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Budd Schulberg, R.I.P.

By admin Published: August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg, the acclaimed screenwriter, has also died. (Apparently the news broke yesterday, but I just caught up to it this evening.) This one stings, and is a bit complicated. I'll explain after the jump.

On the one hand, Schulberg was a great writer. "On the Waterfront," for crying out loud.* Brando, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint -- and Schulberg's words, and Elia Kazan's direction. "The Harder They Fall," a tough-as-nails look at the boxing business, with Bogart. And "A Face in the Crowd," which may be the best movie ever made about television, and especially about the way television could affect politics and society. All that, plus Andy Griffith at his terrifying best.

On the other hand, Schulberg was one of the people who "named names" during the anti-Communist witch hunts in Hollywood. Fifteen names, according to Victor Navasky's book about the period. Stefan Kanfer called Schulberg and Kazan (with whom Schulberg worked on both "On the Waterfront" and "The Harder They Fall") "celebrated informers" during the blacklist. He also argues that "On the Waterfront" is a cinematic defense of naming names, with Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy demonstrating "There are times ... when breaking the gang code of silence is the only moral act, when informing is the sole 'American' deed left to the corrupted."

Schulberg did not apologize for his actions, insisting in Navasky's paraphrase that "he didn't hurt anybody and did the right thing, given the choice as he saw it: HUAC versus the USSR." He denounced writers he saw as in the thrall of the Soviets for their silence in the face of that regime's oppressive acts against people and nations. "My guilt," he said, "is what we did to the Czechs, not to [writer] Ring Lardner."

But, as has been the case with other complicated artists, I find myself asking where my feelings about Schulberg should be put along a line with artist at one end and the art at the other. I do know that I met him briefly once, and shook his hand, and told him that he had been ahead of most of us TV critics with what he did in "A Face in the Crowd." At the time, I did not remember his role in the witch hunts, and I can't say what I might have done if I had.

But I still carry around a paperback with the screenplay to "A Face in the Crowd" in it, and I have the DVD. I still love "On the Waterfront" and "The Harder They Fall." At the same time, though, I have to think about the art that did not get made because Schulberg and others ended careers with their actions.

*By the way, an AOL promo line refers to Schulberg as an eight-time Oscar winner. He won once. "On the Waterfront" won eight Oscars.

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