"Miller, Kazan, and the Blacklast: None Without Sin"


posted to www.marxmail.org on September 4, 2003


Last Night "American Masters" (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/) aired a documentary on the political, personal and artistic relationships between Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan that was a rare fulfillment of the promise of a Public Broadcasting System that remains marred by cheesy pop music concerts, inside-the-beltway current affairs and costume dramas imported from Great Britain.


Although like most people, I was aware that Miller was punished for not naming names during the witch-hunt and that Kazan was rewarded for doing the exact opposite, I never really knew how deeply entangled their careers and lives were.


Kazan was Miller's director on Broadway when "Death of a Salesman" premiered in 1947 to universal acclaim. Not only were they united by a common artistic vision, they shared radical politics. Kazan was a member of the CPUSA in the 1930s for over a year, while Miller--who never joined--was friendly to the party.


They both were radicalized by the Great Depression in general and specifically by the total devastation of their families. Kazan's father was an Anatolian Greek from Turkey whose rug business collapsed in Los Angeles, while Miller's father was a well-to-do Jew from New York City who lost everything in the stock market.


Like many other left-wingers who had made it big in NYC theater, Miller and Kazan moved out to Tinseltown in 1951 in order to launch careers in the film industry. They would run into the same sort of frustrations that met Clifford Odets and others who had come before them. Unless you were content to make high-quality but essentially politically muted films like the CP'ers, you would eventually clash with the studio bosses who lived by the adage: "If you wanna send a message, call Western Union."


Miller and Kazan wanted to make a film called "The Hook", which was set on the Brooklyn waterfront and that had a militant trade unionist hero struggling with mobsters in the dockworkers union. When Fox Studio boss Darryl Zanuck read the script, he was taken aback. Although Hollywood was not in the business of making militant trade unionists the heroes of any film, they were that less eager to do so in 1951 during the depths of the witch-hunt. He turned the script over to the FBI for review and they told him not to make the movie because it might foment unrest on the docks and hamper the war effort in Korea.


Eventually both Miller and Kazan ran into Marilyn Monroe and started an affair with her simultaneously even though both were married at the time. Kazan saw nothing special about the actress, who was not yet a big star. But Miller not only saw her as a complex reflection of America's lost soul; he fell in love with her.


In 1952 both men were summoned before HUAC. Miller refused to name names and was given a jail sentence that was ultimately suspended. Kazan decided that his career was more important than anything and identified 17 CP'ers he had worked with in the theater, including Clifford Odets. All of these names were already known to the FBI and HUAC. They were not that interested in the names themselves but in destroying the will to resist among the radical and artistic elite. Evidently Kazan was not a man given to half-measures and took out a full-page ad in the NY Times justifying himself. From that point on, he became a pariah among the Hollywood and Broadway left. At a 1999 press conference, on the eve of Kazan's acceptance of a lifetime achievement Oscar, Norma Barzman said, "He ruined and destroyed their careers, their families, their lives." In contrast, Dalton Trumbo, a blacklistee, once said that in that battle there were no heroes or villains, only victims.


After their encounters with HUAC, the two men did not speak to each other for 12 years.


In 1954 Kazan made "On the Waterfront", which is both a reworking of the material in "The Hook" and a self-justification. Marlin Brando plays a longshoreman who "rats out" his mobster friends in the union before a congressional committee. Everybody understood that Kazan saw himself in this character. Despite the fact that this is one of the greatest movies ever made, it is troubling to think of it in this light.


Meanwhile, Miller made his own artistic interpretation of the witch-hunt with the Broadway play "The Crucible", which was nominally about the Salem witch-hunt but understood widely as a commentary on McCarthyism. So deep was the repressive climate in the USA at the time that newspaper reviewers were intimidated from giving the play a favorable review. It is the most produced of all of Miller's plays today, even more so than "Death of a Salesman".


Miller went on to write his own waterfront play that was is in effect an answer to "On the Waterfront". "A View from the Bridge" is a play about longshoreman Eddie Carbone incestuous desire for an orphaned niece raised as his own daughter. His actions, like Kazan's, violate the community's unspoken "code of honor".


Eventually Miller and Kazan had a reconciliation of sorts after Marilyn Monroe took the hands of both men, who were at the same party and more or less forced them to shake hands. They decided to collaborate on a production of Miller's "After the Fall" at Lincoln Center in 1964. This is the most intensely autobiographical of Miller's plays and depicts a character being hounded by a congressional committee for his CP membership.


It is remarkable that Kazan would have directed this play given his redbaiting past. But Lee Grant, who could not work for 12 years because of the witch-hunt, told the documentary interviewers that Kazan retained certain of his pre-HUAC values, including a willingness to tackle social problems. This was why she accepted the lifetime achievement award given to him. One example is the 1957 "Face in the Crowd", which was written by Budd Schulberg. (Schulberg wrote "On the Waterfront" and was also an ex-CP'er who named names.) "Face in the Crowd" stars Andy Griffith as a demagogic radio personality who uses his show to advance a fascist-like political career.


The show includes numerous excerpts from "On the Waterfront", "The Crucible" and other works by the two men to illustrate its points. PBS generally repeats such shows and it would be a good idea to keep your eye open for it.