment were tossed out the window. Lives and careers were also ruined in other fields, but it was Hollywood, the incubator for America's popular culture, that became center ring for the Red Scare circus.
HUAC began its hearings on Oct. 20, 1947, with its rotund committee chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, perched on two telephone books and a red silk cushion so he could be seen by the swarm of newsreel and TV cameras. Two future presidents were on hand, Richard Nixon as a member of HUAC, Ronald Reagan as a friendly witness. Nineteen unfriendly witnesses were subpoenaed, mostly suspected communist writers and directors. Ten eventually testified, refusing to discuss their party affiliations or name party members. Known as the Hollywood 10, they were found in contempt of Congress, fired from their jobs and eventually sent to prison.
In 1951, when HUAC held a new round of hearings, Polonsky and Raksin were called to testify. Polonsky refused to answer questions and was blacklisted for 18 years, not directing another movie until 1969, when he made "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here." Raksin admitted to having been a communist, reluctantly named 13 names and was able to return to work.
Polonsky says that Raksin visited him before the hearings and asked permission to give his name to the committee. Polonsky refused. He says that on his way out, Raksin said, "If you ever need any money, just ask for it."
Raksin insists that the incident never happened and that there is no evidence that he ever informed on Polonsky. Nevertheless, the two men haven't spoken since the hearings. "We see each other at USC, but we never talk," says Polonsky. "If you want to be a friend of mine, you can't be a stool pigeon. He's never apologized, in public or to me personally."
Raksin says he doesn't recall running into Polonsky at USC. "But if I did, I'd walk the other way. I have no respect for him whatsoever. What I did was a major sin. I've never forgiven myself for not doing what morally I should have done. But it's good that Abe's smart enough not to talk to me, because if he did, I'd tell him he's a miserable SOB whose achievements don't measure up to his own high opinion of himself."
Raksin says he is amazed that the memories of his informing have not faded as the years have passed. He recalls being seated at a recent dinner party near a man he knew quite well. "After he'd had a drink or two, I heard him stage-whisper to his wife, 'But he was an informer, wasn't he?' It's one of the reasons I look forward to going to hell, so I can tell people like him what I think about them."
Fifty years after the blacklist's beginnings, the scars are still visible; wounds that should have healed are still fresh. Forgiveness is not in the air.
As recently as January, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. voted against giving its life achievement award to Elia Kazan, citing his HUAC testimony, in which he informed on eight friends who had been fellow members of the Communist Party. Kazan was arguably the greatest director of his time, the man who made stars of Marlon Brando ("Streetcar Named Desire"), James Dean ("East of Eden") and Warren Beatty ("Splendor in the Grass"). Rather than honor Kazan, the critics association gave its award to Roger Corman, director of "Attack of the Crab Monsters" and "The Wild Angels." Several years before, the American Film Institute refused Kazan its prestigious life achievement award for similar reasons, his most vocal adversary being producer Gale Anne Hurd, who was not yet born when the blacklist began.