When Karl Malden passed away on June 30, I tried - without much success - to write up a short obituary paying tribute to an unusual Hollywood career. Here was a man who won an Academy Award (1951, A Streetcar Named Desire) and an Emmy (1984, Fatal Vision), lived to the ripe old age of 97, and was married to the same woman for over seventy years. It's hard to find a bigger contrast to today's world of celebrities, where looks and money substitute for talent, and everyone tries to "live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse."
Perhaps Malden's anomalous life may be explained by his origins; son of a Serb immigrant from Herzegovina, born Mladen Sekulovich, he never forgot his roots. He talked a fair bit about being an American Serb in a 2003 interview, which is worth reading. But in the days after his passing, I've heard many Serbs wonder why he hadn't done more during the 1990s to counter the widespread demonization of the Serbian people in the West.
Now, it is true that he didn't speak out. But neither did many others. There's a large number of Serbs in America, and most have stayed just as silent. Malden lived through the blacklists and purges in Hollywood during the McCarthy era. I'm willing to wager he didn't care to go through such an experience again.
And let's not kid ourselves, speaking out for the Serbs, challenging the Official Truth in even the smallest way, brings upon one the full wrath of the political and media establishment - not to mention the lunatic fringe. For most people, this is an unpleasantness they'd rather not deal with. And the fate of their nation is something quite abstract compared to the real and immediate threat to one's own career and family prospects, were one to deviate from the party line.
This isn't to say Malden couldn't have, or shouldn't have done more. But speaking out for the Serbs has been a risky proposition. The fact that even Malden did not dare publicly stand up for his people doesn't tell us much about what went through his mind - but tells us a lot about the extent and intensity of the demonization campaign. Originating from the land of Free Speech, no less.