Oscar Politics: Kazan’s HUAC testimony–and Honorary Oscar

HUAC testimony
Kazan testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) in 1952, during the postwar era that journalist Michael Mills, calls “arguably the most controversial period in Hollywood history.” When Kazan was in his mid-20s, during the Depression years 1934 to 1936, he had been a member of the American Communist Party in New York, for a year and a half.

In April 1952, the Committee called on Kazan, under oath, to identify Communists from that period 16 years earlier. Kazan initially refused to provide names, but eventually named eight former Group Theatre members who he said had been Communists: Clifford Odets, J. Edward Bromberg, Lewis Leverett, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Tony Kraber, Ted Wellman, and Paula Miller, who later married Lee Strasberg. He testified that Odets quit the party at the same time that he did.[52] Kazan claimed that all the persons named were already known to HUAC, although this has been contested.[5][53][54] Kazan recounts how he received a letter detailing how his naming of Art Smith (actor) damaged the actor’s career.[55] Kazan’s naming names cost him many friends within the film industry, including playwright Arthur Miller, although Kazan notes the two did work together again.[56]

Kazan would later write in his autobiography of the “warrior pleasure at withstanding his ‘enemies.” When Kazan received an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, the audience was noticeably divided in their reaction, with some including Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Ian McKellen, and Amy Madigan refusing to applaud, and many others, such as actors Kathy Bates, Meryl Streep, Karl Malden, and Warren Beatty, and producer George Stevens, Jr. standing and applauding. Stevens speculates on why he, Beatty, and many others in the audience chose to stand and applaud:

I never discussed it with Warren, but I believe we were both standing for the same reason—out of regard for the creativity, the stamina and the many fierce battles and lonely nights that had gone into the man’s twenty motion pictures.

Kenneth Turan agreed, writing “The only criterion for an award like this is the work”. Kazan was already “denied accolades” from the American Film Institute, and other film critics’ associations. According to Mills, “It’s time for the Academy to recognize this genius,” adding that “We applauded when the great Chaplin finally had his hour.”

In later interviews, Kazan explained some of the early events that made him decide to become a friendly witness, most notably in relation to the Group Theatre, which he called his first “family,” and the “best thing professionally” that ever happened to him:

The Group Theatre said that we shouldn’t be committed to any fixed political program set by other people outside the organization. I was behaving treacherously to the Group when I met downtown at CP [Communist Party] headquarters, to decide among the Communists what we should do in the Group, and then come back and present a united front, pretending we had not been in caucus …

I was tried by the Party and that was one of the reasons I became so embittered later. The trial was on the issue of my refusal to follow instructions, that we should strike in the Group Theatre, and insist that the membership have control of its organization. I said it was an artistic organization, and I backed up Clurman and Strasberg who were not Communists … The trial left an indelible impression on me … Everybody else voted against me and they stigmatized me and condemned my acts and attitude. They were asking for confession and self-humbling. I went home that night and told my wife “I am resigning.” But for years after I resigned, I was still faithful to their way of thinking. I still believed in it. But not in the American Communists. I used to make a difference and think: “These people here are damned fools but in Russia they have got the real thing,” until I learned about the Hitler-Stalin pact, and gave up on the USSR.[60]
Mills notes that prior to becoming a “friendly witness,” Kazan discussed the issues with Miller:

To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else … I hate the Communists and have for many years, and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this.

Miller put his arm around Kazan and retorted, “Don’t worry about what I’ll think. Whatever you do is okay with me, because I know that your heart is in the right place.”

In his memoirs, Kazan writes that his testimony meant that “the big shot had become the outsider.” He also notes that it strengthened his friendship with another outsider, Tennessee Williams, with whom he collaborated on numerous plays and films. He called Williams “the most loyal and understanding friend I had through those black months.”