As a Hollywood Blacklist historian, I’ve eagerly looked forward to seeing the fact-based Hellman v. McCarthy. Its West Coast premiere did not disappoint. Playwright Brian Richard Mori’s vivid, fast moving account of the clash of the literary titans – between lefty lionesses Lillian Hellman (Flora Plumb) and Mary McCarthy (Marcia Rodd) after the latter allegedly defamed the former on host Dick Cavett’s (Dick Cavett) PBS TV talk show in 1979 – is exceptionally well constructed and acted.
A New Orleans-born Jew, Hellman was a first lady of American letters as a playwright (The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes and the “prematurely” antifascist Watch on the Rhine), memoirist (the controversial Pentimento, from whence the 1977 film Julia was derived), novelist and screenwriter. In addition to film adaptations of her plays she also wrote 1943’s The North Star, about Soviets battling Nazi invaders – which Ayn Rand denounced to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) because its peasants smiled too much – and 1966’s The Chase, directed by Arthur Penn, starring Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.
She was also, as she says in Hellman v. McCarthy, “a Marxist,” who supported the Spanish Republic (according to IMDB.com she had a hand in writing the classic 1937 documentary The Spanish Earth), defended the USSR, and defied HUAC during the Blacklist period. While others cravenly caved when testifying before HUAC, Hellman courageously stood up to the witch-hunters, boldly proclaiming: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion.” She went on to write a memoir of the Red Scare inquisition era, 1976’s Scoundrel Time.
Essayist, journalist and novelist Mary McCarthy was less successful than Hellman. Her most popular work – believed to be semi-autobiographical – was the 1963 novel The Group, about a set of Vassar graduates, class of ’33, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years. This was the year McCarthy herself graduated, and like her character Polly Andrews, she supported the ousted Bolshevik leader and apostle of world revolution, Leon Trotsky. The 1966 screen adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet co-starred Candice Bergen, with Shirley Knight playing Polly.
The Trotsky-Stalin split forms a political subtext for Hellman v. McCarthy and the longtime dispute between the writers, with the latter attacking the former as a “Stalinist.” But it was McCarthy’s statement about Hellman on Cavett’s chat show that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’” that propelled the longtime animus between the two lefty writers out of the salons and into the courtrooms.
Hellman, by then near the end of her career and life, took great umbrage and sued McCarthy for defamation of character – and $2.5 million. Although McCarthy’s remark may have been an offhanded wisecrack – prompted, Cavett explained, by the talk show host’s attempt to steer his guest toward discussing an up-and-coming writer – the author of The Group and perhaps Hellman herself ended up ruing the legal tangle the court case ensnared the two literati in for more or less the rest of their lives.
Hellman was criticized (not just by McCarthy) for allegedly fictionalizing the antifascist piece that became Fred Zinneman’s feature Julia, starring Jane Fonda as Hellman, with Oscars going to Vanessa Redgrave as the title character, Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett and Alvin Sargent for Best Writing of a Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, plus eight other Academy Award nominations, including for Fonda and Best Picture. But even if Hellman did fudge the facts in her Pentimento memoir (and who really knows?), this hardly means, as the snarky McCarthy accused on television, that “every word she wr[ote] is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Dishonesty always a timely topic
Hellman’s purported “dishonesty” is timely to consider at this moment, as Brian Williams steps down from his NBC News anchorman’s perch for apparently lying and/or inaccurately remembering an Iraq War helicopter shooting incident. Did anybody notice that Williams’ initial “explanation” was extremely self serving, and delivered in a way to burnish his own soiled reputation, the worst rationalization since Newt Gingrich likewise used patriotism to justify his adultery? (Hey, here’s an idea: Perhaps Williams, the dubious, embedded celebrity “real” newsman, and the truthtelling, fake newsman Jon Stewart, the outgoing Daily Show anchor, should switch places?)
Williams’ willing suspension of disbelief has more to do with inflation – rather than defamation – of character. It is more to the point to contemplate the lawsuit threatened by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo against Fox “News” after allegations were made on Rupert Murdoch’s network that areas of the City of Lights were “no-go zones” taboo for non-Muslims.
When it was lodged, many felt Hellman’s lawsuit against McCarthy was way over the top and constituted a threat to free speech. However, as a journalist who set a First Amendment precedent in the U.S. federal courts in 1989 by defeating a libel suit against him that was thrown out of court, this reporter knows a thing or two about the subject. The facts of the matter are that the First Amendment does not protect libel, and that libel, slander and defamation of character are not constitutionally protected forms of speech. Indeed, if any enterprising pro bono barrister out there in lawyer-land would like to sue Fox “News” on the grounds that its “fair and balanced” motto is a blatant, outright lie and a form of false advertising, etc., I’d happily sign on as plaintiff. (Any takers? Let’s become millionaires! We couldn’t lose this no-brainer suit.)
So if Lillian Hellman, toward the end of her days, would not defend her honor, who would? Of course, unlike the defrocked anchorman Williams, Hellman wasn’t generally viewed as a journalist, and was best known as a playwright (although if she did indeed knowingly falsify things in her memoirs, that is indeed troublesome). In any case, Flora Plumb portrays Hellman with much aplomb, while Marcia Rodd likewise does a stellar job in bringing the embattled Mary McCarthy back to life in this drama about a libel suit that arguably killed both of these aging storytellers.
It was also a treat to see Dick Cavett in the flesh, after watching him on ABC-TV from 1968-1974. It boggles the mind to think of the years of research that went into his preparing for the role of playing himself – much more time than it took Richard Linklater to film Boyhood. In any case, my half-Aunt Caryl’s uncle was an ABC censor, who used to tell me as a teenager that whenever any of the Fondas appeared on The Dick Cavett Show he’d phone home to tell his wife that he’d be home late. In a post-play Q&A that Cavett held with the audience he agreed that Peter Fonda’s appearances did indeed require lots of bleeping but, alas, could not recall the censor’s name.
Playwright Mori does a superb job delineating these characters, and it’s sheer brilliance to introduce Hellman while she’s playing Scrabble: What pithier way to stress she was a wordsmith? Mori explained in an email: “It was a bit of artistic license, but Hellman was an avid Scrabble player – and, for that matter, cheat. Sources include Rosemary Mahoney’s wonderful A Likely Story, One Summer with Lillian Hellman; at least two of her biographies; and, I believe, Alexandra Styron’s memoir about her father [William Styron].”
Howard Storm’s direction is a perfect storm with a cinematic panache: Jeff Rack’s set indelibly lends itself to suggesting a split screen, with great effect.
This one-act play transplanted from Off-Broadway to Beverly Hills may not be everyone’s cup of hemlock. But it’s absolutely ideal for those interested in the characters and subjects depicted: The authors, Cavett himself, courtroom dramas, Lillian’s love affair with Dash, the Old Left, the Hollywood Blacklist, freedom of expression, etc. Somehow, to paraphrase the lady who became a legend in her own time, Mori, and company have managed to cut the content to fit this year’s passion.