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The Blacklist's gray tones

Seeking a balanced view of an infamous era, a documentary studies its toll on the bonds between Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller.

August 31, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Playwright Arthur Miller and director Elia Kazan were the best of friends -- even regarded as brothers -- and brilliant collaborators during the 1940s and early '50s. They were bright, liberal, and both were affected ideologically by the Depression in the 1930s.

Kazan directed two of Miller's seminal works on Broadway in the 1940s, "All My Sons" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Death of a Salesman." They even shared the same girlfriend at the same time in the early 1950s -- Marilyn Monroe. And Miller and Kazan had high hopes for a film project called "The Hook," about corruption on the docks.

But in 1952 Kazan, a former communist, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named writers, actors and directors he believed had been communists. As a result of his and other people's testimony, lives and careers were destroyed. So was Kazan and Miller's friendship. Miller didn't talk to Kazan for a decade until they reunited for Miller's play "After the Fall" in 1964. And though they remained cordial over the ensuing years, the closeness the two enjoyed before HUAC never returned.

A new PBS "American Masters" documentary, "Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin," premiering Wednesday, explores their personal and artistic relationship in the context of examining a dark moment in the nation's history. Besides clips and excerpts from Miller's HUAC allegory, "The Crucible," there are interviews with historians, scholars and blacklisted performers Lee Grant and Madeleine Sherwood and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein.

Filmmaker Michael Epstein -- whose credits include the 1995 documentary "The Battle Over 'Citizen Kane' " -- says he wants to challenge viewers with the documentary and to make the point that the blacklist isn't as black or white as often as it is portrayed in documentaries, movies and books. The documentary doesn't break much new ground, but by narrowing the scope to the two men, it aims to bring a fresh perspective to an unceasing argument.

"The focus of the film was to be like a Miller play," he says. "There are a lot of complicated characters and conflicted emotions. The film doesn't tell you what you should think. I suspect people who come to the film disliking Kazan will have their position affirmed." And those who feel Kazan was a hero? He says they'll probably come away still feeling he was. "I love to make people uncomfortable and question things. I spent a lot of time talking to people who don't talk to each other as a matter of principle."

Before he began the documentary, Epstein says he had "few if any preconceived notions other than the blacklist was unconstitutional and to my mind un-American."

Besides the blacklist, Epstein says, "None Without Sin" is also about friendship. "It is a film about art and how these two men communicated through their art, and because of their breakup, they both suffered greatly for it."

Even 50 years after the fact, the Hollywood blacklist remains an unhealable wound, and Kazan's testimony still hits a raw nerve in Hollywood circles. Take the vocal, angry protests when Kazan, then a frail 89-year-old, received an Oscar in 1999 for lifetime achievement. There were pickets outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and during the ceremony some members of the audience, including Nick Nolte, not only refused to give Kazan a standing ovation, they didn't even applaud.

Epstein acknowledges that resentments were as raw in 1999 as they were nearly a half-century earlier. "I think it enrages people not so much that he never said 'I'm sorry,' " Epstein says of Kazan. "But he never said that the blacklist shouldn't have happened."

Christopher Trumbo, the screenwriter son of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, says his father had contempt for Kazan's action. "It has nothing to do with Kazan's ability to direct a motion picture," Trumbo says. "Those who obviously stood firm and didn't testify and who in fact defied the committee held a moral ground. [His father] considered it a patriotic act, an act that is in defense of the Constitution."

Kazan did win the best director Oscar for 1954's "On the Waterfront," a drama about a man who ends up testifying against a mob boss on the New Jersey docks. Ironically, the film was very close in theme to "The Hook," which Kazan and Miller wanted to do. "On the Waterfront," penned by Budd Schulberg, who also testified at HUAC, is seen as a thinly veiled explanation of their cooperation with HUAC.

"I don't know how many times I have read apologies for Schulberg and Kazan saying that this movie shows what a hero you were if you turned in people," Grant says. "That is not what it was about at all. The hero turns in a gangster!"

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