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Director recalls blacklist in `Guilty by Suspicion'

"He is what we used to call a sympathizer. And he was married to a woman whose brother was active with the Viet Cong."

The words have a nostalgic ring to them, as if they should be accompanied by ancient television footage, but they do not date back to the McCarthy era. They were said just the other day by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) about Peter Arnett, the CNN correspondent who continued to report from Baghdad after the other Western journalists left, and who for his pains was branded by Simpson as the next thing to a traitor.

Simpson comes from a state where some people's brothers-in-law were no doubt once horse thieves, so he should know better than to attack anyone on the basis of his relatives. But I am grateful to him for providing an up-to-the-minute example of the kind of rabble-rousing that was once more common in American politics.

Simpson has access to Senate research and therefore probably knows that the Viet Cong and Saddam Hussein do not occupy the same end of the political spectrum - that for Arnett to sympathize with first and then the other would require political sophistication even more limited than the senator's. But Simpson's comments were not intended for the kind of listeners who would make such distinctions. His comments were good old-fashioned demagoguery, designed to smear one man's reputation so another man could win some cheap publicity.

Listening to Simpson rant and rave, I felt an eerie chill, as if this were the Twilight Zone and I was picking up speeches from out of the past. Maybe that was because I had so recently seen a new film named "Guilty By Suspicion," which deals with the period of the Hollywood blacklist (roughly 1948-52), the witch-hunt that raised the curtain for McCarthyism. The film stars Robert De Niro as a director whose career is destroyed because he refuses to "name names." It opens around the country in mid-March.

During that sad time, the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings into the influence of communism in Hollywood. Hundreds of producers, directors, actors and writers were subpoenaed to testify about their own association with the Communist Party, and then required to name the names of others they believed had attended party meetings. Any names would do: people who had been to one meeting 15 years ago. People they "thought" they "might have seen" at meetings. The names were not really very important. What was important was the establishment of HUAC's reign of terror, fueling the power trips of its members.

Most of the witnesses agreed to testify about their own experiences, but many refused to name others. "I will tell you anything you want to know about myself," the De Niro character testifies. "I cannot in conscience talk about anyone else." Witnesses were first given a chance to "clear" themselves in informal, off-the-record sessions, organized by a lawyer employed by Hollywood as an unofficial fixer. If they refused to name names behind closed doors - to engage in anonymous accusations - they were threatened with the ordeal of public hearings. Some of them eventually served jail terms for contempt of Congress - not for party membership, which was and is legal in this country, but for refusing to rat on friends and defame strangers.

This wholly un-American inquisition, which asked for hearsay and secondhand evidence and tarnished the names of people who could then "clear" themselves only by tarring still other names, went on for years because the Hollywood and Washington establishments were afraid to stand up to it. The people carrying it out are now mostly forgotten (but let us name some names: Vail, Thomas, McDowell, Stripling and Nixon). Those who have heard of the "blacklist" remember some of the famous figures involved - Zero Mostel, Elia Kazan, the Weavers, Ring Lardner Jr., Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, John Garfield - without always being quite sure who named names and who refused to. It was all a very long time ago, one imagines, until Sen. Simpson stepped to the microphone.

"Guilty By Suspicion" was written, produced and directed by a man named Irwin Winkler, who is not old enough to have experienced the blacklist at firsthand, but who wanted to make the film because he felt it was a chapter of history that should not be forgotten - and perhaps also because, as Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Directorial debut

This is Winkler's first film as a director; up until now he has been a producer, a heavyweight with 40 Oscar nominations and as good a track record as anyone in Hollywood. His name is on "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," "Rocky," "New York, New York," "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff," "Out of Africa" and this year's best-picture nominee, "GoodFellas." Over the years, he has had a lot of opportunities to direct, and I asked him, one evening after seeing the movie, why it was this project that finally got him behind the camera.

"Very few films really have an insider's view of what goes on in Hollywood," he said. "That subject, I thought I knew. I wasn't in Hollywood during the blacklist - I was much too young - but I was able to establish a kind of rapport with that period, and I didn't want to give it up. I didn't want somebody else to either make it better, or make it worse. I just wanted to do it myself, to take the responsibility for it."

Winkler recalled that he did have an indirect contact with the blacklist, early in his career.

"I started out as a mail boy at the William Morris Agency, in the late 1950s, and I remember they used to send teletypes back and forth between New York and Los Angeles for clearing actors. I never knew why, until it struck me years later what it was about. A cable would say, `Is Melvin Douglas OK?' It didn't say OK for what, that's all it would say, and then a teletype would come back from New York saying Melvin Douglas was not OK - and I thought, is he not feeling well? It was all obviously a blacklist, clearing people, and not clearing people.

"That kind of thing went on even into the 1960s. I think the freedom of expression that we found during the Vietnam period loosened up a lot of those controls. You could no longer could take those kinds of positions against people without them speaking out against what was happening. But there was a silence that was accepted by everybody during the late 1940s, and early 1950s.

"And the repercussions went on for later than that - some people didn't work again until the 1970s, or they worked under pseudonyms. Ronald Reagan got quite a laugh in certain quarters when he visited Russia in the last year of his presidency and presented Gorbachev with a print of `Friendly Persuasion,' a movie that carried no screenplay credit, because the writer, Michael Wilson, was blacklisted."

I asked Winkler whether he thought the current war climate would be wrong for a movie that applauds taking an unpopular stand. He said he didn't think so. On the contrary, he said, the time might be exactly right for this film:

"Someone asked me once why `Rocky' was such a hit when we made it, and I said maybe if `Rocky' had come out a year or two later, it might not have been a success. `Rocky' was 1975 or 1976, and Vietnam was over in 1974. I guess Americans wanted some sort of optimistic feeling about themselves, and `Rocky' just happened to hit it.

Examining freedoms

"Here, with this film, at this time, I don't know. I think maybe we'll examine our freedoms a little more closely. I mean, that's what this war is about. Every one of us should be proud and conscious of the freedoms that we have, and see how easy it is for someone to chip away at those freedoms, for us to lose them - for example, through a judge in Florida declaring a man liable for a jail sentence because he sold a record that the judge didn't understand.

"The climate of the blacklist can happen anywhere. All it requires is for somebody to call you in a room. Say you're on an assembly line in Detroit, making cars, and your boss calls you in and says, `You know, that guy down the line from you, he keeps going to the bathroom a lot. I'll bet you he's smoking a joint every time he goes into the bathroom. Let me know if you see him go into the bathroom with a joint.' So you say, `I'm not going to do that. Why should I do that?' So he says, `Well you must be doing the same thing, or you'd tell us about it.' And suddenly, where are you? Maybe you're fired.

"So, it's not only the case of a Hollywood director who might lose his freedom, because he's asked to give names and somebody is going to be hurt. It's that all of us become vulnerable. I don't want to protect a criminal, but what do I feel when the government calls in a criminal and says, `Look, we're going to indict you for 20 counts of fraud, and you'll spend 20 years in jail. The alternative is, maybe you'll get five years easy time, but give us the names of five other people.' Well, it's like John le Carre says in The Russia House - everyone reacts in a strange way when they handcuff you to a bedpost.

"I don't know how you react when somebody tells you you've got a choice between 20 years and five years, and you've got a wife and a family. Do you give them names even if you know these people are innocent? I don't know. I frankly don't know how I myself would react. I applaud the Arthur Millers who said, `I'll tell you anything you want about me, but I'm not going to bring harm on somebody who might be innocent.' I applaud Lillian Hellman. I don't applaud Kazan. I don't applaud Budd Shulberg. I'm not saying I would have done differently than they did, but I don't applaud what they did. I think Elia Kazan is still having difficulty facing what he did, and I hope all of us, if they handcuff us to the bed, have some dignity about what happens."

Hollywood insider

Winkler was meditating on these questions over dinner, during a visit to Chicago, and I found it fascinating that a Hollywood insider, a man who might well be seen this March 25 wearing a tuxedo and picking up an Academy Award, had made this movie about other Hollywood insiders. The movie names a lot of names of its own, and is filled with actual events and dialogue from the blacklist period, right down to Miller's shout of "Shame! Shame on you!" in the committee room. But it is also knowledgeable about the way movies are made in Hollywood, as when the De Niro character goes to a midnight meeting with a blacklisted director (played by Martin Scorsese) who has decided to flee to France and needs someone to finish editing his film.

One of the most intriguing things about "Guilty By Suspicion" is that important scenes in this Warner Bros. release were filmed on the lot of 20th Century-Fox, and that Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of Fox, is portrayed as the mogul who fires the De Niro character. Zanuck is portrayed by the actor Ben Piazza as a man who leans across his desk more in sorrow and in anger and pleads with De Niro, `Make this film. It's a good script. You'll make a good film. Just straighten out this little matter, and we can make this film.' His voice is seductive precisely because it is not evil or angry, simply persuasive. The blacklist was such a cruel test not only because its punishments were so severe, but because the rewards for surrendering were so extravagant."

Why Zanuck? I asked. Why not Jack Warner, or Harry Cohn, or the famous patriot Louis B. Mayer?

"I wanted a Hollywood figure to represent a real filmmaker," Winkler said, "and so I went down the list. Jack Warner was a bit of a gag. He wasn't a serious filmmaker. Harry Cohn's reputation was really ugly. Louie Mayer was not somebody you want to picture onscreen - he was too much of an autocrat - but Zanuck seemed like the perfect choice because he an interesting man, and throughout this period, whatever his politics were, he cared about making films, and made a lot of good ones. He was basically a filmmaker, and not an executive.

"So, I wanted Zanuck, and his son Dick Zanuck was kind enough to go through the script with me and suggest what his father might or might not have actually said, and I was able to rewrite it so that Dick thought it was authentic as far as his father was concerned. Then I had to go out and get Fox. What I didn't want was `Gotham Studios' or some fictitious studio. At first, I was refused permission to shoot on the Fox lot. Finally, I went to (studio chief) Barry Diller and he read the script and said, `You know, this is exactly what I imagine happened - and, yes, Fox participated in the blacklist, and it was 40 years ago, and the best way for it not to happen again, is for us to admit that we did it.'

"So, he had a very mature attitude, and I got the cooperation of 20th Century-Fox to let me use their logo, and their lot, and their commissary, and even their film clips. I mean, I didn't want Zanuck sitting in an office. Zanuck was a moviemaker. I wanted him watching in the screening room, watching the dailies on `Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' and I got all that."

There's a scene in "Guilty By Suspicion" that summarizes some of the craziness of the time. While the De Niro character is on the blacklist, he is approached by a sleazy B-film producer to ghost-direct a Western. That way the producer would get an expensive director for peanuts. De Niro is broke and can't support his family and is living in a furnished room, so he jumps at the chance. But then somebody tells his secret, and the hangdog producer turns up with still another director and fires De Niro.

Loose accusations

"At this point, a lanky cowboy says he's had enough. He can't work with a different director every 10 minutes. Somebody responds with some loose accusations of communism, and the cowboy gets mad: `If you want to call me that, back it up. I went down without being called, and named everybody I knew was a communist, but I won't have people making accusations they're not prepared to stand behind.'

"I shot that Western scene on the `High Noon' street," Winkler said. "I had heard that Gary Cooper was the only one that stood up for Carl Forman, who wrote the screenplay. Forman was going to be fired off of `High Noon' for his politics, and Gary Cooper, whose own politics were very, very conservative, wouldn't allow him to be fired. He said, `This man has done nothing wrong, and whatever he believes politically has nothing to do with what this movie is about.'

"Strangely enough, the movie `High Noon' is more about what happened in that period, about a man standing up while everyone's clamoring for his downfall. It was very much what was happening, so I shot my scene on the same street corner as Cooper's. As a matter of fact, if you remember the last scene in `High Noon,' where the guy takes off his badge, and throws it down, I have the same shot in my film."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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