Screenwriter Walter Bernstein, among the last survivors of Hollywood’s anti-communist blacklist, whose Oscar-nominated script for The Front drew upon his years of being unable to work under his own name, has died, aged 101.
HIs wife, the literary agent Gloria Loomis, said he died of pneumonia.
A second world war correspondent for the military who also had been published in The New Yorker, Bernstein was at the start of what seemed a promising film career when the cold war and anti-communist paranoia led to his being blacklisted in 1950, a fate which ruined the lives of many of his peers and led some to suicide.
“I was starting to look around when I left my house, looking over my shoulder when I walked down the street, bracing myself for the inevitable encounter,” he wrote in his memoir Inside Out, published in 1996.
“Even expecting it, I was startled when it came, and there would be the sudden sour taste of fear for a moment and then a shaming wave of anger, not at them but at myself for being afraid. I could never really get angry at them. They were only doing their job, like delivering milk.”
Unwilling to provide the House Un-American Activities Committee names of suspected communists, the way director Elia Kazan and others had been spared from banishment, Bernstein found employment through the use of “fronts,” people willing to lend their names for scripts he had written.
While many were blacklisted just for supporting left-wing causes, Bernstein actually was a member of the American Communist party and remained so until 1956. Bernstein would remember his decision with “relief” over no longer abiding Soviet dogma and “sadness” for the people who were fellow idealists.
“I had left the party, but not the idea of socialism,” he wrote in his memoir, “the possibility that there could be a system not based on inequality and exploitation.”
The blacklist began to weaken in the late 1950s and ended for Bernstein in 1959 with That Kind of Woman, starring Sophia Loren. He was soon working on The Magnificent Seven, the Hollywood adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, and Marilyn Monroe’s last film that never finished , Something’s Gotta Give.
In the 1970s, Bernstein was able to use his own story for what became his most acclaimed project, The Front, starring Woody Allen as a stand-in for blacklisted writers and featuring Bernstein’s friend Zero Mostel, who also had been ostracised in the 50s. Bernstein received an Academy Award nomination in 1977 and a Writers Guild of America prize for best screen drama. Around the same time, Allen gave him an acting cameo in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall.
His other writing credits included the Burt Reynolds football comedy Semi-Tough and films by such old friends as Martin Ritt and Sidney Lumet . Bernstein himself directed Little Miss Marker, a 1980 release based on the Damon Runyon short story.
In 1994, he received a lifetime achievement award from the the Screen Writers’ Guild. Into his 90s, he taught screenwriting at New York University and was an adviser to the film school at the Sundance Institute, founded by Robert Redford.
Bernstein was married four times, most recently to Loomis, and had five children. Over his long life, he also enjoyed an eclectic range of friends and acquaintances, from authors Irwin Shaw and Shirley Jackson to songwriter Irving Berlin and Bette Davis, who, Bernstein was surprised to learn, shared his admiration for the writings of Karl Marx.
Descended from Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Bernstein was born and raised in New York City and by his teens had found his passions for movies and politics. In his spare time, he read Marx and Engels, Steinbeck and Dreiser, and sought out films by Sergei Eisenstein and other Russian directors.
“The books had opened my head,” he wrote. “The movies opened my heart.”