Great article on the life and times of Elia Kazan ’31.

When Elia Kazan, one of the twentieth century’s great American theater and movie directors, died two years ago, the obituaries almost all struck the same sour note. As the New York Times put it, in addition to his artistic accomplishments, Kazan committed “what many still consider one of the great ideological betrayals in American performing arts history.” The Los Angeles Times, the movie business’s hometown paper, announced his death with a straightforward page one headline, elia kazan, 1909-2003, but then got down to cases in the subhead: stage and screen triumphs were eclipsed by his testimony against colleagues in the blacklist era.

For many “progressives” — especially in the entertainment business — “eclipsed” doesn’t begin to tell the story. Over the entire half-century after he “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee on April 12, 1952, Kazan remained the very embodiment of a self-serving, backstabbing rat bastard. The assumption about his moral turpitude rests on another assumption, so often echoed in books, movies, and classrooms that by now it appears an indisputable fact: that the blacklist was a straightforward case of good versus evil, pitting decent Americans defending free thought and expression against the vilest forces of reaction.

Like the most heavy-handed Hollywood “message” movie, such a view allows for zero ethical complexity — and it is nonsense. While no one can deny or excuse the bullying and moral corruption of federal investigators, the term routinely applied to their work —- “witch hunt” —- is entirely misleading. Mid-twentieth-century Hollywood, California, had nothing in common with seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. In Hollywood, the witches —- communist activists, working surreptitiously to advance Soviet interests —- were all too real.

Exactly so. There is a great senior thesis waiting to be written about Kazan and the effect that his time at Williams had on his career. Who will write it?

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