Elia *Contemptible Coward* Kazan is dead at 94

I still enjoy his films like On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, bit it’s too bad that an artistic genius was also a contemptible coward who destroyed other people’s careers, even though they were identified by him as fellow members of the Communist Party in the 30’s (which at the time was not illegal). I can still enjoy his work, as I can enjoy the work of Richard Wagner, one of the most rabid of anti-Semites, in spite of and not because of his deeply flawed character.

What say you? Love him? Hate him? Love his work in spite of hating him? Why do some of the least worthy seem to live the longest?

Ding dong, the snitch is dead.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Robin

Give me the talented bastard every time.

It’s seems to me there’s a certain amount of cowardice associated with the position “I, too, was a member of the Communist Party, but since it will now expose me to trouble, I require everyone who knows I was a member to shut up about it, or be labelled a contemptible coward.”

Actually, I saw a nice little documentary recently about Kazan and Arthur Miller. It’s clear that Kazan was under a lot of pressure and tried as hard as he could to avoid things. In addition, he worked to try to only name people the committee already knew about. He even discussed his planned testimony with some of the people he named, and they agreed to let him tell their names.

Those who knew Kazan tended to forgive him (eventually). Those who had no real stake in what he did tend to hold their grudges.

People are quick to decide what they’d do in a similar situation, when they aren’t in that situation. It much harder to decide when it’s real. Demonizing Kazan is the same type of mass predjudice that the HUAC was famous for.

I notice the NY Times has his obit on the front page (below the fold, of course), and didn’t even mention his controversial political adventures till well into the inside continuation.

Of course, demonizing one person cannot be “mass prejudice.” It’s not even prejudice, technically speaking.

But yeah, Kazan has been given a harsh ride by people looking at his actions through the simplifying lenses of time and distance. It’s not as if he was collaborating with secret police to have his friends “disappear.” The truth is more complex and nuanced than the actors who wouldn’t applaud him at the Oscars understand.

This article from the Reason.com archives gives a pretty comprehensive statement of the opposing point of view to the “witch hunt” version of history.

From his AP obit:

Years later, Kazan insisted he carried no guilt for what many of his colleagues saw as a betrayal during the reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “There’s a normal sadness about hurting people, but I’d rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot,” he said.

—Lovely.

The thing is, Hollywood has given us the the impression that the people named as communists were all railroaded. But the reality is, the people named as communists really were members of the communist party.

Should Elia Kazan have gone to jail for refusing to testify that people who were members of the communist party were members of the communist party? Yes, being a member of the communist party is not, was not, and should not be illegal. Neither should membership in the Klan. However, revealing that certain people were members of the party, or members of the Klan isn’t a betrayal as long AS IT IS TRUE.

Do members of odious groups like the communists, Klansmen, and christian identity goups have an expectation that their affiliation should remain private? That anyone who confirms that people were in the Klan is a rat?

Kazan was blacklisted for telling the truth. Should he have lied, or refused to testify? He didn’t harm anyone by revealing their past, he merely told the truth. If they suffered negative consequences when people found out the truth about them, how is that Kazan’s fault?

Whenever I think of Elia Kazan, and particularly On the Waterfront, I can’t help but compare him to another snitch director, Robert Rossen and his film The Hustler. I can’t help but see On the Waterfront as an attempt by Kazan to justify his actions instead for remorse or regret. Through The Hustler though Rossen seems to express his guilt over selling out others at the hearings.

The TIMES obit mentioned that the Communist members of the leftist Group Theater basically took over the company and tried to force all the members, like Kazan, to swear fealty to the Party. Kazan refused.

Ah, here’s the pertinent part:

"Just as he concluded the Group Theater was wrong about stagecraft, he decided it was wrong about politics. The Group Theater in the 1930’s contained a secret Communist cell, which Mr. Kazan joined for almost two years. But when the American Communist Party ordered the cell to take control of the Group, Mr. Kazan refused. At a special meeting, he was denounced as a “foreman” currying favor with the bosses, and was required to repent and submit to party authority. Rather than do so, he resigned from the party. He later wrote that the experience had taught him “all I needed to know about how the Communist Party of the United States worked.”

and earlier:

"Asked why he had identified others, he cited a “specious reasoning which has silenced many liberals” that ran like this: “You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack them or expose them, because if you do you are attacking the right to hold unpopular opinions.”

Maybe the experience of fleeing Ottoman rule (he was a Greek born in Turkey) made him intolerant of totalitarianism to thae degree that protecting people he’d worked with fifteen years before didn’t matter as much. I’m not saying I agree with it, but people should know his justification before coming to judgment.

Jesus! That was 50 years ago! Let’s move on!

Did Elia Kazan lie? No!

And quite honestly, if he did have a change of heart about the direction the U.S. Communist Party was taking and didn’t believe in it’s policies any more why should he sink his own career?

Should the Hollywood 8 have been blacklisted? No. They were completely harmless. Is Kazan a despicable man like Joe McCarthy or Roy Cohn. Absolutely not.

I don’t think anyone has said he lied. He ratted out his friends and associates under circumstances which he knew or should have known would be very detrimental to them and their careers. He participated in a proceeding he himself believed to have been unjust. He threw them to the wolves, and he did it to spare himself.

To say that people who continue to criticize him or deplore his actions do so because they “don’t understand” is just another example of the surpassingly annoying “I’m right and you’re stupid” reasoning.

I think it’s human nature to try to save yourself, and if that means sacrificing your friends – well, it’s easy for us to judge when we’ve never been put in that position. I think he made a choice, and I have no problem with the fact that he had to live with the consequences of that choice afterward. God knows the people he informed on did.

I hope he rests in peace. I hope they all rest in peace.

He had an amazing talent…

But I would have hated to be his friend.

Gentleman’s Agreement is one of the most powerful statements agains prejudice that I’ve ever seen, so I’m conflicted about Kazan. On the one hand, it’s irrelevant bullshit to point out that he told the truth; so did the neighbors who ratted out Ann Frank. McCarthy was man to whom it would have been more honorable to lie than to tell the truth.

Ultimately, I feel that Kazan’s legacy is tarnished by what can only be called cowardice (thanks, Eve, for the smoking gun).

Most modern electric appliances are more complex and nuanced than the actors who wouldn’t applaud him at the Oscars understand.

I imagine you are exaggerating for effect, but I think this is rather unfair. Really. I would say that the actors who didn’t applaud display more nuances and complexity than those who did. I’m not say that those who applauded have less complexity, but it’s easy to just applaud on cue, it usually takes some thought (wether or not you draw the right conclusions) not to applaud in a situation like the Oscars.

They may be unjust for not applauding, but I wouldn’t compare them to appliances.