Recalling Hollywood at the height of the cold war
At the height of the cold war, Hollywood found itself in hot water. Convinced that Communist influences had penetrated the movie business, the House Committee on Un- American Activities -- loosely nichnamed HUAC -- opened a massive investigation into the motion-picture community.
some witnesses cooperated, while others refused and found themselves onan employment "blacklist," unable to get work because their patriotism was suspect. Communitst, non-Communists, and anti-Communists wrestled with their consciences. Cool debates and hot arguments took place over the legal and moral ramifications of "taking the Fifth," "taking the First," or telling all.
Some carrers were ended, some reputations were ruined, some lives were shattered, and Hollywood has never forgotten the trauma -- which is still being rehashed in such books as "Scoundrel time," by Lillian Hellman, and "The Front," with Woody Allen.
Now Victor S. Navasky, editor of The Nation, has issued a stunning account of those difficult years, called "Naming Names" (published by the Viking Press). For the first hundred pages or so, it's a meticulous though dry account of what happened to whom. Then the book catches fire, as Navasky devotes nearly 400 pages to a scrupulous investigation of the moral and cultural implications of the HUAC probe and the blacklist that grew out of it.
It's a moral detective story, tracing what Navasky calls the "informer principle" -- the idea that informing on one's colleagues, or "naming names," is not just good idea, but a "litmus test" of patriotism and decency. Though he examines all sides of the question, Navasky sides with those who resisted "naming names." He contends that the HUAC hearings were a kind of "degredation ceremony" with little meaning, since "the committee had all the names anyway, and called witnesses only as a social ritual." He also explores the idea that the blacklisters and the blacklistees were equally victims of their time, critically examining the proposition that suffering was evenly distributed among all involved.
In the process, he details the physical and intellectual history of the HUAC hearings and the blacklist. And he illustrates an enduring line from Jean Renoir's film "The rules of the Game," in which a character says, ". . . in this world there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons. . . ."
I met with Navasky recently and asked some questions about his investigation and his book.
A lot of people feel the United States has "swung to the right" lately. Do you feel the old Communist probes might return?
Last year, I was frequently asked: Why are you doing this now, 30 years after it happened? But ever since the election in November, the first question is: When you started this seven years ago, how did you know it would be so timely?!
But I don't think it will happen again, in the same way -- partly because of the example set by so many people who resisted and prevailed against the temptation to name names, putting themselves on the line.And there's a counterexample, too: the negative way our culture has come to regard those who didm name names. No matter what one's politics are, the big consideration is, how does it took 20 years later?
What originally interested you in the topic?
I had a lot of friends whose parents had been hit by the blacklist. Also, I've always been interested in the whole subject of police informing. The Hollywood period had the highest per-capita number of informers, including people informing on their friends.
As you pursued your investigation, what was your approach?
I went at it almost a mystery story. Why did all these decent people behave indecently? Why did so many inform, though they had been brought up to think that's not the right thing to do -- and there was no obvious national-security reason, since the names were already known by HUAC?
Once I was into it, I just followed the material where it led. It's interesting that almost everybody who went through the days of the blacklist seems to judge himself -- and others -- not by how they are nowm , but by how they behaved thenm . To this day, a Hollywood hostess has to be careful not to invite people from opposite sides of the fence. One might walk right out!
I've noticed that people who survived the blacklist are still eager to talk about the experience. I discussed this with Woody Allen when he starred in "The Front," and he had noticed the same thing.
The blacklist was tragedy. But if you survived it, the stigma was eventually removed, and one was proud of having resisted. Those who didn't talk thenm bring it up at every opportunity nowm . And those who didm talk then take a "retroactive Fifth" now. They don't want to discuss it.
It's a difficult area, and the moral issues are complex.
I try not to pass judgment on people's motives. Im don't know what they really were, and theym don't know what they really were. But I do try to determine what is the right and what is the wrong thing to do. I look at the justifications for naming names, to see how they hold up. I conclude that they don't hold up.
Can you give an example?
Some people named names because they had been Communists, and later they felt they had contributed to the existence of Soviet-death-lists, and they had to make up for that. But the question is whym and whenm a person decided to act by informing. I think [film director] Abe Polonsky put it well. He said that if you quit the Communist Party and went to the police, then you and he had a political difference, and that's understandable. But if you wait until the gun is at your head -- until you are threatened by the committee -- then you don't really know whym you chose to inform. Is it because you felt it was right, or just because you were being threatened?
In any event, you feel that "naming names" has profound social implications.
The whole notion of community is based on trust. If someone informs, it means you can't trust this other member of your community, and the impossibility of trusting your fellows.
During the days of HUAC and the blacklist, the state took the willingness to betray one's friends, and made this the measure of civic virtue: That's how you proved you were cooperative. Totalitarian cultures do that all the time, but we're not supposed to do that there. so it reflects on our national state of mind. . . .
Do the movies still carry a mark from the days of HUAC and the blacklist?
The movie business may have gone through enough structural changes to transcend the residue of values from the blacklist episode. But television is different: Shows are still half an hour, you still have sponsors, ad agencies still play an important role, the networks are still there. The name structure is in place, even though there's more independence.
I have a feeling that the unwritten laws governing the TV business are not entirely attributable to the millions of dollars at stake. I'm talking about the obsession with ratings, the rules about what you can and can't put on, the great fear that seems to infect some of the people who work in TV. I think these things are partly attributable to the fact that TV was born as a mass medium during the cold war years. So you have to be carefulm all the time. . . . The president of the Writers Guild of America once testified before Congress that certain subjects can't be dealt with on TV, in fiction. The Vietnam war was that way for a long time. I don't think box office is the only reason. It's my intuition that these strictures date back to the origins of television in the cold war atmosphere.
Your book focuses on people during the cold war, who were faced with the question of informing against Communist Party members and sympathizers. But in the process, you paint a portrait of the party itself -- and to my eyes, the portrait isn't flattering. How could intelligent people have complained about "thought control" from HUAC, while putting up with the obvious " thought control" of their own party? Was their idealism that strong?
The cultural commissar in Hollywood was John Howard Lawson, and I talked to him before he died, about why he never criticized the Soviet Union. It's because he thought of himself as a humanist and a socialist, and he believed it was wrong to criticize the revolution -- because socialism is still the only hope for mankind, and a certain amount of discipline is necessary to achieve this glorious goal. That was his reasoning.
Of course, there are other factors, too -- bureaucratic factors, and personal or self-serving ones. As Murray Kempton pointed out, it was the only way a $500 -a-week writer could socialize with a $2,500-a-week writer: at a party meeting!
And the religious analogy is real, also. Like some religions, you accept a set of dogmas as part of your faith, because of the ultimate virtues of the system. You turn over your conscience to the party, because they know better.
In the same way, the witnesses turned over their consciences to the state. Or they just wanted to work, and it wasn't a matter of conscience. They violated their consciences.
Though you examine all sides of the question in your book, your sympathies are clear. Still, I think your approach is basically fair.
You know, the Communists did a lot of awful things. And they didn't hire their enemies, any more than the blacklisters did. But they weren't part of an organized system that denied work to anyone who took the Fifth Amendment at a hearing.
And it fascinates you that the government did catalyze such a system.
Yes. I wanted to deal with some of the key questions raised by that episode. For example, is there a statute of limitations on moral crimes? And how do you prevent something like this from happening again?
* In today's horror yarns, which are generally a cheap and creepy lot, there's a recent enthusiasm for ESP -- with a telepath, either good or evil, frequently being pursued by a government agent who wants to meddle with these mysterious powers. After "The Fury" and Stephen King's "Firestarter," we now have Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg, the latest small-time showmaker to develop a big-time reputation in the thriller field. Alas, "Scanners" doesn't hold up. The suspense is sporadic, the acting is unven, the shocks are gruesome , and the logic would needm a mind reader to fill in the enormous gaps. Even when the hero links his psyche with a computer -- another budding SF trend -- the total IQ of this dopey movie remains perilously close to zero.
* When Neil Simon turns to crime, the results can be awful -- remember "Murder by Death" and "The Cheap Detective"? so I was pleasantly surprised to find some genuine humor lurking in the overall silliness and occasional vulgarity of Seems Like Old Times, directed by Jay Sandrich. The plot is idiotic: An innocent man is forced to rob a bank, then hides with his ex-wife, whose new husband is about to become an attorney general. But the cast plunges into this lunacy as if it were the movie of the year, and their energy just about carries the day -- especailly when Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase get together posing an emotional obstacle course for the delicious deadpan of Charles Grodin. There's a scene in the spare room over the garage . . . but there's no way to describe it. See for yourself.