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Hollywood’s unexpected embrace of Elia Kazan.

A couple of weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would award an honorary Oscar to the director Elia Kazan. What was surprising about this news was the amount of controversy it generated: virtually none. For decades, Kazan has been reviled as the most notorious of those who “named names”–identified Communists working in Hollywood–before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In recent years, both the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association have turned Kazan down for honors that no one disputes are merited by his films, which include East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire. But this time the vote in Kazan’s favor was unanimous. Reporters looking to reprise the old conflict had a hard time finding anyone who still bears him a grudge.

Why have Kazan’s enemies suddenly dropped their complaint? Several articles on the subject have ritually invoked “the end of the Cold War” as an explanation. But it’s not clear why the collapse of Communism should smooth matters over. Many wars end in a reckoning rather than in forgiveness and forgetting. A more plausible explanation is probably that Kazan, now 89, has outlived most of his antagonists and that the fury of the rest has lost its edge. It may indeed be time to excuse Kazan for what he did in 1952. But if so, it shouldn’t happen because no one can be troubled to remember or sort out the morality of his actions.

A synopsis: In the 1930s, Kazan got his start in the Group Theater, a left-wing theater troupe that was home to the legendary directors Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, as well as the radical playwright Clifford Odets. For a year and a half, Kazan was a member of a Communist “cell” inside the Group. He quit after members of the cell received orders to take over the theater and turn it into an “actors collective.” Despite his resignation/expulsion, Kazan remained sympathetic to the Soviet Union into the 1940s, when he began directing Hollywood films. But that sympathy was long gone by 1952, when he was called before HUAC.

The first time he testified, in January, Kazan took a principled position: He would discuss his own involvement in the party but not the others who had been in it with him. So the committee called him back to Washington and put him under oath. Under pressure from the FBI and the movie studios, he reversed himself. Since the committee already knew the names it wanted, “naming names” was a loyalty test and humiliation ritual, not part of a real investigation. There is a chilling, Darkness at Noon quality to Kazan’s questioning by Frank Tavenner Jr., a lawyer for the committee:

Tavenner: I understand that you have voluntarily requested the committee to reopen your hearing, and give you an opportunity to explain fully the participation of others known to you at the time to have been members of the Communist Party.

Kazan: That is correct. I want to make a full and complete statement. I want to tell you everything I know about it.

Kazan’s prepared statement offered up the names of the eight others who were members of his Group Theater cell. The names included Odets, who subsequently named names himself, and several actors since forgotten, in part, perhaps, because they were blacklisted.

It was not just his testimony that made Kazan into a Linda Tripp figure of his time. After all, Odets gave HUAC the same names, as did Lewis Leverett, another Group Theater alumnus whom Kazan named. But many others who named names did so under ostensible protest, or later castigated themselves publicly for crawling before the committee. Kazan embraced his inquisitors. Soon after he testified, he took out an ad in the New York Times to defend himself. “I believe that any American who is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known, either to the public or to the appropriate Government agency,” he wrote. “Whatever hysteria exists–and there is some, particularly in Hollywood–is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy. Hard and exact facts will cool it.” Kazan made his case more memorably in the 1954 film On the Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando plays a longshoreman faced with a choice about whether to “rat” on the murderous and corrupt leadership of his union. His decision to testify is portrayed as an act of courageous whistle-blowing, not betrayal or cowardice.

For years afterward, Kazan kept his silence about the episode. “I don’t think there’s anything in my life toward which I have more ambivalence, because, obviously, there’s something disgusting about giving other people’s names,” he acknowledged in a 1971 interview. But he also refused to apologize and defended his choice. In his fascinating autobiography, published in 1988, Kazan expresses a range of justifications. He wasn’t telling the committee any names it didn’t know; as an immigrant, he was eager to demonstrate his patriotism; he was faced with a choice of two evils.

Did he do wrong? The first question to ask is what the right thing would have been. Kazan might have stood by his original policy, asserting that while he hated Communism, he would not assist in a violation of civil liberties. Kazan’s soon to be ex-friend Arthur Miller did something like this four years later when he refused to answer questions. Miller claimed the First Amendment (right to freedom of speech and association) rather than taking the Fifth (right against self-incrimination). This was the more principled stand, since taking the Fifth implied agreeing that simply being a Communist was a crime. Also, there is no Fifth Amendment right against incriminating others. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court had never ruled that the First Amendment could be used in this way.

With McCarthyism much weaker by 1956, Miller avoided prison and continued to have his plays produced. But for Kazan to take Miller’s stance before HUAC in 1952 would almost certainly have meant a contempt citation and time in jail. Kazan would not have made films for many years, if ever again. For a great artist like Kazan to immolate himself to protect the rights of lesser artists, or more precisely in a quixotic attempt to protect those rights, would have been heroic. But failing to be a hero did not make him a villain. The villains were the blacklisters. Kazan was one of their victims.

But failing to be a villain doesn’t make him a hero, either. Where Kazan did go wrong was in casting an evil he couldn’t avoid as a good. His statement that the “facts” about Communism were the cure for anti-Communist hysteria was disingenuous. The real cure for anti-Communist hysteria was a courage that Kazan, like most people, did not possess. But this bit of gratuitous groveling pales next to the sins of others–both those who remained Stalinists into the 1950s and those who did not just acquiesce in, but advocated, McCarthyism. For the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which actually enforced the blacklist, to reject Kazan for his comparatively minor offenses would have been the sheerest hypocrisy.

Some historians have argued recently that new information makes all forms of American anti-Communism, including even McCarthyism, look better in hindsight. They contend that the so-called Venona intercepts, a few of which have been released, show definitively not only that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were spies but also that there was far more Soviet string-pulling behind American Communism than anyone ever knew. But none of these revelations improves the case that Hollywood Communism was a significant threat to democracy. Murray Kempton got this story right in 1955, in his book Part of Our Time. The Hollywood Communists, most of them screenwriters, were overpaid hacks, not dangerous revolutionaries. The examples of “propaganda” they slipped into scripts are few and laughable. The high point of Kempton’s essay on the Hollywood 10 is a list of the folderol the blacklisted screenwriters actually produced–with excerpts from the glowing reviews they received from the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Elia Kazan wasn’t a hack, and he didn’t try to be a hero. He deserves an Oscar as much as anyone living–for best director, not for best human being. Who in the movie industry qualifies for that second one anyway?