The terrible truth is that there can be no statute of limitations on moral crimes.
Watch the final scene of the new film Guilty by Suspicion and you will understand.
Robert De Niro strides from the hearing room of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He has refused to name friends who were in the American Communist party with him. If De Niro had named them, he could have continued as one of Hollywood's hottest directors. By remaining silent, he closed the door on his career.
He will be blacklisted, never to be hired in the film business again.
De Niro reaches the exit. He stops briefly to hear the start of testimony by his best friend, played by George Wendt from television's Cheers. Wendt's first answers make it clear he has decided to surrender. One of the people he will name is De Niro.
The time is 1951, when the House Un-American Activities Committee not only created its own "Red scare" but destroyed the lives and careers of scores of Hollywood directors, actors, actresses and writers in the process.
Everything that takes place in the movie happened.
In the film, De Niro goes to a meeting called by the powerful Darryl F. Zanuck, his big sponsor in Hollywood.
Zanuck offers him the script of a new movie to direct. He tells him that all he needs to do is square himself first with the congressional committee.
In real life, Elia Kazan tells of a similar meeting with Zanuck in his autobiography:
"Then Darryl urged me to `Name the names, for chrissake. Who the hell are you going to jail for? You'll be sitting there and someone else will sure as hell name those people. Who are you saving?' . . . Then he told me that he'd had a good deal of experience in Washington during the war and `the idea there is not to be right but to win.'" People sold their souls during this time. Some were broken. Some disappeared. Some died too early. A few actually took their own lives. Lifetime friendships were ripped asunder.
It was a time in this country when people were asked to violate their own values and betray their friends to save themselves.
John Garfield, then one of Hollywood's brightest stars, told the committee he abhorred Communists but refused to become what he called a "stool pigeon." Garfield died of a heart attack soon after, but a friend described his feelings.
"He wouldn't say the one thing that would keep him from walking down his old neighborhood block in Brooklyn, a place where being a stool pigeon was the ultimate horror." The committee called up Hollywood's biggest names because the members were sure to draw the widest media coverage.
It was a terrifying circus in which some people of great talent sacrificed their ideals to retain their huge incomes. At the same time, some inspiring acts of bravery occurred.
The committee demanded to know of the playwright Clifford Odets if he wrote on "communist themes." Odets replied: "When I wrote, sir, it was out of central, personal things. I did not learn my hatred of poverty, sir, out of communism." But Odets, too, later named his best friend, the actor J. Edward Bromberg, as a Communist. The emotional stress caused Bromberg, who had already suffered two heart attacks, to have a third and fatal attack.
But then Odets showed up to deliver the eulogy at Bromberg's funeral.
Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, testified because he feared that he would be exposed as a homosexual if he didn't.
Pete Seeger, folk singer, wouldn't name names but he offered to sing songs.
Dalton Trumbo asked the committee members: "How can there be innocence when there is no guilt?" He was blacklisted.
Lionel Stander, a gravelly-voiced actor still seen on television, said he would identify "a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution." He added that he was speaking, of course, of the members of the committee.
He was blacklisted.
Life has its surprises.
J. Parnell Thomas, the committee chair, was later convicted of accepting kickbacks and actually served time in the same prison with two of the so-called "Hollywood Ten" that his committee was responsible for sending to jail.
One of them was Ring Lardner Jr., who later wrote the script for the Academy Award winner M*A*S*H. Some still remember that Larry Parks was the hottest thing in Hollywood after starring in The Jolson Story. He named names and never made it back.
Sterling Hayden, fresh from a great role in The Asphalt Jungle, named his ex-mistress.
In his book Wanderer, Hayden tells of explaining to his psychiatrist:
"Son of a bitch, Doc. I'm thinking of quitting analysis . . . If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have turned into a stoolie for J. Edgar Hoover. I don't think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing . . . Fuck it! And fuck you, too." Victor S. Navasky spent years working on Naming Names, a book about the period.
Navasky interviewed many of those who appeared before the committee. He asked them why they testified as they did. He wanted to know what effect it had had on their lives.
He concluded, "They named the names because they thought nobody would remember, and it turned out to be the one thing that nobody can forget." No other story typifies the entire era more than that of famed playwright Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, the great director and successful novelist.
Kazan had directed Miller's plays All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. These men were the hottest team in the American theatre.
But Miller broke with Kazan when the latter appeared before the committee and named names.
A few days after Kazan testified another witness was asked if he was a friend of Kazan's.
The witness replied, "Is this the Kazan that signed a contract for $500,000 the day after he gave names to this committee?" A story is told that Miller later sent his play about informers, A View From the Bridge, to Kazan.
Kazan is said to have sent back word that he would be pleased to direct the play.
"You don't understand," Miller replied. "I didn't send it to you because I wanted you to direct it. I sent it to you because I wanted you to know what I thought about stool pigeons." For years, the two men didn't speak.
They had planned to collaborate on a movie about the New York waterfront but that was put off because Hollywood wanted Miller to make the bad guys Communists rather than Mafia.
So Kazan did his own film in collaboration with the writer Budd Schulberg, who had also testified and given names to the committee.
It was called On the Waterfront, now considered one of the best films of all time.
The climax of that film comes when Terry Molloy, played by Marlon Brando, decides to inform on his fellow criminals.
There is a memorable passage in Navasky's book that relives the days when Kazan was agonizing over the decision to testify.
The account comes in the words of the late Kermit Bloomgarden, who was the producer of Death of a Salesman. "I had an office at 1545 Broadway on the first floor. Kazan had one on the fourth floor. My office had a window then. He waved to me through the window to come have a drink with him at Dinty Moore's. He told me he'd been to Washington and met with J. Edgar Hoover and Spyros Skouras, and they wanted him to give names and he was going to call the people whom he had to name. Gadg [Kazan's nickname] wanted to know what I thought, and I said, `Everyone must do what his conscience tells him to do.'
"He said, `I've got to think of my kids.' And I said, `This, too, shall pass, and then you'll be an informer in the eyes of your kids, think of that.' Finally, we left Dinty Moore's and we walked down the block, and he went his way and I went mine, and we didn't see or speak to each other for fifteen years.
"I immediately called Miller and I said to Arthur that I was 99 percent sure that Gadg was going to give names. Miller went over to see Gadg and then he and Gadg walked through the woods in Roxbury, Connecticut, where Miller told him he would regret it for the rest of his life and tried to talk him out of what he was going to do. When he couldn't, Gadg went to Washington and Miller went right up to Salem and wrote The Crucible [a play about witchcraft and the moral cowardice involved in selling people out]." Years later, Navasky interviewed Kazan and asked him how he now felt about giving testimony.
Kazan said he couldn't talk about it because he was writing a book about his life experiences in which he would tell the story himself.
Kazan never explained his reason even when he did write his book. All we are left with as an explanation from Kazan is a quotation from Jean Renoir: "Everyone has his reasons." Miller and Kazan finally reunited after twenty years when Kazan directed the Miller play After the Fall. The play opened shortly after the death of Miller's former wife Marilyn Monroe. The leading female character was thought to be Miss Monroe and people turned on Miller for writing the play.
They also turned on him for reuniting with Kazan and giving him some restored sense of legitimacy.
They thought he was heartless, but they might have changed their minds if they read this passage from Miller's autobiography Timebends. "As I was coming to the end of the writing of After the Fall, the horrifying news came that Marilyn had died, apparently of an overdose of sleeping pills.
"There are people so vivid in life they seem not to disappear when they die, and for many weeks I found myself having to come about and force myself to encounter the fact that Marilyn had ended.
"I realized that I still, even then, expected to meet her once more, somewhere, sometime and maybe talk sensibly about all the foolishness we'd been through--in which case I would probably have fallen in love with her again.
"And the iron logic of her death did not help much: I could still see her coming across the lawn, or touching something, or laughing, at the same time I confronted the end of her as one might stand watching the sinking sun.
"When a reporter called asking if I would be attending her funeral in California, the very idea of a burial was outlandish, and stunned as I was, I answered without thinking, `She won't be there.' "I could hear his astonishment, but I could only hang up." Arthur Miller's autobiography was published in 1987. One wonders what he must have thought if he read Kazan's autobiography which was published in 1988.
On page 455, there is this passage about Miller's ex-wife Marilyn.
She was getting into bed, and that woke me. All excited and very happy, she announced her engagement.
"I'm going to get married," she said. "I made up my mind tonight." "A hell of a time to tell me," I said. "It's 3:30 in the morning." "I wanted to tell you first," she said, "because now I'm not going to see you again.
"He comes all the way down from San Francisco just to have dinner with me." "Who are you talking about?" I said.
"Joe," she said. "He's not like those movie people. He's dignified." Then she went on about Joe DiMaggio and I could tell she really did like him. It was nice to see her so happy and hopeful.
We made love. Congratulations and farewell. "They named the names because they thought nobody would remember, and it turned out to be the one thing that nobody can forget."
"I didn't send it to you because I wanted you to direct it. I sent it to you because I wanted you to know what I thought about stool pigeons.