You Must Remember This

“I’m Glad What I Done!”

Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront, and the blacklist.

This photo dated 21 March 1999 shows US director Elia Kazan holding up his Honorary Oscar during the 71st Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.
Elia Kazan holds up his honorary Oscar during the Academy Awards on March 21, 1999, in Los Angeles.

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, is back for a new season. When each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 13 below, on Elia Kazan and the blacklist, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

I first became aware of the Hollywood blacklist when I was in college, not because I was taught anything about it—I was not—but because in 1999, the academy decided to give an honorary Oscar to director Elia Kazan. Kazan’s creative accomplishments included giving Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, and Eva Marie Saint their first significant roles, in films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Splendor in the Grass, films that defined the look, feel, and intellectual sensibility of American movies of the 1950s more than those made by any other individual director. But in the eyes of many, Kazan’s filmmaking achievements were overshadowed by the fact that he had gone before House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 and named the names of almost a dozen people, eight of whom had been both communists and members of the Group Theater. Kazan knew this because for a short time in the 1930s he himself had been both a communist and a member of the Group Theater.

In the runup to the 1999 Oscar ceremony, the mainstream entertainment media was full of stories about Kazan, his role in the blacklist, and the pretty much unparalleled run of great films that followed his testimony. The amount of press increased after Bernard Gordon, a blacklisted screenwriter, put out a call for Oscar-night attendees to sit on their hands when Kazan was presented with the award. Anticipation swelled as the date approached: Who would, and who would not, clap for Elia Kazan?

The viciousness of those who did not forgive Kazan was more powerful than the not-unreasonable rationalizations of the people who embraced him. Take, for instance, this quote from blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky: “If I was on a desert island with him, I’d be afraid to fall asleep because he’d probably eat me for breakfast.” It seems clear to me that the source of this kind of animosity stems from the fact that after Kazan named names, he thrived. In fact, it’s hard to name another person who made such a high percentage of his great, well-remembered films after he named names. While other people were forced to leave the country to work, or to ply their trades under assumed names and for extremely reduced rates, Kazan was triumphing. And perhaps most galling to some, Kazan apparently took his cooperation with the committee as inspiration, infusing the themes of betrayal, informing, and even the conflict between leftist idealism and rugged individualism into a string of movies made immediately following Kazan’s testimony. One of these movies, the multiple-Oscar-winning On the Waterfront, is seen as a classic by most people, and if not necessarily uncomplicated, then far from toxic. But the film has also been read as a defense of the informer, or even worse, a glamorization—especially in a decade in which Americans were instructed to look at media images for behavioral cues like they never had been before.

Kazan spent most of 1951 in Mexico making Viva Zapata! and was during that time uninvolved in the panic that was rippling through the Hollywood community. But even as Kazan was piling up one professional triumph after another, he was also making the dishonor rolls of organizations such as the American Legion. The Catholic Legion of Decency had condemned A Streetcar Named Desire, and in what Kazan believed was a related event, finally, in December 1951, Kazan got his subpoena.

When Kazan first appeared before HUAC on Jan. 14, 1952, it was a closed-door interrogation. He decided before he went that he’d be completely transparent about his own relation to the party but would not discuss anyone else. When asked if the Group Theater was a communist front, Kazan said it had not been, and he noted that its three founders were not communists. They asked him if John Garfield was a communist, and Kazan said he was not. They asked about Clifford Odets; Kazan internally rolled his eyes that the committee was so star-crazy but out loud said that he would not answer questions about Odets. The committee member asked Kazan if he knew the penalties for being found in contempt of HUAC. He knew. Another congressman asked Kazan to name members of the Group Theater who had also been members of the party. He said he would not and specifically cited the damage it would do to their careers as the reason why not. Still, he left the session convinced that committee already had all of the names it needed. He called it “a degradation ceremony, in which the acts of informing were more important than the information conveyed.”

On his way out, Kazan was informed that the committee would probably want to call him back for public testimony. Spyros Skouras, the head of Fox, called Kazan into his office and asked him to voluntarily testify again before HUAC, this time naming names. Skouras indicated that if Kazan didn’t successfully clear his name, Fox would get out of business with him, and who would get into business with him? Then HUAC released to the Hollywood Reporter details of Kazan’s supposedly secret testimony. Then studio head Darryl Zanuck told Kazan to name names. And A Streetcar Named Desire, tipped to win all the major Oscars, lost in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Kazan believed that the industry was already turned against him and that his days at work in Hollywood were over.

As he began leaning toward informing, Kazan determined that the deciding factor would be Odets. If he was going to name communists in the Group Theater, he’d have to name Odets, who he still considered a close friend. He took Odets out to dinner and laid it on the line: not only did Kazan no longer believe in communism, but he associated keeping secrets—even from an invasive, probably unconstitutional congressional committee—with the worst of communism. That night, Odets and Kazan agreed that they were in the same boat. They would both name the same names.

In approaching Congress and asking for a public hearing, and at that hearing naming 11 names (including Odets, Phoebe Brand, and Paula Strasberg), Kazan probably saved himself from going to jail in contempt of Congress, and more certainly saved his ability to work in Hollywood, although his salary at Fox was much reduced due to him being a “controversial figure.” Among a large number of his friends, he wrecked his reputation. In an effort to mitigate the damage, he says, Kazan published a full-page ad in the New York Times, trying to explain why he had done what he had done. According to Kazan, this statement was actually written by his wife, Molly. It explained Kazan’s brief history as a member of the party; his current distaste for anything communistic; and forcefully argued that Americans, including liberals, had the obligation to answer Congress’ questions and generally share any information they had about subversion.

If Kazan had named names just to save his own career, he would not have been easily forgiven, but he would not have been the only one. But in the statement, he positioned the act of informing as the right thing to do.

The day after the Times statement ran, Kazan wrote this in his diary: “Stayed home all day. Miserably depressed. Can’t get my mind off it. I know I’ve done something wrong. Still convinced I would have done something worse if I’d done the opposite.” Hiding at home made him a captive audience for the many strangers who called him on the phone to yell at him. Kazan felt he had become “an easy mark for every self-righteous prick in New York and Hollywood.” His secretary at the Actors Studio abruptly quit, and he was snubbed or ghosted by friends in the New York theater community, including Arthur Miller. Enough people were plainly against Kazan that he began to become paranoid that everyone was against him. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to be forgiven by his detractors or if he wanted to fight them.

In an effort to fill what he called the hole in his professional life left by Miller, Kazan reached out to Budd Schulberg, who had testified before HUAC and named names in 1951. They began working on Schulberg’s screenplay about a real dockworkers struggle that had gone down in Hoboken, New Jersey. In the course of the extensive research process that he and Schulberg committed to, they met a guy named Tony Mike, a longshoreman who had stopped cooperating with the mob that ran things on the docks and was unable to find work. He then was subpoenaed by a Waterfront Crime Commission, and instead of hewing to the code of silence of the streets, he told to commission everything he knew—and named everyone he knew. Everyone had told him that he had to keep his mouth shut or he’d be dead. But he didn’t keep his mouth shut, and he wasn’t dead—he was sitting across the table from Kazan, eating spaghetti.

A light bulb went off in Kazan’s head. What if you could make a movie that was pro-worker, pro-union, but anti-corruption, anti-conspiracy—a bold statement of anti-communist liberalism?

On the Waterfront stars Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer who works for the gangsters controlling the local longshoreman’s union. Over the course of the movie, he becomes disillusioned with them and decides to testify about their activities to the Waterfront Crime Commission, naming names. So the then-most intriguing actor in the world became a stand-in for Tony Mike, and thus for Kazan himself. Of course, the stakes of Malloy’s conflict are much higher than those Kazan faced. Before Terry names names, they ruin his boxing career; involve him in a murder; make him work as a spy; kill another witness in front of him; send his own brother to deliver him to be murdered; and when that fails, kill his brother instead.

The ethical shades of gray of his own decision to inform were totally smoothed out in Malloy’s story: In addition to all of the offenses committed against him personally, the men he will eventually inform against are also responsible for the death of Eva Marie Saint’s character’s brother. In telling the truth, Malloy not only stands up to the rotten system for his own sake, but in doing it for the sake of a beautiful blonde’s quest for justice for her brother, his act of informing is posited as the act of a romantic hero.

Schulberg never acknowledged that his script was about his and Kazan’s personal experiences as informers, and Kazan, too, spent years trying to move the conversation away from that area of inquiry, insisting that the movie was about something bigger than himself. But in his autobiography, Kazan finally admitted that On the Waterfront was autobiographical. “I did see Tony Mike’s story as my own, and that connection did lend the tone of irrefutable anger to the scenes I photographed and to my work with actors.”

He pointed to the scene at the end of the film in which Malloy is confronted by one of the people he informed on:

“That was me,” Kazan later wrote, “That was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had. … On the Waterfront was my own story; every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go fuck themselves.”

To hear the rest of the story, listen to You Must Remember This Episode 13, “On the Waterfront: Elia Kazan.”