Chuck Ross

Maybe It’s Time for a New Version of the Academy Award-Winning Best Picture ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ This Time Focusing on the Discrimination Faced by the LGBT Community

Sep 23, 2014

In the history of movies, only 86 films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. One of them was “Gentleman’s Agreement,” released in 1947. It was based on a best-selling novel by Laura Z. Hobson and it was one of Hollywood’s first major films to talk about anti-Semitism. The entire film revolves around the subject.

My favorite movie guide, my Maltin, describes the film as “sincere” and says that its “then-daring approach to the subject matter is tame now.”

Jeff Young, a young aspiring film-maker in the early 1970s, saw the movie then and his response was much more harsh. Young, at the time, conducted a series of interviews with Elia Kazan, who directed “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Kazan was in his early 60s at the time of the interviews, which were finally published in 1999 in Young’s indispensable book “Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films.” Kazan, a Greek American who is not Jewish, is acknowledged to be one of the great stage and screen directors of the 20th Century. Kazan died in 2003 at age 94. Some never forgave him for testifying, in 1952, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and naming eight people who, he said, like himself, had once been members of the American Communist Party.

In Young’s interview with Kazan about “Gentleman’s Agreement” Young said, “You got all kinds of acclamation and awards including an Oscar for ‘Gentleman’s Agreement.’ My parents, being Jewish, naturally saw the film when it was first released. They loved it — called it terrific, shocking, staggering. Having seen it only recently, I felt it was dopey, simplistic agit-prop. Your work is best when the characters are fully developed, real people, full of colors and hues. You mentioned before the necessity for an actor to find the character within himself. In ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ [the star and lead actor] Gregory Peck never got to me at all. I didn’t believe him for a minute.”

Young goes on to also criticize the character played by co-star Dorothy McGuire in the film, the script — adapted by playwright Moss Hart from Hobson’s best seller — and some of the plot twists in the movie.

Surprisingly, Kazan, who is known especially for being an actor’s director, agrees with almost all of Young’s criticism of the film. At one point Kazan tells Young, “That’s good criticism. I agree with you. That’s the conventionality of it. There’s no ambivalence in the film at all.”

He also agrees with Young that Peck was not particularly exciting in the lead role: “He didn’t have an artist’s nature. He had his own way, and that was always correct. He was logical and he listened. He was cooperative. But it was hard to light a fire in a guy like that.”

Kazan agrees with the script’s shortcomings, saying, “It’s precise and explicit, but there’s nothing more than meets the eye. Everything the film is about is articulated clearly and simply … . It’s agitprop on a middle class level.”

Kazan adds: “’Gentleman’s Agreement’ is certainly more conventional than any film I ever did. There are no rough edges to it at all, nothing that’s not easily and readily digestible.”

But Kazan also makes it clear to Young that despite its limitations, the film is valuable: “[The film said] ‘Anti-Semitism is everywhere, all through America and especially among decent people who don’t believe they’re anti-Semitic.’ At that time this was an important thing to say — loudly and clearly to as many people as possible. So I don’t feel like you do about the film. … Remember, it was just after the war and the war had infused the country with an antifascist idealism. One of the first things that had to be cleared up was American anti-Semitism. It had been rampant in the Army. … There was a lot of pressure from rich Jews in California to not have that picture made. And there was terrific pressure from the Catholics not to have a divorced woman (the Dorothy McGuire part) as the heroine.”

Later Kazan tells Young: “Our whole task was to use a conventional form to force people to listen to ideas that were, at the time, unconventional. At the time of ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ people weren’t used to hearing those thoughts and feelings come out on the screen. There is no way to explain to you or anybody at this time what that film was when it was made.”

Eventually Kazan tells Young: “I was saying, ‘You, sitting out there at the premiere, with your fine clothes and fat bank balances, are anti-Semitic. I’ll make it so familiar to you that there won’t be any way for you to not accept the guilt.’ ”

And it worked.

In a newsletter published by Case Western Reserve University in May 2010, a student essay by Grant Slania was about the impact of “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

Wrote Slania:

An experiment conducted by Russell Middleton at a southern university in 1959 demonstrates the extent to which this popular film changed viewers’ anti-Semitic worldviews.

[The experiment Slania wrote about was published by Middleton in the October, 1960 issue of the American Sociological Review, and called “Ethnic Prejudice and Susceptibility to Persuasion.”]

The study’s experimental group consisted of 329 college students taking a required or semi-required introductory social science class, who were assigned by a teacher to go to a screening of “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

The study’s control group consisted of 116 students who were not assigned to see the movie, but who went to the screening following their own interests.

Before and after the movie, a questionnaire was given to all students, gauging their attitudes toward Jewish Americans and African Americans. The results from the questionnaires showed that anti-Semitic attitudes diminished in 69.3% of the experimental group and in 42.2% of the control group. These results indicate that the film was highly effective at changing people’s anti-Semitic attitudes, even twelve years after its release.

“Gentleman’s Agreement,” by the way, screens today, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, on TCM — Turner Classic Movies — at 7 p.m. PT (10 p.m. on the East Coast). The movie is also available to stream on Netflix and on Amazon Instant Video.

I thought about the movie version of “Gentleman’s Agreement” several months ago, when I read James Stewart’s article in The New York Times about John Browne. Browne had written a book about being a closeted gay man while he was the CEO of British Petroleum. After being outed, Browne wrote his book, which he titled “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out Is Good for Business.”

What surprised me most about the article was a line by Stewart that said by writing the book Browne “thus becomes the first current or former chief executive of a major publicly traded corporation to acknowledge that he is gay.”

Stewart added: “That’s not to say there haven’t been any gay chief executives at major corporations — Mr. Browne is unique only because he was outed — and there are gay chief executives today, some of whom lead relatively open lives. But thus far, none have been willing to publicly acknowledge being gay. I reached out to several of them for this article, and all refused to be identified.

“That makes the corporate corner suite one of the last frontiers for gay civil rights, now that even a professional football draft pick, Michael Sam, has publicly acknowledged being gay.”

Stewart’s article got a lot of attention when, on June 27, 2014, he went on CNBC to discuss it. During the discussion one of the CNBC anchors blurted out, “I think Tim Cook is fairly open about the fact that he’s gay at the head of Apple, isn’t he?”

After an awkward silence Stewart said no, and reiterated that no CEO had told him on the record that he was gay.

I decided to call Stewart to ask him why no CEOs of any major companies would allow themselves to be identified as gay. After all, are we not living in a period of more enlightenment about civil rights for the LGBT community?

I’ve never met Stewart, but I’ve been a longtime fan. He won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the financial scandals of the 1980s at the Wall Street Journal. And his 1992 page-turning account about those outrageous insider trades, “Den of Thieves,” is one of my favorite books, and one I recommend to this day.

Stewart was kind enough to agree to talk to me. An edited transcript follows:

TVWeek: Do you think that CEOs who are gay should identify themselves as such, and why do you think that makes a difference?

James Stewart: It’s a personal decision. I can’t speak for these people, so I can’t issue a blanket proclamation that all gay CEOs should be openly and publicly gay. On the other hand, if one or more of them would be, I think there are many benefits. Obviously in individual cases they have to weigh what benefits there might be against what they perceive as negative aspects of it. And I can’t put myself in their shoes and assess that.  

But I do feel that in many ways it would be very, very good. It’s healthy — not just for gays, but for all minorities. It breaks down stereotypes, it provides role models, it’s inspiration for people. It shows that, indeed, sexual orientation is irrelevant when you’re talking about managing large institutions, as it should be, just as race and ethnic identity should also be irrelevant. I think it creates a healthy perception that people should be judged on the merits and not based on stereotypes of particular groups.

TVWeek: Why do you think that it’s been so difficult to find just one man or woman who is a CEO of a major corporation who is gay or lesbian who is willing to say so while they hold that CEO position?

Stewart: I don’t know. I think it’s very puzzling. That’s one of the things that has intrigued me about covering this issue and writing about it, is to try to understand it better and maybe in doing so to help pave the way for people to be willing to be open about their sexual orientation.

[Stewart then spoke about some of the reasons a CEO might NOT want to come out. For those who are older, it’s been harder to be open over the years. In general, CEOs don’t like to draw attention to personal aspects of themselves. And some women CEOs don’t like to talk about things from a woman’s viewpoint, as opposed to a CEO’s viewpoint. CEOs generally don’t like to personalize things — everything they say is supposed to be about the company they represent.

I asked Stewart if he had seen “Gentleman’s Agreement.” He said it wasn’t vivid in his memory, but he thought he had seen it.

I then suggested that perhaps Hollywood should make a “Gentleman’s Agreement” today, this time dealing with discrimination issues faced by the LGBT community, showing particularly how much of this discrimination is ingrained into society. I suggested that, like “Gentleman’s Agreement,” it could help end some of this discrimination and might help convince some gay CEOs to come out.]

Stewart: Whether it would address this extremely sort of high-status segment of CEOs or those very close [to being] CEOs [that we’ve been talking about] — I don’t think it would particularly reach that level.

I think that it’s very interesting that I can’t off-hand think of any openly gay Hollywood CEOs. You find people who are open near the top, but not at the top. When I was looking in my book ‘Disney War’ there’s a passage in there that didn’t really get much attention, that I thought was very striking. [Then Disney CEO Michael] Eisner was under pressure to name a successor to be chief executive at Disney, and he wrote a letter [to a board member] saying if I should be hit by a truck tomorrow you should look at Barry Diller. And then in the letter, a copy of which I got, he said but of course you should be aware that Barry Diller is gay.

[In the book, here is the exact passage Stewart is talking about: “ ‘If I do die or become incapacitated,’ Eisner continued, ‘I suggest you talk to Barry Diller and Michael Ovitz and make a choice. Today I would choose Ovitz. … I think because he is a hard worker, and good family man and motivated, maybe too motivated and untested. Barry is completely the opposite. He has been tested. He is smarter. Much more ethical. … He has a real moral compass and great taste. He is not a family man but I believe you do not have to be a chicken to know a good egg. He will adapt to family values quicker than Fred MacMurray. Maybe I would choose Diller. I don’t know. I do know there is nobody else. … I think my first choice now would be Diller. He is a creative executive. And the fact that he is a homosexual should have no weight. I mention this because some[one] will surely say something about his lifestyle or at least think it. You crossed a much larger hurdle in 1984 naming a Jew. [That is Eisner referring to himself.]”]

Stewart: [Eisner] had to have known that by saying Diller was gay that meant that the board of Disney, of all companies, would never name him CEO. And he never told Barry Diller that he was saying that.

[Diller has never publicly acknowledged being gay.]

Stewart: I think TV especially has had a lot of gay characters, which has had a very good effect on part of this very rapid change in social attitudes. There were no positive depictions of gay characters who I saw when I was growing up.

On a personal note, Stewart says that when he came out, “I didn’t consciously set out to change the world or be a role model, but I certainly have taken satisfaction in sometimes very small things. I’m actually married now, and my husband and I were [recently] at my niece’s wedding in Indianapolis. We were certainly the only married gay couple at the event, and everyone was friendly, they’re open, they’re welcoming, we’re part of the family, we love my niece, she loves us. In that world, that to me is making a big statement. That’s why things are changing. It’s great. And we’re in Indianapolis. We’re not in Malibu or New York where you think things might be a little more open and tolerant. But we’re right in the heartland. And we’re in the bosom of the family. That did give me a lot of pleasure.”

One Comment

  1. Dear Mr. Ross,

    Thank you for this very interesting article. I agree with you that a new Gentleman’s Agreement movie should be made focusing on discrimination against gays in all sections of society. I would love to see what someone like Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen or even Quentin Tarantino would do with such a subject matter, and it would be great to see an A-list actor like Leonardo diCaprio or Ben Affleck or George Clooney play a closeted gay or even someone pretending to be one, like how Gregory Peck’s character was just pretending to be Jewish in the 1947 movie.

    Still, I am somewhat disappointed that you, Mr. Young and even Mr. Kazan did not seem to realize that Gregory Peck’s performance was hampered by the poorly presented and rather hard to swallow plot idea of a non-Jewish writer pretending to be Jewish for 6 weeks and yet getting so all fired up passionate about anti-Semitism in America like he’s suddenly an expert. A 30-something, tall, handsome, white, talented, single, and clearly successful non-Jewish American man couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to be at the receiving end of ANY kind of discrimination, in the first place, so it was hard to swallow, perhaps also for Gregory Peck, that’s why he couldn’t quite feel it, and the some viewers picked up on that.

    Anyway, I’m a huge Gregory Peck fan, and loved him in that film because I could see clearly where he was coming from. As for Mr. Kazan failing to light a fire under him, well, that’s his failure as a director. John Stahl, Alfred Hitchcock, Tay Garnett, and King Vidor managed to light a fire under Mr. Peck in Keys of the Kingdom, Spellbound, Valley of Decision, and Duel in the Sun, which were all before Gentleman’s Agreement, so the fact that Mr. Kazan didn’t manage to was his fault, not Mr. Peck’s. All Mr. Peck ever said about this was that their polar opposite backgrounds and personalities made it tough for them to see things eye to eye. He’s too classy a guy to call a colleague in the business a non-artist or make other disparaging statements about him.

    To be honest, I never liked any of Mr. Kazan’s films. I always found them pretentious, overheated and over-acted. Not at all believable as real life. That’s just my opinion, of course. Strangely, he and Mr. Peck both died in 2003.

    Thank you once again for your very interesting article.


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