Book Says Kazan Had Scant Regret Over Testimony
by Bernard Weinraub
The New York Times March 4, 1999 page E1
Hollywood-- Throughout the emotional controversy over the decision to give
him an honorary Academy Award, Elia Kazan has remained silent in the face of
critics who still condemn him for naming names during the congressional hunt for
communists in the entertainment industry in 1952.
But in a series of remarkably candid interviews recorded 25 years ago and
first being made public now, Kazan said that he regretted "the human cost" of
his decision to inform on eight old friends from the Communist Party. But at the
same time he said he named them out of a deep personal conviction that a genuine
communist conspiracy was threatening the nation.
"Anybody who informs on other people is doing something disturbing and even
disgusting," he said. "It doesn't sit well on anybody's conscience. But at the
same time I felt a certain way, and I think it has to be judged from the
perspective of 1952."
Kazan, who is 89 and in uncertain health, made his comments in a series of
remarkably candid and detailed interviews about his films that were conducted in
1973 and '74 by Jeff Young, a writer and former film studio executive. For a
number of reasons, Young left the tapes in his garage for years, sharing them
only with a few friends. Newmarket Press, whose books are distributed by Random
House, will publish the interviews in April, in a book titled, "Kazan: The
Master Discusses His Films." The publication decision was made months before the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted without dissent to give Kazan,
one of America's greatest film and theater directors, the honorary Oscar.
That decision to give him the honorary award March 21 has touched off a
debate of unusual heat in Hollywood, led mostly by formerly blacklisted writers
and their family members who say that Kazan should not be forgiven by the motion
picture industry for his testimony on April 10, 1952. On that day he appeared
before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was doggedly looking
for communist influence in Hollywood. Kazan informed on eight friends from the
Group Theater who had once belonged to the Communist Party with him. Although
other entertainment figures including Lee J. Cobb, Burl Ives and
Jerome Robbins also named names, they were not criticized as fiercely as
In the interviews Kazan seemed deeply torn about his decision: alternately
defiant and saying how much he loathed the Communist Party and contrite about
the personal cost. At one point he even said, "Maybe I did wrong -- probably
Although Kazan discussed the blacklisting issue in his autobiography, "A
Life," published by Knopf in 1988, he had never gone into such detail about the
motives, the personal uncertainties and the aftermath of his decision. Young,
who sought to write a scholarly book about Kazan's work, was intimately aware of
the blacklist: his uncle Ned Young was a blacklisted writer whose career was
"I told him my uncle was very dear to me, that I was opposed to the position
he had taken and asked him if this would be a problem," recalled Young, who said
he strongly believed that Kazan should be given the Oscar because of the value
of his work. "He was very open. He said, 'Ask me anything you want."'
Young's book offers details about Kazan's casting decisions, his directorial
technique and his personal views on all of his films, including classics like
"Gentleman's Agreement" and "On the Waterfront," for which he won Oscars, as
well as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "A Face in the Crowd" and "Viva Zapata."
But what makes the book especially timely is Kazan's discussion of the link
between some of his films and his Congressional testimony, and the fact that his
decision to name names was never very far from his artistic consciousness.
In his most acclaimed film, "On the Waterfront," the
Marlon Brando character, a boxer turned longshoreman, is branded a stool
pigeon after testifying against the local mob boss. But
emerges victorious. Less than 20 years later in an unsuccessful Kazan film, "The
Visitors," a man also testifies against former friends, but the movie ends on a
note of despair.
Recounting his decision to testify, Kazan seemed at times unapologetic and at
other times sorrowful. But the overriding theme of the interviews is his
loathing for communism, which he experienced as a member of the Communist Party
while in New York in the 1930s. He called communism "a slavery of the mind."
"I used to know a lot about the Communist Party," he said. "I used to go
downtown to 12th Street where their headquarters were, get orders and go back
like a good ritualized lefty and try to carry them out. Our orders were to try
to take over the Group Theater. It was child's play in one sense, but in another
it wasn't. We were doing something terrible."
"I thought, nobody knows the truth about any of this," said Kazan, recalling
his decision to reveal names before the House committee. "The party was getting
all kinds of money out of Hollywood and out of the theater. Communists were in a
lot of organizations -- unseen, unrecognized, unbeknownst to anybody. I thought,
if I don't talk, nobody will know about it."
Kazan said it was "disturbing" to inform on his colleagues. But he added:
"When I thought about what it meant symbolically, about what would have happened
if I'd lied and said I had no idea what was going on, it would have been worse.
So I said, I'm not going to do that."
Kazan said that the eight friends he named, including playwright Clifford
Odets and Paula Strasberg, wife of Lee Strasberg, were already known to the
committee. "Everybody knew who they were, so it wasn't a big deal," he said.
"They of course suffered some for it."
He added, "I also did something nobody ever mentions. I told three of them
beforehand. I told Clifford Odets. He said he was going to do the same thing. I
told Mrs. Strasberg, and I told another guy," who replied with an angry curse.
During his interviews, Kazan vigorously denied that he named names to gain
favor with studio moguls, as has been charged. "As far as doing it for money,
it's fantastic, really, because in the first place they didn't threaten me, and
in the second place they couldn't have, and in the third place I didn't need a
job in Hollywood," he said. "The blacklist did not extend to Broadway, and I was
at the top of my theater career. All my testifying did was lose me certain
"I knew that I'd lose Arthur Miller's plays. I knew a lot of guys would turn
against me, which they did. I've lived through that. In some ways the experience
made a man out of me because it changed me from being a guy who was everybody's
darling and always living therefore for people's approval, to a fellow who could
stand on his own. It toughened me up a lot. I'm not afraid of anybody. They
avoided my eye. I didn't avoid theirs."
But then he added, "I have some regrets about the human cost of it. One of
the guys I told on I really liked a lot."
Young, the author, said the long delay in publication was, at first, the
result of an agreement he had made with Kazan that the book would not be
published until the director completed his autobiography. Young said that Kazan
had expected the autobiography to be published in the mid-1970s. But it took
years for Kazan to complete his own book, published in 1988.
Over the years, Young said, he periodically showed the Kazan transcripts to
friends who were directing their first films because of the instructive
information about moviemaking. It was at the behest of his friends, he said,
that he began seeking a publisher for his book. Young, who lives in Los Angeles,
said he had spoken casually to Kazan, the last time in December. Kazan lives in
During the interviews, Kazan discussed in detail the weight that Communism
held over him even after he quit the party. He mentioned one of his films, "Man
on a Tightrope" (1953), from a script by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a real
event about a circus troupe that escaped communist Czechoslovakia.
"Despite the fact that I had gone through a violent break with the party, I
still found myself thinking like a communist," said Kazan. He felt "great
resistance to making" that film "because it was against the Soviet Union," he
said. "And I discovered that I still unconsciously thought of the Soviet Union
as a progressive political phenomenon. I finally said to myself, if you've got
the courage, you should make this picture."
Through that film, "I partly broke myself of my belief in Soviet communism,"
he said. "It's hard for anybody who wasn't a communist to understand how strong
a hold those beliefs had on you. Your emotional commitment keeps overriding
everything your intellect and common sense tell you. It's akin to a kind of
"After all, Stalin was as bad as Hitler, maybe worse. Hitler killed 6 million
Jews. Stalin killed the same number of people, maybe more. He was a monster, but
your mind, once you've been a committed communist, doesn't want to face that
fact. So in a way the film was an important purgative thing for me to do."
At another point, Kazan discusses his identification with the
character in "On the Waterfront" who is snubbed after he testifies.
"A lot of that kind of thing happened to me after I testified before HUAC,"
said Kazan. "I was snubbed. People I knew well would look at me but not talk.
People looked down on me. They couldn't accept the fact that correctly or
incorrectly it was something I did out of principle."
"Maybe nobody agreed with me, but I thought that was the right thing to do,"
Kazan said. "Maybe I did wrong, probably did. But I really didn't do it for any
reason other than that I thought it was right."
© 1999 The New York Times