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Hero or coward? Two views of Elia Kazan

The great filmmaker's testimony to HUAC and his opposition to communism constituted true heroism.

October 06, 2003|Roy M. Brewer

Although news coverage of director Elia Kazan's death acknowledged his immense talent as a filmmaker, it was almost universally tinged with disparaging references to his decision to cooperate with the congressional investigation of communism in 1952. "How could such a talented artist descend to such moral depths?" seemed to be the tone in many of the stories.

To the contrary, Kazan's actions of breaking ranks and repudiating the Communist Party weren't shameful. Instead, they ought to stand as an example of heroism of the highest order.

During the 1950s, Kazan and I found common cause in opposing the efforts Stalinists were making to influence the film industry. We were liberal Democrats who came to see that communism was not, as many good people first thought, championing the civil liberties we held dear or acting for the good of the American people. Instead, it had subjugated a great portion of humanity. The American Communist Party was taking orders from the Kremlin and acting as a Soviet agent here in the United States.

Kazan joined the party during the Great Depression because it cleverly painted itself as the answer to America's ills. "It seemed to me at that time that the party had at heart the cause of the poor and unemployed people whom I saw on the streets about me," Kazan said. As anyone who lived during those desperate years can report, we were looking everywhere for answers.

While virtually all of the stories memorializing Kazan remarked on his willingness to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, none explained what made him so passionate about rejecting his erstwhile comrades. When Kazan saw that the communists wanted to capture the Group Theatre in New York and turn it into a party mouthpiece as well as get a foothold in the Actors Equity Assn., he began to have second thoughts about his commitment to such an organization.

"I was instructed by the Communist unit to demand that the Group Theatre be run 'democratically,' " Kazan revealed in 1952. This was also a common refrain we heard in Hollywood during the 1940s and '50s. But the party wasn't interested in democracy; its officials wanted control.

"They had no chance of controlling the directors, but they thought that if authority went to the actors, they would have a chance to dominate through the usual tricks of behind-the-scenes caucuses, bloc voting, and confusion of issues," Kazan said.

To some, the resentment often reserved for Kazan is difficult to understand.

But the reason for such opprobrium isn't just because he "named names." It's because Kazan did something only ex-communists could do: throw down the gauntlet and tell from their own experiences what the aims of the party really were.

Kazan always said it was useful that certain people had had experiences with the communists, for if they hadn't, we wouldn't know their tactics and strategy.

"Firsthand experiences of dictatorship and thought control left me with an abiding hatred of these," Kazan explained. "It also left me with the passionate conviction that we must never let the communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries."

Critics who assert that Kazan furthered the so-called blacklist by his actions also don't tell the full truth. Actually, no such single, secret document ever existed. But the best antidote to our industry's public ban on communism was given by Kazan himself: "I believe we should all of us name all of us, establish the truth of what went on.... This thing would be off our back." Regrettably, many of his old colleagues refused this solution.

Elia Kazan should rightly be celebrated, not only for his amazing artistic contributions to the canon of American culture but also because he had the courage to stand up in the most public way for "free speech, free press, the rights of labor, racial equality and, above all, individual rights" -- principles that go against what communism stands for.

Roy M. Brewer was the international representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees from 1945 to 1953 and a founder of the Motion Picture Industry Council. He lives in Los Angeles.

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