Sunday, September 07, 2003

"You know, it only takes one man"- Tales from The Front

Blacklisted screenwriter Gordon Kahn, exiled in Mexico to avoid going to jail, got a phone call from blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in California. It was the night of the 1956 Academy Awards. The Oscar for Best Screenplay had just been awarded to Robert Rich, and accepted on his behalf by a Writer's Guild official. But Robert Rich was a front--Dalton Trumbo's, in fact. It was the name he put on his screenplay for The Brave Ones. Trumbo had become the first blacklisted writer to win an Oscar under another name. He wouldn't be the last.

"They talked for awhile on the phone," Gordon's son James Kahn remembered, "and then for a long time they just giggled."

There is something funny about the idea of fronts, which is one reason another blacklisted writer, Walter Bernstein, decided he could approach the whole subject of the Blacklist by writing a comedy about a man who lends his name to the screenplays of another.

That idea was becoming a film---a real Hollywood major studio movie---in the fall of 1975, ten years after Bernstein began planning the script, two years after he'd written it. Martin Ritt, who'd directed Berstein's script of Paris Blues (the 1961 movie about jazz and interracial relationships in Paris that starred Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier) and who'd acted in television shows Bernstein wrote before they were both blacklisted, managed to convince David Begelman, the new president of Columbia Pictures, to take a chance on a film about the Blacklist. Among Ritt's credits were "Sounder" and "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."

He also convinced Woody Allen to star in it---his first dramatic role, and the first movie he's acted in that he hadn't written. Allen consistently explained this career departure the same way: "I admire the director, I like the script, and I think the subject matter is extremely important."

The Front's main story is about Alfred Miller, a fictional blacklisted writer played by Michael Murphy, who asks his best friend, Howard Prince (Woody Allen) to pass himself off as the author of Miller's script. Prince had never written a word in his life.

This is one kind of front: an actual, breathing person who could attend script meetings and otherwise put a face on the illusion to make it more convincing. Bernstein himself used fronts and tells funny stories about what may be the most tragically absurd phenomenon of the Blacklist. Bernstein used some friends. Writer Millard Lampell used a novelist who wanted to learn screenwriting. Dalton Trumbo even tried to use novelist Nelson Algren (Algren was willing but it never really happened.) The resulting problems are legendary: fronts who began to believe they'd really written the scripts, for example, and became critical of the actual writer's work if it wasn't up to the front's reputation.

Lampell tells the story of a blacklisted writer whose script won an award. His front accepted the plaque and met the writer after the ceremony to celebrate. Only nobody felt like celebrating. They had a few drinks in silence, staring at the award. The writer felt terrible because he was the only one who knew his work had won. The front felt terrible because his name was on an award he didn't deserve. They had a few more drinks and on the way home, they dropped the plaque into the nearest sewer.

Later the writers who used fronts were more or less an open secret in the industry. They still had to use them, but fronts became simply pseudonyms. Bernstein remembers that period, too. He experienced the usual humiliations. "Once I was watching an episode of 'You Are There' with my kids, and I let it slip that I'd written it. They wanted to know why somebody else's name was on it. I had to tell them not to say anything about it to anyone."

But there were also the converse absurdities. "Once I was complimented at a party for a script I didn't do," Bernstein said. "Someone said to me, 'hey, congratulations on your TV show last night.' 'Thanks,' I said, 'but that wasn't mine.' But he didn't believe me. 'Sure, I know you can't say, Walter, but I really liked it.' 'But I didn't write it---really.' 'It's okay, Walter, I understand.'"

Fronting became so much of an open secret that Bernstein received a card from a producer which ended, "By the way, give my regards to..." and listed four names, all of them fronts Bernstein had used for the producer's shows.

But finally fronts became like the Blacklist itself: a very cruel, very bad joke. It became common practice in Hollywood that when there was no money left in the screenwriting budget, the call would gout for blacklisted writers because they had to work cheap. But eventually they won so many awards-through fronts, naturally---that they became magic. They were the best. Lampell quotes a producer's outburst: "This script is terrible! Go get me a blacklisted writer!"

Most of The Front was shot in New York City, but a week was spent on location at a resort hotel in the Catskills. It was a bizarre shoot. Elderly denizens of the hotel, some of them visiting members of the National Hebrew Association and the Medical Center of Denver, mixed with the costumed extras from New York who were, at 7 a.m., dressed as a nightclub crowd in 1953. It looked like the last remains of the junior prom having breakfast at an old folk's home.

Few of the extras knew what the film is about, which isn't unusual, but fewer still knew about the Blacklist. One actress remembered that her aunt had belonged to the League of Women Shoppers, made famous by Walt Disney denouncing it before HUAC as a Commie front, after first confusing it with the League of Women Voters.

Meanwhile Zero Mostel (playing a blacklisted writer named Hecky Brown) was putting on a one-man show that got better with each take. He sang, told jokes, did sight gags and otherwise resurrected his 1950s nightclub act. He also made sure to do something different each time, so the audience of extras would really laugh. So we got to watch Zero Mostel top himself, take after take.

Later Mostel would play a scene in which the nightclub owner tells Hecky that the pay he was getting for his act---already a fraction of what he made before being blacklisted---was to be cut in half again. The same thing happened to Mostel at a different hotel, twenty years before.

Director Martin Ritt, clad in a floppy Navy blue jumpsuit, paused between takes to talk about the tone of The Front. It had begun as more of a comedy than it was shaping up to be. "As we began filming," Ritt told me, "the picture became tougher...This picture will be the toughest kind of picture on a moral level it can possibly be."

Ritt, whose own refusal to testify to HUAC ended his acting career (Paddy Chayefsky wrote "Marty" specifically for Marty Ritt to play) is forceful about the Blacklist's continued relevance. "The object of the Blacklist was to impose economic sanctions on those who disagreed with HUAC. The object of the hearings was to break the will of anyone who opposed them. They told me, 'name someone who's dead, we don't care. Just name somebody.'... If the committee had successfully broken the wills of those who were blacklisted, there just wouldn't have been a constituency left to fight Watergate. The behavior of those who resisted set an example, made people think."

But Ritt wasn't intending to make a political tract-he wants The Front to be entertaining, to succeed with audiences, for a number of reasons. "If it's successful it will mean a great deal towards the possibility of making serious films," Ritt said. "And since at my age I don't have too many more films to make, I want them to be serious."

Besides those participating in this film who had survived the Blacklist, there were several children of Hollywood people who had been blacklisted. John Garfield's daughter Julie had a small part as a waitress, and his son David was a production assistant.

David Garfield is a head taller, but otherwise is a very good likeness of his father, whose performances in films like Body and Soul and Force of Evil made him the quintessential dead-end kind with a heart of gold, and a major movie star. David speaks in the same rapid, unmistakable tones his father made famous, and he pulls no punches about the Blacklist.

"I was eight years old when my father died in 1952. But even afterwards my mother made us watch the McCarthy hearings on television," David Garfield remembered. "My father wasn't a leader in the thinking department, but he was curious. When he saw his best friends turn against him, it broke his heart. One minute he was a star, the next people were crossing the street to avoid him. I really believe he was killed by it."

John Garfield was in fact one of the most outrageously victimized. He was hounded and smeared for political associations which apparently amounted to little more than signing petitions and attending parties. He spent the last years of his life trying desperately to clear himself. At the time of his death in 1952, a non-show business friend commented, "John was guilty of two things: loving people and being naïve."

David Garfield believes it can happen all over again. "Sure---and it would happen in exactly the same way," he said. "Whatever the issue. The networks would line up as they did, the studios-everything. In this picture Woody has a line, he's speaking to a network exec. He says, 'you know, it only takes one man.' And he's right. And it only makes me admire my father more. It only takes one man to stand up against it. But it took a lot to stand up---and not many people can do it."

"My own children were adopted after this period," Martin Ritt said, "but I had blacklisted friends whose kids came home from school and asked them, 'why do you hate this country?' It was very hard on kids. You had to have some real conviction to take the static, but they were too young to understand."