I have been reading Elia Kazan's autobiography, A Life. Overall, I like his brashness. But he insists a little too often that he is telling the frank truth, whatever the cost, and that leaves me with a strong impression of defensiveness. How often should someone who is telling the truth sound defensive, after establishing at some point that the truth is what he is going to tell? Kazan also tries to prevent the reader from judging him by asserting that moral standards are mostly hollow and that no one is any more honest than he (Kazan) is. That is a weak tactic, familiar to me from conversations with bullies and manipulators over many years: it can be effective against an individual, but not against all readers in the abstract.
I grew up hearing that Kazan was a bad man who had betrayed his former friends to HUAC. Much more recently, I saw documentary interviews with Kazan and Budd Schulberg, both of whom said that since the Communists and the McCarthyists were equally gangsters, how could there be any question of taking sides with either one? That strikes me as basically correct, whatever qualifications may be necessary. It's true that there was a conspiracy to numb U.S. public opinion to the brutality of the Soviet Union, and it's also true that Joseph McCarthy and the company surrounding him were self-promoting bullies. Both camps were indeed gangsters and unworthy of the allegiance of decent people. And beyond that, it's true that for you or me to give expression to our originality, we have to find ways to get free of the pressure that bullies and manipulators can impose on us. That seems to be the core of what Kazan and Schulberg were talking about, and it's a good point in any era.
So I got interested in reading what Kazan has to say for himself more broadly.
I was dismayed to find that self-righteous betrayal is indeed a big part of his story — he was monumentally unfaithful to his wife and you can see over and over again that he is ashamed of it, exactly because of his many attempts to excuse it or neutralize the reader's disapproval.
And then, after all, there is this, which dates from the actual composition of the memoir. It refers to his testimony to a Congressional committee against a former friend of his.
I thought what a terrible thing I'd done: not the political aspect of it, because maybe that was correct, but it didn't matter now, correct or not; all that mattered was the human side of the thing. I said to myself, "You hurt another human being, a friend of yours and his familiy, and no 'political aspect' matters two shits." (Elia Kazan, A Life, [N.p.: Da Capo Press, 1997], p. 685)