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Coming to Terms With the Past: The Academy Confronts the Hollywood Blacklist

History is always fascinating to revisit, even in the film industry. Bob Verini takes you back to 2002 when the Academy of Motion Pictures examined what some feel is their greatest blemish - the Hollywood Blacklist.

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Editor's Note: Bob Verini's article below was originally published in Script magazine in our January/February 2002 print issue. I wanted to revisit it as a reminder that political controversy has been a long-standing occurrence in Hollywood. The Academy deserves kudos for opening its files back in 2002 for criticism and reflection, examining the Hollywood Blacklist. Before reading on, it might be helpful to review the history behind 'The Hollywood 10' by watching the simplified video explanation below. In our current era, actors do not fear communicating their political beliefs and are almost expected to share them at awards shows, whether the viewer wants to hear them or not. Read the full article to see how the Blacklist ended... ironically, in part because of an awards show.

The 1950s Hollywood “Blacklist of the Left” is one of those historical phenomena that will never go away. It comes to the forefront of the public consciousness from time-to-time—when an Elia Kazan is offered a special Academy Award for his filmmaking for instance or when films like The Front, Guilty By Suspicion, or The Majestic come along to dramatize a part of the story. And yet, even when it recedes from public attention, memories of the Blacklist linger on, not only in the minds of its victims and their loved ones but also whenever some force emerges to stifle criticism or attack artistic deviation from the “norm.” When a screenwriter or director is told—whether subtly or bluntly—to think twice about something controversial in his or her work, he or she must always wonder “is this going to be the Blacklist all over again?”

Still and all, the survivors are passing away at a precipitous rate; and Hollywood’s institutional memory is, to put it mildly, excruciatingly short. So, in an effort to ensure that the events of this shameful period are never forgotten, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took an extraordinary step.

From February 1 through April 20, 2002, it hosted the world’s first live, multimedia, museum-quality retrospective of the Blacklist: its roots, its events, and its lasting effects. Most Academy exhibitions have dealt with artifacts and production items such as costumes or with filmic subject matter. Says Exhibitions Curator and Special Events Programmer Ellen M. Harrington, “This is the first time we’ve tackled an explicitly political, controversial topic and tried to tell it as an exhibition in a different context: a textual context.”

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The genesis of the exhibition was the 1999 controversy over the special award given to Elia Kazan, the most prominent of all of the Hollywood elite to have named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Those scars had never healed as blacklist survivors and other Academy members made their outrage known. Norma Barzman, the widow of blacklisted screenwriter Ben Barzman, and a survivors’ spokesperson, approached the Academy saying, “You should take a serious look at this.” Then-president Robert Rehme agreed. The Academy, not only the largest industry membership organization but also one that played a significant role in both the institution and breaking of the Blacklist, was uniquely appropriate to take the lead. “But there have been many lectures and film programs before this,” he said. “Let’s do it as an installation.”

To curate the exhibition, Harrington called upon Larry Ceplair, the foremost serious scholar of the Blacklist era. Ceplair became interested in the Blacklist while researching European labor unions and—interestingly—seeing old movies in New York. “I asked myself, why are these films of the ‘30s and ‘40s so much better? I decided it was that the scripts were better. And screenwriters, I realized, were the main ones blacklisted.” Working over a 6-year period, Ceplair and Steven Englund (the stepson of a blacklisted filmmaker) produced The Inquisition In Hollywood, a thoroughly researched and incisively written history that stands with Victor Navasky’s Naming Names and the late Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s The Hollywood Writers Wars as the essential short bookshelf of the Blacklist era.

Coming to Terms With the Past: The Academy Confronts the Hollywood Blacklist by Bob Verini #scriptchat #screenwriting

A demonstration for the Hollywood 10, circa 1950 (Courtesy of: The Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research)

When approached to curate the Academy exhibition, Ceplair had two major questions: Would he have to clear anything with anyone? (No, he’d be given free rein.) And was the Academy going to open its archives? (Yes, in fact the Academy is the only organization in show business that was willing to make all of its records—warts and all—available for inspection and use.) The exhibition will consist of 14 “visual areas,” chronologically organized, each covering one specific aspect of the Blacklist from its earliest days to the present. Each area had an audio/visual component beyond the overall audio tour that will be available on cassette; interviews, documentary footage, and film clips will play alongside slides, headline images, and artifacts that are both wall-mounted and in cases. Ceplair chose to begin the exhibition in March of 1933 when outrage over the announcement by the Academy (then essentially a producers’ union) of a 50 percent pay cut for all film workers brought about the existence of the Screen Writers Guild and its archenemy, the producer-backed Screen Playwrights.

Other roots of the Blacklist that the exhibit highlighted were the Depression-era labor struggles, Hollywood’s response to the Spanish Civil War, and the Left’s war efforts that led to reaction on the Right and the first Hollywood anti-Red hearings in 1947. Ceplair’s audio/visual examination covered all the major hearings and, of course, the “Hollywood 10”; but it also looked critically at films created by blacklisted writers before 1947 and afterwards when most of them wrote under pseudonyms. And the exhibition won’t back away from confronting the role of the Academy which passed bylaws making it impossible for anyone blacklisted to be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win one.

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In fairness, Ceplair points out that “the Oscars were the reef on which the Blacklist broke up,” starting with the award for 1956s Best Original Story to The Brave One by “Robert Rich,” the universally understood pseudonym for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

Two years later, the front-runner status of The Defiant Ones for Best Story and Screenplay put the Academy in a bind. “Everyone knows it’s going to win,” Ceplair says, “and everyone knows that [co-author] ‘Nathan E. Douglas’ is [blacklisted writer] Nedrick Young and the Academy is embarrassed.” The private agreement to allow Young to accept his award provided he not make political statements at the podium essentially ends the Blacklist—although, as we’ve said, it lingers on in bitter memory to this day.

The Academy deserves kudos for its willingness to forthrightly examine its role during the period.

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