Hollywood hopes to heal McCarthyism wounds

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The Independent Culture

Half a century has passed since Bernard Gordon was ordered before the House Committee on Un-American Activities but he still remembers his palms sweating the day he waited to testify.

"I was frightened," said Mr Gordon, a former Hollywood screenwriter, who was working for Warner Bros at the time. "I had principles, but to have yourself exposed before the whole world ..."

Mr Gordon, now aged 82, is still bitter over the way he and others were treated when anti-Communist paranoia and McCarthyism swept America.

But, yesterday, an organisation partly involved in the crackdown said it was trying to heal some of those wounds by mounting an exhibition of the notorious Hollywood blacklist.

The organisation behind the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will gather video and audio tapes, movie clips, photographs and documents to present a history of the postwar witchhunts and the lives they destroyed.

Robert Rehme, the academy president, said in Los Angeles: "This will be an unusual exhibition for the academy in that we don't think this complex and difficult subject has ever been presented visually before.

"The rift the blacklist created in Hollywood hasn't healed, even though more than 50 years have passed. Maybe it can never heal. But any era with that long-lasting an impact needs to be carefully studied."

Mr Gordon – who wrote the screenplays for more than 20 Hollywood films including Day of the Triffids and 55 Days at Peking – was one of dozens of writers, actors, directors and producers publicly denounced and forced out of work, having been accused of having links to the Communist Party.

Many, such as Mr Gordon, were in effect forced into exile because the blacklists – self- imposed by the studios – continued for more than 20 years. The exhibit will explore the historical roots of the blacklist era, beginning with the conflicts that arose between the trade unionists and studio executives as early as 1933.

It will then move through the Cold War and to Washington, where 50 witnesses were subpoenaed to answer harsh and personal questions about their political affiliations – and those of others – in hearings before the eager committee.

Ten of those called in 1947 refused to give evidence, setting into effect the blacklist. The writer Bertolt Brecht was originally among those called but fled the country.

A total of 320 actor, writers and others were blacklisted including Leonard Bernstein, Larry Adler, Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller and Orson Welles.

The exhibition will include testimony from dozens of witnesses who did not want to face the consequences of refusing to co-operate and will document the complicity of various studios, guilds and unions. It will also include recent reactions to the blacklisting of alleged Communists in Hollywood, including the denunciation of the academy's decision in 1999 to present an Honorary Academy Award to the director Elia Kazan, who soured his own reputation when he supplied names to the committee. Mr Gordon – an admitted Communist who helped to organise the opposition to Mr Kazan's award – never gave evidence before the committee: that particular hearing ended before he could be called.

But the experience changed his life for ever. With his wife and young daughter, he left America and placed himself in exile, first in Mexico and then in France and Spain.

"It was terrifying. It was Fascistic. They were building concentration camps for radicals," he said. "I became a Communist in the middle of World War Two. I consider it gave me a greater insight into things – into war. I tried to display a more humanistic approach through my writing. I did not try to overthrow the American government.

"The blacklist was supporting the suppression of dissent. The American establishment tried to set up anti-Communist campaigns around the world and they were responsible for some of the worst things around the world."

The exhibition will be overseen by Larry Ceplair, the co-author of an academic study of the blacklist era, who will act as curator. He said: "The lessons of time should not be forgotten. For those who did not live through it, this exhibition is being designed to help them understand the causes and effects of a time in the United States when one's political past could be used to intimidate, coerce and even destroy."