Two generations after McCarthyism, the Hollywood Left has almost receded from living memory. Its principal figures now show up mainly in the obituary columns of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, their experiences with the blacklist reduced to a sentence or deleted entirely.footnote The most politically notorious turncoat of the Hollywood community (according to other and equally credible versions, an fbi plant), Ronald Reagan, has himself quietly slid from an ominous or embarrassing presence into historical Americana. Even the issue of unionization, which more than any other ignited the Hollywood Red Scare, has been reduced to insignificance by the collapse of organized labour. Only a rare artistic vindication, such as Martin Scorsese’s championing of Force of Evil (1948) and its writer-director Abraham Polonsky (now a garrulous and often interviewed octagenarian), and an occasional treatment of the subject in films and television, reminds most observers that a blacklist once existed at all.footnote1

By the mid 1990s, Hollywood had returned—thanks to video rentals and world-wide receipts—to a certain prestige and power, if nothing like its pre-television glory. The collapse of the Eastern bloc, the defeat of insurgent anti-capitalist movements and the decay of Third World promise had, meanwhile, practically ruled out political challenge to the existing social system. Only ‘culture’ seemed to retain what Theodor Adorno would call a negative content or potentiality to take cognisance of the multiple crises which impoverished large parts of the world population while posing unprecedented threats to biosystems and future life on the planet. If movies offered at best a fractured mirror of public concerns, they had too little competition.

Not surprisingly, then, issues of film content which the blacklistees themselves often considered a mere smokescreen have, in a variety of transmuted forms, somehow outlasted the other controversies of the McCarthy era. Traditional conservatives, neo-conservatives, and in some cases neo-liberals, have increasingly savaged the media, searching for perpetrators of social chaos and violence. Predictably they find not the system at fault but the creators of that which reflects versions of it, for instance Natural Born Killers. If television provides the most convenient target, films still offer career opportunities for indignant bigots to bewail flagrant immorality and call for the uplifting and patriotic entertainment so familiar from the big studio days of the 1930s and 40s. A powerful centrist like the New York Times television critic Walter Goodman, who considers the wild charges of subversion by neo-conservative fellow critic Michael Medved excessive, nevertheless warns against the undue influence of Hollywood’s ‘looney left’, evident in the abundance of anti-corporate or sentimental ecological (pro-Native-American, rainforest, etc.) themes. As elements of the Right push hard for censorship, and hands are publicly wrung about the moral effects of the O.J. trial’s media domination, a successful call for political self-censorship is at least possible.footnote2

Perhaps just as logically, within a postmodern America wallowing in talk-show politics and benefits rollbacks, those in the presumed vicinity of the Left have been wary of making counterclaims. Susan Sarandon, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Lizzie Borden—to name only a few—speak about their intent as individual artists, as women, as African-Americans and so forth.footnote3 But only a rare open radical like John Sayles, who built his career in no small part on his political reputation, or a maverick like Oliver Stone who successfully stage-manages the mega-million-dollar epic, can seemingly afford the luxury of a sense of social agenda, albeit one seen in a highly personal fashion.footnote4

Once things were profoundly different, of course, at least in certain key regards. During the days when Screen Actors Guild president Reagan unfailingly attended Popular Front fundraisers and $800-a-week screen-writers owed their connections to political comradeships, being a Communist was no great hindrance to personal success. Speaking out on political issues and anti-fascism was practically de rigueur, and precisely because the Left had been for a decade the leading anti-fascist force its early warnings and its preliminary mobilizations were richly vindicated. As the leading Hollywood unionists, moreover, Communists had carried the torch for the underpaid and badly treated backstage worker as well as the actor and writer. If they gained powerful enemies, they also had earned the hard-won loyalties of thousands of non-communist and utterly non-political Hollywoodites. Apart from fascism and unionism, they continued to crusade on issues such as racial equality that still lay far outside the mainstream political order.

As much as all this, though, the Left had played a powerfully creative part—however briefly—by making some of the best and most interesting cinema of the day. Lillian Hellman, Ring Lardner, Jr, Donald Ogden Stewart, Orson Welles, John Garfield, Clifford Odets, John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz and Budd Schulberg, to name only a few artists of various kinds, carried real weight. Edward Dmytryk, a future ‘friendly witness’ extraordinaire, more than any other single director put a personal stamp upon film noir. Add, first, those who wrote or directed with great artistic if no particular box-office success, most especially the master of noir, Abraham Polonsky. Then add those too young for breakthroughs until almost the moment of the blacklist but who often made a spectacular mark afterward: Zero Mostel, William Marshall, Walter Bernstein, Joseph Losey and Martin Ritt, to name a few. Finally, toss in the protégés of the blacklistees like television’s Norman Lear and Larry Gelbart, who used the media moment at hand in the 1970s to make their political statement. The promise of this talent, had there been no blacklist, is very considerable, and the direct or indirect impact of these artists upon the evolving entertainment scene is indisputable.

It was not, however, a promise ever intellectually articulated to any significant degree, an amazing fact for an art-form made possible by intellectuals. The nature of film as mass-entertainment business, run then by studios who assigned great quantities of hack work with only the tiniest slivers of artistically worthwhile projects, is the clear cause. The sense of futility at any prospect of an alternative cinema taught writers, actors and producers to seek better-than-average projects one by one. Still, and despite these obvious limitations, Marxist intellectuals might have been expected to pronounce at least among themselves. The paucity of critical discussion about the practice of film-making and the poverty of such that took place, according to participants, showed that other reasons were involved. McCarthyism and then the memory of McCarthyism virtually blotted out the kind of self-reflection (and even several decades later constrained the exceedingly thin memoir literature) that might have made sense of the paradox that these creative minds scarcely ever articulated what they were about.footnote5