The blacklist backstory

Guest column

Although my primary business is the gaming industry, my passion has always been the written word, which is why I founded the Institute of Modern Letters to protect the rights of persecuted writers.

I avidly followed Daily Variety‘s recent stories on the issue of writers credits and Daniel Petrie Jr.’s re-election as president of WGA West. Clearly screen credit remains a primary concern of screenwriters, but some 50 years ago there was far more at stake when the issue was on the table.

As has been documented in countless places, the Hollywood blacklist swept away the careers of numerous writers. Though I was too young to understand the full ramifications at the time, when I first saw the film “Spartacus” I was deeply moved by its message of brotherhood and hope. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the film’s producers had to stand up against McCarthyism to put screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s real name on the screen.

Kirk Douglas and Edward Lewis, the producers of “Spartacus,” gambled their livelihoods by taking a stand for Trumbo. They simply (and truth be told, “simply” is a difficult word to use in the context of the blacklist) did what they knew to be right.

The backstory is well known, but the damage done by Sen. McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities took decades to be repaired. That the wounds are not fully healed was famously witnessed a few years ago when the Motion Picture Academy presented an Oscar to Elia Kazan, a man whose talent will forever be tainted by his decisions.

Before Douglas and Lewis fought to get Trumbo’s name on screen, Trumbo had to use various pseudonyms. It took the Academy nearly 20 years to officially recognize that an Oscar-winning script by “Robert Rich” was in fact Trumbo’s, finally giving him the statuette politics had denied him.

Though the “persecution” of writers in Hollywood today would be more financial than political, throughout the world writers of conscience are still at risk.

In China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Colombia and many other nations, prominent writers have been jailed or even killed for their views. The time-tested adage that the pen is mightier than the sword remains intact, but only the most naive could argue that there aren’t some pretty nasty swords out there still inflicting damage.

On Nov. 8, Kirk Douglas and Edward Lewis are being honored at UCLA with the Freedom of Expression Medal from the Institute of Modern Letters for their valiant stand in a dark time.

I can only hope in the years to come that those who are fighting diligently to protect dissident writers in countries like China also are recognized for their efforts to preserve the sanctity of the written word.

Schaeffer is president of Mandalay Bay Resorts.

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