Friday, December 31, 2010

Ben-Hur: Bigger Is Better


It has been said that the Academy often awards Best Picture not based exclusively on merit, instead opting to reward the film with the biggest payroll (and in certain regard, it makes sense—a big film is likely to have more Academy members employed on it, and if cast and crew show loyalty to the picture they worked on, then naturally the films with the largest productions would have an advantage in terms of votes). Perhaps no film symbolized the triumph of logistics better than William Wyler’s Ben-Hur.

Even by modern standards, Ben-Hur is a massive picture. The film endured six years of pre-production, and when, in 1956, Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of his biblical epic The Ten Commandments (which DeMille first staged as a silent film in 1925) proved to be a massive hit for Paramount, MGM became serious about bringing Ben-Hur back to the screen. Like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur was also first successfully staged as a silent film—also released in 1925. MGM, like every studio in Hollywood, was quick to adapt to trends, and they even went so far as to cast Charlton Heston—famous for playing Moses in The Ten Commandments—in the lead role of Judah Ben-Hur.

Ben-Hur was also—at the time—the most expensive film ever made, budgeted at $15 million dollars (which doesn’t even pay for the salaries of some actors today). It was filmed on location in Italy, where massive, life-like sets were erected, to be populated by tens of thousands of extras. The Circus Maximus stadium built on the Cinecitta Studios backlot in Rome for the climactic chariot race spread out over eighteen acres, and the ten-block set used for the re-created Jerusalem was historically accurate. The film used over 1,000,000 props. Over 1,250,000 feet of 65mm film were processed in MGM’s laboratories for Ben-Hur–at the cost of a dollar a foot—and for the chariot race alone, for every foot of film used, 263 feet were trimmed. The marketing of the film was also taken to a ridiculous extreme. Aside from the usual and expected movie tie-ins like the soundtrack and action figures, MGM created Ben-His and Ben-Hers matching bathrobes. In every regard, the picture was massive.

The result—an unprecedented eleven Oscar wins out of twelve nominations. The film also represented an enormous gamble and payoff for MGM. Had the film been a failure, it would have sunk the studio. Instead, Ben-Hur was a massive success and saved MGM from bankruptcy.

In my opinion, time has not been particularly kind to every aspect of Ben-Hur. I will be the first to say that a film this massive and phenomenally popular in its time will always attract favorable audiences, but many elements of the film don’t hold up well under the scrutiny of time. First things first, Ben-Hur is an extremely old-fashioned film. There are many reasons that contribute to this. Part of it is the length of the film itself. Three hours and thirty two minutes is a long time for any audience to invest in a film, particularly one that doesn’t contain very much complexity—either from the actors, characters or the story itself. Another reason is the subject matter of the film. Ben-Hur is subtitled A Tale of the Christ and the film is unquestionably Christian. I have nothing against religiously themed films, but I’ve also found that film is a poor substitute for actually going to church. There is nothing subtle (save one very notable exception, which I will discuss in a bit) about Ben-Hur’s interpretation of Christianity, from the opening credits that unfurl themselves against Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to the Passion play finale. Finally, the script is easily the weakest part of the Ben-Hur, and struggles to contain the massive scope of the film.

Director William Wyler (who was paid the then record setting salary of $1,000,000 to direct Ben-Hur) hated the screenplay from its inception. Upon his first reading of Karl Tunberg’s script, Wyler scribbled the words “awful” and “horrible” in its margins. Almost immediately, Wyler sought out superior screenwriters to polish and in some cases rewrite the screenplay. One of the writers commissioned to do rewrites was Gore Vidal. Vidal also hated the script upon first reading, and wanted nothing to do with the film. However, Vidal was also under contract at the time, and hated being a contract writer as much as he hated the script for Ben-Hur. Wyler offered to get Vidal out of the final two years of his contract if he would contribute to the script rewrites. Vidal’s major contribution to the screenplay was to provide a homosexual subtext to the relationship between Judah Ben-Hur and the primary antagonist of the film, Messala (Stephen Boyd).

The original script simply had the root of the conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala—who were the best of friends in childhood—arise from political differences. Wyler felt political disagreement was not impetus enough for a relationship between two characters who were such close friends as children to devolve into outright hatred. Vidal supplied the subtext that Ben-Hur and Messala were lovers as teenagers, and the resentment and bitterness Messala feels is because Ben-Hur spurned him. Wyler was hesitant to implement this change—and was especially fearful of Heston’s reaction—but agreed to it after no explicit mention of the sexuality of the characters be made in the film (which would have violated production codes at the time) and that Vidal discuss the change with Boyd (who was fine with it) while never mentioning it to Heston. This results in an awkward performance from Heston, who is completely clueless to one of the motivating foundations of his character.

Astute audiences picked up on the subtext, and the sexuality of the two characters remained a mystery for years until in 1995, Vidal publically admitted he wrote the characters as former lovers. Wyler was proven right in wanting to hide Vidal’s changes from Charlton Heston. Heston, upon hearing Vidal’s assertions, immediately denied that Ben-Hur and Messala had a homosexual relationship. He claimed that Vidal never received screen credit for the film (more on that a bit later) because he tried to add gay innuendo to Ben-Hur. As most bigots eventually prove, Heston hypocritically contradicted himself. In his 1978 autobiography, Heston cited that Vidal was ultimately responsible for authoring the majority of the shooting script. After seventeen years, Heston changed his tune.

Wyler then brought in Christopher Fry to author the second major rewrite of the Ben-Hur screenplay. Fry’s contributions included a polish of the dialogue and a rewritten ending. Upon the release of the film, neither Vidal nor Fry received on-screen credit for their extensive contributions to the screenplay of the film. Wyler eventually commissioned 40 scripts for the film (never a good indication of a quality screenplay), and was so incensed of the lack of credit that Vidal and Fry received that he leaked the drama to the press (still considered something of a no-no in Hollywood). To add further insult to injury, Karl Tunberg received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for his “work” on Ben-Hur. It is perhaps a small measure of justice that Adapted Screenplay was the only Oscar Ben-Hur was nominated for that it did not win.

I think one of the major weaknesses of the script is that it doesn’t always reconcile the Ben-Hur part with the A Tale of the Christ part. Mostly, the film is a revenge story. Ben-Hur is framed, his family is imprisoned, he is wrongly enslaved, he becomes a confidante to his Roman captors, then ultimately seeks revenge on Messala, his former friend who imprisoned him. Ben-Hur even swears to Messala, “May God grant me vengeance. I pray that you live until I return.” This is an Old Testament theme in a film supposedly about the other part of the Bible.

Ben-Hur’s story is interwoven with that of Christ’s. The film opens with the traditional nativity story—the three Magi bearing gifts and riding into Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ. The film ends with Christ’s crucifixion. Throughout the film, Ben-Hur and Christ intersect, most importantly in a scene shortly after Ben-Hur is enslaved and being forced to march through a desert. When they stop at Nazareth, the dehydrated Ben-Hur is at his weakest moment, and he literally cries out for God to help him. Who should be there with a drink of water but Christ himself, and in that moment, Ben-Hur is transfixed by the son of God.

The most effective part of Christ’s depiction in the film is that His face is never seen. In fact, I will go on record as saying that I think this is the most effective interpretation of Jesus I have ever seen on film. Any actor who plays Christ—and there have been several very good ones, notably Willem Dafoe and Jim Caviezel—will inevitably fail to live up to the image of Christ in the minds of the audience. One thing Ben-Hur does do subtly and well is to keep Christ’s face hidden and let our imagination of Him fill in the gaps. He is also referred to obliquely, almost in passing at times (the Romans refer to Jesus as “a King of the Jews who will lead them all into some sort of anti-Roman paradise”, and that Christ is a “young carpenter’s son” who is “different. He teaches that God is near, in every man. It’s quite profound, some of it.”). Later, Ben-Hur meets Balthasar (Finlay Currie), one of the three Magi, who tells a disbelieving Ben-Hur:

"Your whole life is a miracle. Why will you not accept God's judgment? You do not believe in miracles, yet God once spoke to me out of the darkness, and a star led me to a village called Bethlehem where I found a newborn child in a manger. And God lived in this child. By now, He is a grown man, and must be ready to begin His work. And that is why I have returned here, so that I may be at hand when He comes among us. He is near. He saw the sun set this evening as we did. Perhaps He's standing in a doorway somewhere on a hilltop. Perhaps He is a shepherd watching, a fisherman. But He lives in all our lives. From now on we'll carry His mark. There are many paths to God, my son. I hope yours will not be too difficult."

This all serves to make Christ in the film a legendary figure, so that when He does appear in the film the audience is prepared to witness a figure of powerful faith.

Yet Ben-Hur’s conversion from a man filled with a bloodthirsty hatred for Messala and the Romans into a man who follows Christ’s example is less convincing. I never felt that, at least in the way Heston plays it, that Ben-Hur’s spiritual conversion comes from within. Instead, it feels like a plot device. After Christ gives Ben-Hur the drink of water at Nazareth, He disappears from the film for the entire second act—even after the chariot race is finished. Ben-Hur witnesses the Sermon on the Mount, but he is unmoved by Christ’s words. Furthermore, Ben-Hur doesn’t manage to put two and two together in that the man preaching on the hill is the same man who gave him a drink of water when he was thirsty. Balthasar and Esther (Haya Harareet), whom Ben-Hur loves, also witnesses the Sermon on the Mount, and it is she who reminds Ben-Hur of Christ’s teachings.

Ben-Hur is not satisfied that he has defeated Messala in the chariot race; he wants revenge on all of the Romans who have persecuted the Jews. (Important to note here is in Ben-Hur’s absence from Jerusalem, his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) have contracted leprosy after their own imprisonment in solitary confinement and are condemned to live in the Valley of Lepers.) Esther tells Ben-Hur, “Love your enemy. Do good to those who despitefully use you.” Christ’s words, from the mouth of a supporting character (again also serving to enhance the larger-than-life figure of Christ in the story). Yet Ben-Hur is unmoved, and Esther claims that Ben-Hur has become like the Romans whom he despises.

Finally, although he does not quite believe it, Ben-Hur is persuaded to seek out the Messiah to see if he can perform one of his miracles to cure Miriam and Tirzah of their leprosy. Esther persuades him to act by saying “Life is everlasting. Death is nothing to fear if you have faith.” In Jerusalem, Ben-Hur learns that Christ was put on trial and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Ben-Hur again passes by Christ carrying the cross on his back as he is on his way to Golgotha. It is here that Ben-Hur finally recognizes Christ as the man who gave him water when he was dying of thirst in Nazareth. When Christ falls, Ben-Hur offers Him a drink of water, and Ben-Hur’s conversion is brought full circle.

Yet do we ever hear Ben-Hur forgive the Romans? Is there ever reconciliation with Messala? I understand that the film asks us to accept that Ben-Hur’s reawakening of faith is another one of Christ’s miracles. I don’t deny the existence of miracles. However, I don’t feel that a miracle alone is reason for spiritual reawakening—the new ideals one has accepted into their heart must be put into practice, and the film never allows us to see the Christian Judah Ben-Hur becomes. Heston does not convincingly sell the conversion of faith. (To be fair, an awakening of faith is one of the most difficult things an actor can portray on screen. We’ve already seen Paul Muni do this effectively in The Life of Emile Zola, and we will see Ben Kingsley do it in Gandhi.) As such, the reaffirmation of faith—and the film wants to be more about spiritual awakening than vengeance—seems more plot driven than coming from within the character of Judah Ben-Hur.

I’ll wrap up my discussion of Ben-Hur on a positive note by backing up a bit and talking about the chariot race—the sequence that the film is most famous for and that most likely secured the Best Picture Oscar for the film. What works best about the chariot race is that nothing is faked. I think one of the things modern audiences struggle the most with when watching older films is that the special effects or the stunt work looks crude and phony. In Ben-Hur certain scenes are guilty of this. The naval battle in which Ben-Hur’s slave galley takes part in is a good example of an action sequence that has not held up well over time. With the chariot race, the reverse is true. Many action sequences today do not have the immediacy, the true sense of peril and overall reality that the chariot race has. William Wyler knew that the only way the scene would be effective was to actually film a chariot race.

The sequence took five weeks to complete filming. As mentioned earlier, the Circus Maximus was recreated on an eighteen-acre set—the largest ever built—on the backlot of Cinecitta Studios in Rome with a high degree of historical accuracy. 15,000 extras populated the sequence. Eighteen chariots were built for the sequence. Heston and Stephen Boyd learned chariot driving, and the actors serve as their own charioteer in all but two of the most dangerous stunts. One is where Ben-Hur is flung backward off his chariot, and the other is where Messala is trampled by his own horses (a scene which is still shocking, even today).

Of course, there have been several urban legends associated with the scene. It was claimed that a stuntman died during the trampling sequence, and the footage was used in the final film. However, Wyler, and his second unit director Andrew Marton, who actually filmed the chariot race, denied this claim, and it was backed up in Heston’s autobiography when Heston claimed the worst injuries anyone—actor, crew member or stuntman—obtained while filming the chariot race was minor scrapes and bruises. Other outlandish urban legends since debunked are that a Ferrari can be seen in the background and that Heston is wearing a wristwatch. No matter what tall tales are concocted about its filming, the chariot race will always remain a classic cinematic sequence, and it is a testament to the mastery of the actors, filmmakers, craftsmen, and stuntmen (stunt director Yakima Canutt and his son Joe, who was involved in a memorable stunt as the driver of a chariot who is flipped when Ben-Hur’s chariot jumps his deserve special mention) responsible for its creation.

I think the best form of praise the sequence can receive is in its many homages. Most famously, George Lucas homaged the chariot race in 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The pod race in that movie follows the chariot race in Ben-Hur on an almost shot-for shot basis. Yet the sequence does not contain the immediacy or sense of danger as the original sequence filmed forty years earlier. Lucas had vastly more sophisticated filmmaking techniques at his disposal, yet created a scene that while thrilling, plays more like a video game than the life-or-death encounter between good and evil that the chariot race in Ben-Hur actually is. All Lucas did was prove the might of the original sequence.

Ben-Hur fittingly closes the 1950’s as a decade where films grew more fantastic and opulent by giving audiences an epic of historical and religious spectacle. In this decade where films most directly and fiercely had to compete with television for audience supremacy, Ben-Hur throws down the gauntlet and unquestionably proves that movies are the exclusive domain of spectacular entertainment. That Ben-Hur was a massive global success that not only resonated with popular and critical audiences, but also quite literally saved its studio, MGM, is proof that bigger really is better. How could the Academy not make Ben-Hur the most honored ever in terms of Oscars won (a record the film still shares with 1997’s Titanic and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)?


DETAILS

Ben-Hur (1959)

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Finlay Currie*, Claude Heater**

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Total Oscars: 11(Best Picture—Sam Zimbalist, Best Director—William Wyler, Best Actor—Charlton Heston***, Best Supporting Actor—Hugh Griffith***, Best Art Direction (called at the time Best Set Decoration, Color), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score—Miklós Rózsa (called at the time Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Sound, Best Visual Effects (called at the time Best Special Effects)) out of 12 nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay—Karl Tunberg)

*Finlay Currie played both the Magi Balthasar and narrated the film.
**Claude Heater, an opera baritone, was the stand-in for Christ in Ben-Hur. He was uncredited, and it was his only film appearance. The roles of Mary and Joseph were also played by uncredited actors.
***When Heston and Griffith won for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively (Griffith plays the sheik who sponsors Ben-Hur’s entry into the chariot race), it would be the last time a pair of actors won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same film until 44 years later, when Sean Penn and Tim Robbins accomplished the same feat for Mystic River.

NEXT BLOG: Ranking the 1950's Best Picture winners, then into the 1960's with The Apartment

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gigi: Gagging on Pastry (and the films from the 1950's that should have won Best Picture)


Musicals. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Hollywood was in love with them. They were the blockbusters of their day. Where today, audiences line up for special effects extravaganzas; audiences came in droves to musicals during the middle of the 20th century. Musicals were seen as a reason to come to the movies. They represented a unique form of entertainment that only Hollywood could provide to masses of Americans (aside from the lucky few able to attend a live Broadway show). Musicals were big-ticket items for film studios during the 1950’s, and no studio produced more quality musicals than MGM and no production team was more adept at staging them than the Arthur Freed unit within the studio.

As discussed earlier in my review of 1951’s Best Picture winner, An American in Paris, the Freed unit became the masters of the musical because they were allowed near-autonomy within MGM. On Gigi, Freed re-teamed with many key An American in Paris cast and crew, among them director Vincente Minnelli, star Leslie Caron, screenwriter/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (his partner, composer Frederick Loewe, was brought with him fresh off their Tony for the stage version of My Fair Lady), and several others. Gigi even shares the Parisian setting as the 1951 Oscar winner, with the added advantage of actually being filmed on location in the City of Lights. With such proven talent, MGM was basically assured of a monster hit in Gigi, although the non-musical version of the play upon which it was based (adapted from the 1944 novella by French author Colette) was met with tepid response.

Lerner and Loewe essentially My Fair Lady-ized Gigi. The film and the play share basically identical plots, that of an independent girl being made over to find her true love. There are little differences—notably in that Gigi herself is far less uncouth than Eliza Doolittle, and that the film is far less overtly sexist—but the film is essentially a Francophile reworking of Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway success. Minnelli also learned from previous films. Gigi is far less indulgent and artsy as An American in Paris—no seventeen minute ballet sequences here (though I would have liked to see Caron’s dancing talent better utilized in the picture)—and the story, though still very simple, is far more coherent because of it. The location shooting also lends tremendous authenticity to the film. Undoubtedly, Gigi is a polished musical that showcases the talents of craftsmen (and women) at the top of their game.

Yet—like most musicals—for as good as Gigi looks, its story is silly, banal, and predictable. Gigi (Caron) is a young girl training to be a courtesan. Her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold), and great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans), see to Gigi’s education in the ways of high society. They are most invested in finding Gigi a respectable match. Gigi though, comes most alive when she is with Gaston (Louis Jourdan), a mutual friend of hers and Madame Alvarez. The big problem? Gaston is a notorious bachelor, whose reputation has come into ill repute after a break-up with a previous mistress. Though Gigi and Gaston initially have a more care-free, fraternal friendship, it soon blossoms into love. Neither Madame Alvarez nor Aunt Alicia considers Gaston a suitable match for Gigi. For one, Gaston reminds the women of his uncle, Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), a lifelong bachelor and notorious charmer (with whom Madame Alvarez had a previous relationship). The other problem is that Gigi doesn’t want to be seen simply as a mistress; if Gaston wishes to win her heart, he must propose marriage—a lifelong partnership—instead of treating Gigi like a girl who is “passed around among men”.

How does it end? You must have about three cents rattling around in your brain if you can’t figure it out.

Like many musicals of its time, Gigi hasn’t aged well for contemporary audiences. First, the whole premise of the film, as stated explicitly by Honoré Lachaille in the opening, is “Like everywhere else, most people in Paris get married, but not all. There are some who will not marry, and some who do not marry. But in Paris, those who will not marry are usually men, and those who do not marry are usually women." That statement does not at all apply to any woman (or man, for that matter) living in contemporary society. Hell, with programs like Sex and the City choosing to be a single woman is seen as empowering instead of cause for spinsterhood. It’s just a sexist attitude (I didn’t mean to imply Gigi wasn’t sexist earlier, it’s just not as overtly and blatantly sexist as My Fair Lady).

And really, what woman—at least one who doesn’t list “gold-digger” as her career aspiration—studies to become a courtesan? I think many female audiences view the ambitions imposed on Gigi by her grandmother and great-aunt to be strictly within the realm of fantasy. Hell, even when the film was released, Variety magazine called the film “100% escapist fare”, suggesting that even in 1958, a good chunk of the audience was hip to the B.S. images that the film concocts.

The most dated element of the film though, has to be Chevalier. His character is meant to be funny, witty and charming. Honoré Lachaille is meant to be seen as a silver fox, but he comes off totally Pepé Le Pew (and many Looney Tunes fans insist that Chevalier was the inspiration for the famously malodorous and overconfident skunk, though creator Chuck Jones insists the character is reverse-autobiographical—i.e. the skunk is brazen toward women whereas Jones was petrified around them). Lending big-time credence to the Pepé comparison is Honoré’s opening number, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”. It’s meant to be sweet, but when I see an old wrinkle-balls such as Chevalier leering at girls decades younger (Chevalier was 70 when Gigi was released), I can’t help but get a lecherous vibe from the whole thing. And “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” opens and closes the film—what sort of message did the filmmakers think they were trying to send? TV Guide, in their review of the film, sums up Chevalier’s performance perfectly, saying the performance “makes one feel as if you’re gagging on pastry.”

Still, there was a significant portion of the audience that wholly bought into the fantasy created by Minnelli and the Freed unit. Chief among the dreamweavers has to be costume designer Cecil Beaton, whose fashions for the film are simply gorgeous and astonishing. The clothes are easily the best thing about Gigi. Lerner and Loewe give the film a lovely score, though nothing in Gigi is as eminently hummable and catchy as their score for My Fair Lady. Predictably, the film became a box-office smash for MGM, and Gigi quite literally swept away Oscar, going nine-for-nine with its awards won, setting the (short-lived) record for most Oscars won by any single film.

In the year that saw the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—virtually ignored by the Academy and misunderstood by filmgoers—Gigi was the big-time winner, proving that more often than not, Oscar played it safe.

The following are some choices that, in a decade where the “safe” films were by in large rewarded, would have given the crop of 1950’s Oscar winners some lasting edge.

1950: In a year when the sublime All About Eve won Best Picture, it’s hard to argue with the Academy’s choice. Still, the film’s biggest competition came from director Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a dark, dark criticism of the film industry. Gloria Swanson—in a truly life-imitates-art role, plays faded and vainglorious star Norma Desmond, who lives in a dilapidated Gothic mansion with her former director turned butler (Erich von Stroheim, also in a life-imitates-art role). Struggling screenwriter William Holden accidentally crashes the funeral being held for Norma Desmond’s chimpanzee, and from there, the past-her-prime actress lures the screenwriter into penning her big comeback and becoming her kept man. Norma Desmond was ready for her close-up; Hollywood, not so much. This warts-and-all look at the film industry was perhaps even more scathing than how All About Eve skewered the theater, and the film remains a classic today.

1951: Oscar loved the insipid An American in Paris at the expense of two films of much higher quality. First is A Place in the Sun, for which director George Stevens took home the 1951 Best Director trophy. Adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (the last word of that title should clue you into the fact that this film might be a bit of a bummer), the film stars Montgomery Clift (brooding and tragic, as always) as a factory worker who dates and impregnates plain Jane Shelley Winters. Monty falls way hard for the society girl played by Elizabeth Taylor, and when Shelley insists that Monty marry her, he is driven to murder to resolve his dilemma. But hey—Liz Taylor (when she was really hot) vs. Shelley Winters—who do you think Monty Clift is going to choose?

A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan, would have been an equally worthy choice. Tennessee Williams’ play was both a smash and revolutionary on Broadway. All four main characters—played by Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter—were nominated for the top four acting Oscars, and everyone but Brando (whose sexually charged turn as Stanley Kowalski probably scared the holy fuck out of Academy voters) took home a statue.

The power of neither film has diminished; both were likely too much of a downer to conceivably capture the Best Picture Oscar.

1952: The Hollywood blacklist came into play in denying Fred Zinnemann’s real-time Western High Noon the Oscar it deserved. Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for playing Marshal Will Kane, who indelibly and courageously stands up to a gang of assassins all by himself when everyone else in Hadleyville is too chickenshit to do so. A western that not only creates a legendary character but also provides a moral backbone or a melodrama about the circus? Which film sounds better to you? It shouldn’t be surprising which film took home the gold.

1953: From Here to Eternity proved to be a good choice (although its victory was also one of the Academy’s biggest instances of giving themselves a mulligan—how much of From Here to Eternity’s victory was because Oscar failed to reward director Zinnemann’s High Noon the year before?), but 1953 also saw the release of one of the finest romantic comedies ever filmed, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. Roman Holiday was the product of another blacklisted screenwriter—Dalton Trumbo—but the script never errs in telling the story of a princess—none other than Audrey Hepburn, in the role that was her Hollywood coming out party—who disguises herself as a regular girl when in Rome (you know, doing as the Romans do). Hepburn utterly enchants not only Gregory Peck’s reporter but every man (and woman) watching the film. In a genre notorious for shitty, stupid movies, Roman Holiday truly shines. Hepburn took home Best Actress, the film was not rewarded in kind.

1954: Again, On the Waterfront, tough to argue that film shouldn’t have won the Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock might have something to say about that though, as his masterpiece about voyeurism, Rear Window, is what I feel is a better and more entertaining film. Jimmy Stewart (confined to a wheelchair), Grace Kelly (in one gorgeous Edith Head costume after another), Thelma Ritter (salty as always), an intensely suspenseful script, endless psychological debate and insight, and profoundly influential. What doesn’t this film have? What could anyone possibly dislike about it? Nothing is the answer to both questions. Nothing is also the number of competitive Oscars Alfred Hitchcock won during his career, and Rear Window also failed to garner a Best Picture nomination.

1955: Marty is a great film and an unassailable choice for Best Picture. Even the French loved it. Still, it is a relatively unknown film. More famous—and equally as good—is Nicholas Ray’s definitive portrait of teenage angst, Rebel Without a Cause, which only made an immortal out of James Dean (though dying young and tragic in your Porsche certainly helps that cause). Ray’s film is also one of the most gorgeous widescreen films ever shot. The film 55 years old and still arguably the greatest and most insightful film about teenagers and their relationships ever made.

1956: Anything would have been a better choice than Around the World in 80 Days. Anything. The film that should have won the Oscar—and wasn’t even nominated—is John Ford’s The Searchers. The film is only considered to be not only one of the greatest Westerns (if not the greatest) ever made, but simply one of the greatest American films ever made. John Ford won Best Director four times—clearly an Academy darling—and John Wayne was one of (and frankly, still is) Hollywood’s biggest stars—and Ethan Edwards is his greatest role—their combined power should have made The Searchers a shoo-in for Oscar gold. I have a hunch though, that Academy voters didn’t really like seeing Wayne play a racist, ornery, and ultimately unforgivable cuss. Considering the quality—or more accurately, the lack thereof—of the film which won Best Picture, Oscar’s neglect of The Searchers may just be the biggest oversight in Academy history.

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai: great film, worthy Oscar winner. Still, perfectly good alternatives were released that year. Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men has probably been seen (or read) by every kid in high school in America, and Sidney Lumet’s film is considered to be one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time (#2 on AFI’s list of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas).

There is also Stanley Kubrick’s WWI film Paths of Glory, with Kirk Douglas (who is also an Oscar bridesmaid) in the lead role. Kubrick’s film is even more incisive than The Bridge on the River Kwai with its anti-war message, and it displays the mastery of technical craftsmanship evident in all of his work.

Neither Lumet nor Kubrick ever won Best Director nor any of their great films ever won Best Picture. Lean was even more successful in 1962 with the victory of Lawrence of Arabia. In hindsight, 1957 was a golden opportunity to honor either of these men and their work.

1958: Should have been the un-nominated Vertigo. I am of the opinion that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s finest film, and oddly, with its memorable makeover scene and lead actor Jimmy Stewart’s (who was never better) attitude and obsession toward Kim Novak, it is an evil-twin version of themes in Gigi. Lush, deep, and utterly brilliant in every sense of the word, Vertigo should have been the film to finally bring Hitchcock an Oscar. Hell, you can turn off the picture and simply listen to the intoxicating Bernard Hermann score and the film is light years better than Gigi.

1959: Ben-Hur wins eleven Oscars (sorry to spoil it here). Cleans house. Yet two films released in 1959 are far, far better than the sword-and-sandals epic. First—Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like It Hot (only considered to be the finest comedy ever made—#1 on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Comedies). Its final line: “Nobody’s perfect.” The cliché is that the film is (and the cliché is right). Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witness a gangland shooting and go on the lam, cross-dressing as women in an all-girl band. Curtis falls head-over heels in love with Marilyn Monroe (wouldn’t you?), and dons a second disguise—as a millionaire—to woo her. Lemmon—in drag—is aggressively pursued by an actual millionaire, who refuses to let a little thing like gender get in the way of true love. You’re laughing your ass off just reading this (and Monroe was never better). Total Oscars—one for Costume Design (though Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond were given the kiss-and-makeup treatment in 1960, when The Apartment won Best Picture).

Finally, third time proved definitely not to be the charm for Hitchcock, as his classic thriller North by Northwest is denied a Best Picture nomination. Leading man Cary Grant (like his director, inconceivably an Oscar bridesmaid) woos Eva Marie Saint, fights James Mason, is chased by a cropduster in a corn field, dangles from Mt. Rushmore, and has everyone mistake his identity and for all his trouble also comes up a zero.

Sometimes—although they do get it right from time to time—I wonder if the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences even knows what a great film is.

DETAILS

Gigi (1958)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier*, Hermione Gingold, Isabel Jeans

Studio: MGM

Total Oscars: 9 (Best Picture—Arthur Freed, Best Director—Vincente Minnelli, Best Adapted Screenplay—Alan Jay Lerner, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (color), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score (musical), Best Original Song—“Gigi” by Lerner and Frederick Loewe) out of 9 total nominations**
*Chevalier was also awarded the Academy’s Honorary Oscar for “his contributions to entertainment for over half a century”
**Gigi, with its Oscar sweep, set the record for most Oscars won by a single film

NEXT BLOG: Ben-Hur

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Bridge on the River Kwai: An Epic Worthy of Widescreen



The 1950’s were definitely a roller coaster of a decade in terms of quality of the films to win Best Picture. 1956’s Best Picture winner, Around the World in 80 Days, was a showcase for excess, bloat, and ridiculousness (not to mention a total 180 degree turn in style from 1955’s exquisite Marty). Competition from television for America’s entertainment dollar forced films to become bigger, bolder, and more uniquely cinematic. In the worst-case scenario, a film like Around the World in 80 Days is foisted upon audiences. In the best-case scenario, we are treated to The Bridge on the River Kwai, an epic adventure film full of widescreen cinematic grandeur that retains story elements, performances and characters that provoke, challenge and above all entertain.

It has become cliché to call director David Lean’s film “the thinking man’s action picture”, but the highest praise I can give the film is that makes audiences think while being thrilled. The cliché about The Bridge on the River Kwai is 100% accurate.

As with many great films, Lean achieves maximum dramatic effect by keeping his storyline very direct and simple. A fictitious account of Japanese POW’s being forced to construct a bridge on the Burma Railway during WWII, The Bridge on the River Kwai centers on three main protagonists. First, there is the Japanese commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who has been ordered to complete the construction of a bridge spanning the river Kwai, the crucial and final link connecting Rangoon (the then Burma’s capital, for the geographically disinclined) to India. Next is Saito’s British foil, Colonel Nicholson (Best Actor-winning Alec Guinness), who fundamentally opposes Saito’s cruel and barbarous practices and eventually seeks to complete the bridge in a more efficient manner to prove the superiority of British methods. Finally, there is the wild card; American Naval “Commander” Shears (William Holden), a prisoner in the camp who eventually escapes then becomes involved in a commando mission to blow up the bridge on the river Kwai.

Even simpler is each man’s underlying motivation. For Saito, it’s about saving face. For Nicholson, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of his civilization. For Shears, it’s about survival. Inevitably, the motivations of each man lead to conflict. In adapting Pierre Boulle’s novel, screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman wisely boil down the story to the fundamentals of character in their three leads. For Saito, Nicholson, and Shears, we know the who, the what, the where, the when, and—most importantly in film—the why and the how. Wilson and Foreman wisely, intuitively know that epic storytelling is born not out of gargantuan set pieces or spectacular events but rather from the essentials of character.

(Of course, there can’t be a 1950’s Oscar winning film without a Hollywood blacklist controversy. Both Wilson and Foreman had their names removed from the credits of The Bridge on the River Kwai by the film’s producers, a practice both men had experienced before, despite each being nominated for screenwriting Oscars during the 1950. Foreman most famously lost for High Noon, Wilson was denied an Oscar for Friendly Persuasion, a film which took home the Palme d’Or. (Wilson did win an Oscar for co-writing A Place in the Sun.) Official credit—and the Oscar win—went to the novel’s author, Pierre Boulle. The problem—Frenchman Boulle neither wrote in English nor a word of the screenplay. In 1984, after both Wilson and Foreman had died, the Academy finally gave the men the credit they deserved and awarded Oscar statuettes to their widows. Screen credit was restored to the authors when the film was restored the same year.)

The film also creates a tremendous level of suspense by making each man neither entirely right, nor entirely wrong. The opening act of the film establishes a perfect balance between the three lead characters. Each man is brought into immediate conflict with the other. Shears, the longtime POW, has grown weary and perhaps even numb to the harsh life in the prison camp. His worldview is shaped on one principle with a single goal: survive—no matter the cost—then escape. His beliefs have crystallized in a barely concealed cynicism. When Nicholson’s troops make their arrival into the camp (they whistle the unforgettable “Colonel Bogey March,” a tune which during the war, had satirical anti-Hitler lyrics associated with it. Listen to it here, but risk getting it stuck in your head: ) Shears states “Those new prisoners see us diggin’ graves, they might all run away.” He is reprimanded by his Japanese superior, “No time for jokes. Finish work. Dig! Dig!” The difference between the American and his Japanese captors can be most clearly seen in their language—the American speaks in cynicism and gallows humor, the Japanese speak solely in imperatives.

Opportunity is what separates Shears and Nicholson. As stated, Shears, with his world-weary cynicism (in many ways, Shears is akin to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca, minus the heartbreak), is only looking out for himself. Escape is the ultimate means of survival for Shears, and he is only waiting for his opportunity to do so. Nicholson has another agenda entirely. Eventually, it is revealed that Nicholson was ordered to be captured, which seems incredibly stupid, but he reveals his true purpose for being at the camp in his first exchange with Shears.
Shears: Oh, I'd say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to 1...But may I add another word, Colonel...The odds against survival in this camp are even worse. You've seen the graveyard. There you realize. You give up hope of escape. To even stop thinking about it is like accepting a death sentence.
Nicholson: Why haven't you tried to escape, Commander?
Shears: Oh, I've been biding my time, waiting for the right moment, the right company.
Nicholson: I understand how you feel. Of course, it's normally the duty of a captured soldier to attempt escape. But my men and I are involved in a curious legal point of which you are unaware. In Singapore, we were ordered to surrender by Command Headquarters, ordered, mind you. Therefore, in our case, escape might well be an infraction of military law. Interesting? Shears: I'm sorry sir. I didn't quite follow you. You mean you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?
Nicholson: Without law, Commander, there is no civilization.
Shears: You just took my point. Here, there is no civilization.
Nicholson: Then, we have the opportunity to introduce it. I suggest that we drop the subject of escape.

Shears and Nicholson find themselves at cross-purposes. Shears means to escape the wilderness, Nicholson means to tame it. The conversation is also interesting to unfold, because the undercurrent of Nicholson’s tone suggests that Shears is a coward for wishing to escape. When Nicholson says, “I understand how you feel. Of course, normally it’s the duty of a captured soldier to attempt escape,” he is essentially accusing Shears of cowardice. Conversely, when Shears asks “You mean you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?” he barely veils his contempt. Shears thinks that Nicholson is perhaps insane. Dialogue this rich—combined with the subtle acting from Holden and Guinness—goes a long way in establishing character and conflict, while suggesting that neither man is entirely right or wrong.

The juiciest conflict in the film is between Nicholson and Saito. Willpower is what makes the opposing colonels very much alike, and neither man will fully yield until one has imposed his will upon the other. From the outset, Saito makes his rules very explicit. “You British prisoners have been chosen to build a bridge across the River Kwai. It will be pleasant work requiring skill. And officers will work as well as men. The Japanese Army cannot have idle mouths to feed. If you work hard, you will be treated well. But if you do not work hard, you will be punished.” Nicholson politely rebukes: “I can assure you, my men will carry on in the way one expects of the British soldier. And naturally, my officers and I will be responsible for their conduct. Now sir, you may have overlooked the fact that the use of officers for manual labor is expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention.” Nicholson then proceeds to pull out an actual copy of the Geneva Convention, all the while Saito stares at him, as if he were trying to burn a hole through the document.

Saito clearly could care less about the rules Nicholson adheres to. And why should he? Saito could order all of the British soldiers shot dead with a mere gesture. The whole time, I was thinking, if they’re in the middle of nowhere—in Saito’s words “an island in the jungle” why the hell would he care about the Geneva Convention, and doesn’t Nicholson understand he is within enemy territory? Why would he expect Western doctrines to be upheld?

Of course, neither man is willing to budge. Saito commands: “All men will work. Your officers will work beside you. This is only just. For it is they who betray you by surrender. Your shame is their dishonor. It is they who told you: 'Better to live like a coolie than die like a hero.' It is they who brought you here, not I. Therefore, they will join you in useful labor. That is all.” I imagined what those words must have sounded like to a soldier under Nicholson. For me, Saito’s words—especially since he has mandated the bridge over the river Kwai be completed in less than three months—make a hell of a lot of sense. The officers are able-bodied. Why shouldn’t they work as manual laborers alongside their men? Rigidly, Nicholson continues to cite from the Geneva Convention to defend his stance. This sends Saito into a fury, as he snatches the Convention out of Nicholson’s hands and slaps him across the face with the booklet. “You speak to me of code. What code? The coward's code. What do you know of the soldier's code? Of bushido? Nothing. You are unworthy of command.” Nicholson replies: “Since you refuse to abide by the laws of the civilized world, we must consider ourselves absolved from our duty to obey you.”

The conflict between the two colonels extends far beyond a clash of wills; it has become a conflict of cultural values. The film asks its viewers: Which set of cultural values do you align with? The honorable and direct Japanese, with their code of bushido? The rigid and stoic British, who feel the need to enlighten the dark corners of civilization? There is also the third option—the rebellious and cynical American personified in Holden’s Shears, out only for his own survival. To their credit, director Lean and screenwriters Foreman and Wilson never provide the audience with an easy answer, preferring (and trusting) that the audience watching The Bridge on the River Kwai will come to their own conclusions/

As the film plays out, each of the three leads find their belief systems challenged and unraveled. Saito is the first to fall; as the more he imposes his domineering will over Nicholson, the faster Nicholson is able to usurp his authority. The Saito/Nicholson conflict reaches its crescendo as Nicholson is imprisoned in “the Oven”—a small structure constructed of corrugated steel designed to amplify the already hot and humid temperatures—where Saito expects his British counterpart to fold under the torturous heat and pressures of solitary confinement. Yet Nicholson only becomes more stoic, and his bravery only inspires the men to rebel by constructing the bridge in a lazy and shoddy manner, making it more difficult for Saito’s mission of completing the bridge by May infinitely more difficult. When Saito realizes that only Nicholson (and his superior engineers) can command the British soldiers to complete the bridge on time, he relents and releases Nicholson. The only way Saito can save face and retain his honor is to complete the bridge on time, but to do so; he must cede power to his enemy. In a very moving contrast, Saito is shown crying privately in his quarters as the British soldiers triumphantly celebrate Nicholson’s release from “the Oven”. For Saito to overcome his shame, he must commit seppuku—ritual suicide—so that his honor is restored in death.

Nicholson becomes driven to prove to the Japanese that the British soldiers under his command can build a bridge far superior to one the Japanese could have constructed. Through the bridge, Nicholson will achieve his goal of establishing civilization in the wilds of the Burmese jungle, for the bridge will stand for “six hundred years” and will serve to “teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame.” The construction of the bridge has a double purpose: it will also restore order and morale amongst his men.

On both counts Nicholson is successful—the morale and health of the POW’s vastly improves—but he becomes so obsessed with the completion of his task that he loses sight of his principles. Ultimately, he abandons the Geneva Convention and enlists both officers and the sick men to help aid in the completion of construction. When the medical officer Major Clipton (James Donald), questions if Nicholson has utterly abandoned his principles in a show of one-upsmanship, Nicholson retorts, “One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.” It is also Clipton who warns Nicholson of his ultimate folly—that in building a bridge better than the Japanese could build themselves, the British soldiers are ultimately aiding their enemy by providing them with a crucial link in their railway, connecting Southeast Asia to India. When the bridge is completed, Nicholson will have committed treason.

Unbeknownst to Nicholson, Shears—after he escapes—is plotting to see that the bridge isn’t completed. Shears’ arc receives the bulk of the action in the picture. He makes his way to British Intelligence HQ in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time the picture was filmed, and the country where Lean moved the production), and lives leisurely among the officers there. However, Shears quickly finds himself in another trap—this time a catch-22. Shears is brought to the attention of Major Warden of Force 316 (Jack Hawkins), who has been delegated the task of blowing up the Kwai bridge. Warden is recruiting a team of commandos to parachute into Burma and infiltrate Saito’s camp, and Shears’ knowledge of the area is invaluable. Shears—true to the cowardly form Nicholson insinuated he had—tries his best to back out of it. Shears owns up to impersonating a Navy commander, and since he is only an “ordinary swab jockey second-class” and says that his escape from the POW camp had more to do with luck than any real skill as a soldier. Warden doesn’t buy it, saying that Shears’ efforts are heroic, but that Shears can’t be returned to the American Navy. “In one sense, you're a blasted hero for making an escape through the jungle. But at the same time, they can't very well bring you home and give you the Navy Cross for impersonating an officer, can they? I suppose that's why they were so happy to hand you over to us. You see?” Warden turns Shears’ unique situation against him, and where Shears’ detached cynicism helped him survive in the POW camp, it only ends up placing him in mortal danger by being shanghaied into returning as part of the commando team. Shears’ own attitude again makes him a prisoner.

After each man—Saito, Nicholson, and Shears—has been built up and brought down to Earth, the stage is set for the finale. Lean stages an explosive (literally) and tragic final act (I won’t spoil the details entirely), with the film’s last line—spoken by Lt. Clipton (“Madness! Madness! Madness!!”)—revealing the filmmakers’ attitudes toward war in general.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is the first Best Picture-winning widescreen epic where the power of the story and the quality of the filmmaking matches the supersized frame. Not only is the picture supremely worthy of being shot in CinemaScope—with its magnificent vistas, lush Ceylon location, and a bridge that literally spans the frame of the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai is ideally suited for massive presentation—but the ideas presented in the story and its characters provoke thought long after the film is ended. The balanced direction from David Lean gives the film stems from an equally balanced script by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Because the film is based on a novel, it doesn’t have to be burdened with slavish accuracy to history. Instead, the film needs only to retain fidelity to its characters. In the characters of Saito, Shears and Nicholson—three heroic, frustrating, and complicated men who are never entirely good or evil, right or wrong—audiences are allowed to derive their own conclusions instead of being spoon-fed answers.

In a decade where films often dumbed down when they went big, The Bridge on the River Kwai had faith in the intelligence of its audience. Ultimately, this faith paid off, as the film became the most popular of its year in terms of box office receipts, and when the film was first aired on television (a risky move, considering that with commercials, the film would last well over three hours—long films were usually broken up into two parts over two nights), ABC reaped the benefits of 60 million viewers tuning into the broadcast. In any age, The Bridge on the River Kwai will endure.

DETAILS

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean

Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 7 (Best Picture—Sam Spiegel, Best Director—David Lean, Best Actor—Alec Guinness, Best Adapted Screenplay—Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson and Pierre Boulle, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score) from 8 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Sessue Hayakawa)

NEXT BLOG: Gigi and the overlooked Best Picture candidates from the 1950’s

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Around the World in 80 Days: Todd's Zenith; Oscar's Nadir



1956 proved to be one of the finest years in cinema ever. John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers—recognized by the American Film Institute as the finest Western ever made and career highs in the prolific careers of both Wayne and Ford. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. A pair of sci-fi classics—Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—were both overlooked. Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece—The Seven Samurai—though released in Japan in 1954, hit American soil in 1956. What does each of these great films have in common? Little no absolutely no Oscar recognition. Even among the Best Picture nominees, Giant (which took home the Best Director trophy for George Stevens) is the only film that holds up under both critical and popular acclaim (The Ten Commandments and The King and I, though each incredibly popular then and now, don’t measure up by critical standards as great films).

What did happen in 1956 was a film completely undeserving of an Academy Award took home the biggest Oscar. Worse than being undeserving—several quality films have won Best Picture yet didn’t deserve it—Around the World in 80 Days plain stinks. If you’re following the blog and thinking, “Hmmm, with the victory of Marty, wouldn’t it signal the beginning of an Oscar trend to reward small, intimate and honest films?” you’d be dead wrong. If Marty is film haiku, then Around the World in 80 Days is an epic ballad on crack.

The film is the brainchild of its producer, Michael Todd. Todd made his mark in entertainment as a very successful producer of Broadway shows (he is also famous for being husband #3 to Elizabeth Taylor). His other significant contribution to film history is the development of the Todd-AO process. In Todd-AO, film was shot on 65 millimeter film which was blown up to 70mm for projection purposes. Films shot in Todd-AO have an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. Films shot in Todd-AO are meant to be projected onto a curved screen at 30 frames per second (a bit faster than the standard 24 fps), giving the film a richer, high-definition feel which eliminated many imperfections like flickering. Unlike the other major widescreen presentation, Cinerama, which used three projectors, films shot in Todd-AO had the advantage of needing only one projector to be screened.

Okay, we all get the point. Michael Todd wanted to make a really big fucking movie. Around the World in 80 Days is a big fucking movie, so good on Todd for accomplishing what he set out to do.

Unfortunately, Around the World in 80 Days is also a really big fucking mess.

The film is liberally adapted from Jules Verne’s 1873 novel. In the book, protagonists Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout (played in the film by David Niven and Cantinflas, respectively) attempt to circumnavigate the globe to win a wager of ₤20,000. Their primary methods of transport are trains and steamships. Not sexy enough for Todd, who has Fogg and Passepartout embark on their journey via hot air balloon, creating a huge misconception about the source material.

The casting of Cantinflas is another issue. Loath though I am to knock a fellow Mexican—especially one regarded as Mexico’s version of Charlie Chaplin—but his presence in the film ultimately distracts from the storyline. Cantinflas’ casting was a huge coup for Todd, and entire scenes in the movie are designed to show off his considerable physical comedic talents. The bullfighting scene is a perfect example of this. No bullfighting scenes were in the Verne novel, but Todd felt obligated to showcase his big international star. In fact, although Niven received top billing for the film, upon viewing, it is obvious that Cantinflas is the true star. He gets far more to do, all the major set pieces revolve around his character, and he receives the bulk of the screentime.

(As an aside, David Niven sort of made a career of being overshadowed. In 1958, he won Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables, a film where he is third billed in an ensemble cast and received a scant sixteen minutes of screentime for his performance. It remains the shortest performance to ever win Best Actor. He was also Sir Ian Fleming’s personal choice to play James Bond, though the role went to Sean Connery. When Niven did finally get to play Bond, it was in the satirical 1967 version of Casino Royale, where he plays one of six characters called “James Bond” in the film and totally overshadowed by a huge cast with actors like Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen—who also plays a Bond—hamming it up in an obviously ridiculous film. Finally, in 1974, as one of four hosts of the Academy Awards ceremony, Niven was interrupted by a man named Robert Opel, who streaked across the stage flashing the peace sign at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Niven, unflappable, got the last laugh in that situation, saying “the only laugh that man will probably ever get is for stripping and showing off his shortcomings.”)


Anyhow, Cantinflas’ antics become the real excitement in the film (anyone with half a brain, even if you’ve never read Verne’s story, knows that Fogg is going to win the wager), so much so that the film should more accurately be titled The Cantinflas Show. Don’t even get me started on the fact that a Mexican is playing a Frenchman (and when Around the World in 80 Days was remade in 2004, Jackie Chan played Passepartout, a Chinese actor playing a French character).

More strange casting decisions are made in regards to ethnicity. Shirley Maclaine—in one of her first films—is cast in the lead female role as Princess Aouda. The strange thing is, Princess Aouda is Indian. Fair-skinned, blue-eyed, red-headed Shirley Maclaine was cast as royalty from the subcontinent. A Mexican plays a French guy and an American plays an Indian in two of the three main roles in the film.

The film also has an astonishing number of cameo roles. Todd, in fact, is credited with coining the phrase “cameo appearance”. Over forty stars have cameo roles in Around the World in 80 Days. There are at least four Oscar winners (Ronald Colman, John Gielgud, Victor McLaglen and Frank Sinatra) to make cameos in the film, alongside some really legendary actors like Marlene Dietrich and Buster Keaton. Anytime the film meanders or gets a little boring—which happens quite often—an actor in a cameo pops up. “Look! There’s Sinatra!” “Look! That’s Red Skelton!” “Man, Dietrich and Keaton got old!” (I did like Peter Lorre’s cameo the best.) The film is also reputed to have 8,552 animals on screen, a veritable menagerie worthy of Noah’s Ark. If old celebrities aren’t your thing, there are plenty of lions and tigers and bears (Oh my!) to ogle. Distractions abound.

Also, the film has one of the oddest openings I’ve ever seen. It begins with legendary television journalist Edward R. Murrow (who must have enjoyed the payday) in a prologue where he describes otherworldly journeys man has undertaken, including rockets being blasted into space (current events for 1956). The rocket footage is accompanied by clips from Georges Méliès 1902 early science fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Todd is obviously and bluntly equating the journey in the film to astronomical exploration (and hoping his film will be as important to cinematic history as Méliès’).

The overall effect is not watching a film as much as a parade. I don’t know about you, but I pretty much despise parades (and watching a parade on television is especially cruel torture). No matter what the theme of the parade is, you can always count on basically the same stuff. Corny marching bands, fancy or ridiculous or obnoxious (or all of the above) modes of transportation, a litany of animals (along with animal poo), acrobatic performers, a princess or two, a politician, and candy being tossed your way (which is probably the only way a parade is better than Around the World in 80 Days—at least you get bubblegum and Tootsie Rolls when you watch a parade). And like this film, parades are neverending. At three hours, Around the World in 80 Days is at least twice as long as it needs to be. Two whole Marty’s could fit inside this picture.

What a disaster of a movie.

But, in the 1950’s Hollywood was terrified of television. Films needed to provide a larger-than-life experience, and Michael Todd took the concept to an extreme notion in Around the World in 80 Days. I think also, its Oscar victory is a clear signifier that the Academy was more concerned with how mightily a film tried to entertain an audience instead of how much a film made an audience think, or be moved, or feel an emotional bond with the characters. And frankly, the more deserving films like The Searchers (or any of the films I mentioned in the opening paragraph), were simply way, way ahead of their time and ultimately initially widely misunderstood in terms of their lasting impact.

Nothing could ever be misunderstood about Around the World in 80 Days. The film is as blunt as an anvil, as subtle as dynamite.

DETAILS

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Director: Michael Anderson

Starring: David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley Maclaine and 40 cameo appearances including Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, Peter Lorre, etc.

Studio: United Artists*

Total Oscars: 5 (Best Picture—Michael Todd, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score) from 8 total nominations (Best Director—Michael Anderson, Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color))
*UA held the rights to the film from 1956 to 1976; Warner Brothers has held the rights to the film since 1983

NEXT BLOG: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Marty: Small Screen Roots, Big Screen Brilliance


Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show (which, by the way, received a Best Picture nomination) recreated the competition between nebbish Jew Herbie Stempel and handsome Gentile Charles Van Doren on the 1950’s Jeopardy!-style game show Twenty-One. In the film, the producers of the show have rigged the results to enhance the drama and create a national sensation. While both Stempel and Van Doren are brilliant men in their own right, each is seduced by the allure of fame and willingly plays along with the deception of the show; they are fed the answers and taught how to play up the drama. Stempel, the reigning champion as the film begins, does not have the star quality the executives on the show really want. He’s nerdy, a bit uncouth, too nebbish, and most unforgivably in the eyes of the anti-Semitic producers: too Jewish. Van Doren is photogenic, handsome, and comes from a wealthy family. Twenty-One’s producers see him as marketable and appealing. When Stempel and Van Doren clash, Stempel is told to throw the game. The decisive question: What movie won Best Picture in 1955 (Quiz Show is set in 1956, so the answer is a gimme)? The answer Stempel must give: On the Waterfront.

For Stempel, answering On the Waterfront instead of Marty is very nearly a deal breaker. He claims that it was his favorite film, he has seen it several times, and would consider it an indignity to answer that question wrong. Although Stempel does eventually compromise, when you watch Marty, it becomes clear why Stempel idolizes the picture. Marty describes himself as an ugly man. Unlovable. Painfully ordinary. Marty’s ordinariness becomes his endearing quality, and in Marty, men and women like Herbie Stempel found a kindred spirit. For once, a film showed one needn’t look like a matinee idol to find love and happiness. Of all the films ever awarded Best Picture, Marty is unquestionably the smallest in scale, yet in its celebration of the ordinary man, it proves to have the biggest heart.

Ironically enough, Marty began its life on television. The story originally debuted on television, broadcast on The Goodyear Television Playhouse on May 24th, 1953. (Another irony—The Goodyear Television Playhouse, like Twenty-One, were both programs on NBC, proving that both quality and corruption can exist on a single network.) The Goodyear Television Playhouse brought serious works of drama and theater to the home audience in a one hour program. Works popular on Broadway were condensed along with standalone original material. Marty, one of the latter, was scripted by Paddy Chayefsky (who is most famous for his searing script for Network) and proved to be quite successful and stood out amongst the fare it was aired with.

What is significant about Marty was that it went against the grain in terms of how Hollywood viewed television. TV was seen as a very serious threat to the movie studios in the 1950’s. Why would audiences pay good money to go out and see a movie when they can be entertained at home? Hollywood answered by giving audiences massive, spectacular films that television could not hope to recreate. This was the decade of the musical, of the epic, of the films adapted from great works of literature. Look at some of Marty’s Best Picture predecessors—An American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, and From Here to Eternity fill out the bill for musicals, epics, and literary adaptations. Even All About Eve and On the Waterfront, with their marquee casts, pedigree filmmakers, and universal themes are larger than life in their own right, and could only work as feature films. In a decade of filmmaking where gigantic storytelling and gimmickry was seen as an absolute need (don’t forget, that the 1950’s were also the decade where 3-D, widescreen, and forgettable gimmicks like Aroma-vision were developed), Marty is tiny, unadorned and honest.

(Hell, the film was rumored to be a tax write-off for its producers, Harold Hecht and the actor Burt Lancaster. What bigger indicator of a throwaway project than that. In fact, in the trailer for Marty, Lancaster is seen introducing the picture, lending it some star power although Lancaster does not appear in a frame of the film itself. It is as if Lancaster doesn’t believe the story alone will sell the picture. Ultimately, when Marty became a critical and financial success—the film made back nearly ten times its budget—it made history as being the only film for which the Oscar campaign mounted for the picture cost more than the actual film itself. ($400,000 campaign budget against a $343,000 production budget, though it does seem like producers spend what it costs to make their film on many Oscar campaigns in recent history.))

Director Delbert Mann’s film traces roughly thirty-six hours in the life of its titular protagonist, butcher Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine). Marty is a lifelong bachelor in his thirties who lives at home with his overbearing Italian-American mother (Esther Minciotti) in the Bronx. Though Marty is a hard and dependable worker with a secure job, he has a grand total of zero romantic prospects. Partially due to his looks—Marty describes himself as a “fat, ugly man” (the stocky, round-faced Borgnine isn’t quite as hideous as his character describes himself as, but Borgnine is certainly not cut from traditional leading man cloth like his producer and From Here to Eternity co-star Lancaster)—and partially due to the constant browbeating he faces from his mother, Marty has become a large, decent man with absolutely no self-esteem. Marty is all-too aware of the price he has paid for his decency: “You don’t get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough; you become a professor of pain.”

Despite the fact that Marty has resigned himself to bachelorhood, Mrs. Piletti constantly harangues her eldest son into finding a girl. The fact that all of Marty’s younger brothers are married yet the oldest son is still single becomes a source of laughter in the community, and in many ways, reflects a failure on the part of Mrs. Piletti. Marty’s lack of romantic prospects becomes the primary source of conflict between mother and son: he is sick of rejection and heartbreak, she wishes to see her son happy. Ironically, Mrs. Piletti is clueless to what actually would make her son happy—some independence, for starters, and a chance to find love on his own terms. Furthermore, Mrs. Piletti secretly doesn’t want Marty to find love; she is absolutely terrified that if Marty does marry, she will be left utterly alone. Marty, in honest and direct terms, spells things out for his mother: “Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life where he’s gotta face facts. And one fact I gotta face is that whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.” It is a testament to the strength of Chayefsky’s script and the skilled performances of Borgnine and Minciotti that the lived-in bickering between mother and son—which the audience, is of course, witnessing with fresh eyes—seems eternal.

Mrs. Piletti wins the argument, and she convinces Marty to go to a community dance to meet women. Marty has his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell), tag along. Angie is an equally luckless bachelor, and when Marty says “I’ve been looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life,” one senses that the statement applies to Angie with the same fidelity, and that both men are burnt out in their search for female companionship. Again, Borgnine and Mantell make it appear that Marty and Angie have been best friends for a long time, and that their shared motivation for going to the dance springs not from the prospect of meeting women—both men dread the prospect of doing so by this point, they have a shared hopelessness in that regard—but simply because going out is a far better alternative than staying in and doing nothing and being bored. When the friends ask each other “So, what do you feel like doing tonight?”/ “What do you want to do tonight?” (This line became a 1950’s catchphrase), their fruitless search for women becomes a mundane, rote part of their weekly routines.

At the dance, Marty is unsurprisingly rejected when he asks a woman to dance. He wanders off by himself, and meets a 29-year old schoolteacher named Clara (Betsy Blair). Clara came with a couple and hoped to be set up with a man they were acquainted with, but Clara’s date has stood them up. Clara is called “a dog” by other men at the dance (Angie included), though if Clara has any strikes against her appearance, it is that she is spectacularly ordinary (Blair, while certainly no “dog”, benefits from her plain appearance in this role). Marty, sensing a kindred spirit begins to talk to Clara, and though both parties are apprehensive—Clara especially so—Marty finds that the pair have much in common. On a surface level, both are relatively committed to their careers and both live with and are devoted to their parents (with Clara, it is her father). On a deeper level, both Marty and Clara intuit that they are both people who have resigned themselves to never falling in love. Their shared outlook provides a foundation for the pair to begin a relationship.

Eventually, Clara and Marty warm to each other. Both Borgnine and Blair have, like every successful romantic pairing in the movies, perfect chemistry. In this case, things start perfectly awkward and timid. Borgnine and Blair understand that Marty and Clara have both been hurt in the past, both fear rejection and loneliness, and both can hardly believe that there is another person out there who feels the way the other does. Eventually, Marty and Clara warm up to each other, and both have found what has eluded them throughout adulthood: a potential partner. They spend the evening together, out so late that Marty has to take a taxi home after ushering Clara to her doorstep because the trains have stopped running. Marty kisses Clara as he leaves, and in a sublime movie moment, he giddily dances down the middle of the street. Borgnine makes this large, oafish man twinkle-toed, the picture of utter happiness. Marty’s dance down the street after his date with Clara is a moment as equally joyful as Jimmy Stewart running down the main street in Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, and frankly, the moment should be equally as famous.

The next day, Marty tells his mother how his date went and is met with reservation. It is here that Mrs. Piletti’s fears of abandonment are made explicit, and she puts it in Marty’s mind to renege on the promise he made Clara: to call her the day after the date. The final scene of the film finds Marty in the café that he frequents with Angie. Angie—peeved that Marty left him at the dance without telling him where he was going—also doesn’t approve of Marty’s matchup with Clara. Marty though, sees through Angie’s anger and realizes that Clara represents an opportunity at love that he would be foolish to throw away (Mantell also plays the role with a touch of obvious jealousy, and like Mrs. Piletti, the fear of abandonment is writ large over his face). Marty tells Angie:

“You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I’m gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we have a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad. Hey Ange, when are you going to get married?”

The final moments of the film have Marty inside a telephone booth, making good on his promise to call Clara.

Marty is an honest film dealing with ordinary love. Atypical of romantic films, Marty does not adhere to the characteristics of its genre. Unlike It Happened One Night—a film I would categorize as prototypical—Marty doesn’t have leads who “meet cute” (and they certainly aren’t played by marquee stars like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert—Borgnine and Blair are character actors). They are a pair of kindred spirits, not opposites who attract. Marty and Clara are very much, almost painfully ordinary, unlike Peter Warne, who is popular and likable, and Ellie Andrews, who is essentially a princess. Marty and Clara don’t have glamorous jobs—they’re a butcher and a teacher, not a star reporter and heiress. There is no love at first sight, a sweeping off the feet, or a mad dash for the marriage altar. There is simply a promise to make a follow-up date that is adhered to, a possibility of happiness. In Marty, there is romance but there is no bullshit.

And really, how many real-life romances and couplings are as zany as the movies make them out to be? Do any of us meet our spouses-to-be under wacky circumstances or are they more mundane? Do we really fall immediately in swooning love? Are we really attracted to our bickering opposites—and I’m not talking in a lustful manner here, I think everyone in some manner has a physical attraction to otherness—or when we seek out someone for a long-term relationship, do we look more for partners with whom there are shared characteristics? Do first dates go smoothly or awkwardly? Marty always errs on the side of realistic answers to those questions.

Reality is what attracted Herbie Stempel to the film. Marty showed that an ordinary man—one who, God forbid, may be considered a bit of a loser—resigned to bachelorhood can defy the odds and find a soul mate. (And another great thing about the film: it neither judges nor celebrates Marty and Clara’s resignation to be single; it presents it as it is. If anyone is condemned in the film it is Mrs. Piletti and Angie, who try and force Marty to act in ways that go against his heart.) Stempel was an ordinary guy—God forbid, a bit of a loser too—who also defied the odds and got to win money on a game show. The film resonated with ordinary folks worldwide. The French loved Marty; it was one of only two Best Picture winners that also received the Palme d’Or, top prize at the Cannes Film Festival (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is the other film).

Marty is a testament to the virtues of realism and honesty. It says that what is ordinary is also beautiful.


DETAILS

Marty (1955)

Director: Delbert Mann

Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Joe Mantell, Esther Minciotti

Studio: United Artists

Total Oscars: 4 (Best Picture*—Harold Hecht, Best Director—Delbert Mann, Best Actor—Ernest Borgnine, Best Adapted Screenplay—Paddy Chayefsky) from 8 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Joe Mantell, Best Supporting Actress—Betsy Blair, Best Art Direction (B&W), Best Cinematography (B&W)
*At 91 minutes, Marty is the shortest film to ever win Best Picture

NEXT BLOG: Around the World in 80 Days

Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Waterfront: A Method for Greatness


Oscar winners in the 1950’s reflected the reactions of the film industry to historical and cultural events and changes. In general, the biggest changes the film industry faced were the threats from television. This is why the big budget musicals and epic films became dominant throughout the latter half of the decade and throughout the 1960’s. The socially conscious films that were rewarded in the 1940’s (especially after the end of WWII) would eventually fall out of favor with Academy voters in favor of films focusing on pure entertainment and demonstrated the might of the studio system.

History, though, was still a major force in shaping acclaimed entertainment. On the Waterfront represents the zenith of the socially-conscious message film. The film can be seen as the culmination of what worked best about all of the previous socially conscious Best Picture winners preceding it. On the Waterfront is also permanently linked to the conflict between Hollywood and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, with McCarthy relentless in his zeal to eradicate the perceived threat of Communism by blacklisting anyone within the film industry associated with it. On the Waterfront’s director, Elia Kazan, achieved infamy by naming names of people associated with communism in Hollywood (though, it should be noted, with significant threat to Kazan’s career—an argument can be made that Kazan was blackmailed into cooperating) to HUAC. The film is seen both as Kazan’s apology and a defense of his actions. No matter which side of the Kazan debate you lay on, On the Waterfront is the picture most associated with the Red Scare of the 1950’s (and it isn’t even about Communism).

In my review, I am going to focus less on the Kazan controversy and more on why the film has achieved its success as the finest social issues picture ever made in America. When compared especially to the 1947 Best Picture winner, the Kazan-directed Gentleman’s Agreement, it is clear that Kazan learned that the best, most effective, and longest lasting way to ensure a social issue is addressed through film is not by putting the message before the movie. Where Gentleman’s Agreement bludgeons its audience over the head with its message that anti-Semitism is morally wrong at the expense of memorable and interesting characters, On the Waterfront reverses that notion, creating characters that have upheld themselves mightily in the fifty-six years since the picture’s release. With its unforgettable characters, the power of On the Waterfront will never be diminished.

The primary cast is as follows:

• Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy. In my opinion Terry Malloy is Brando’s greatest role—a once promising boxer who works as hired muscle for the corrupt union bosses running the Hoboken, NJ waterfront. Terry’s burgeoning conscience provides the narrative thrust of On the Waterfront.
• Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle. Edie’s brother, Joey, is murdered for being “a canary” at the start of the film. Terry, while not directly responsible for Joey’s murder, is indirectly complicit. When Terry tries to win over the angelic Edie, his guilt over Joey’s death provides an impetus for a conscience to be coaxed out of him. Edie and Terry begin a tender relationship.
• Karl Malden as Father Barry. Father Barry is the local priest determined to eradicate corruption on the docks. He takes an active, moral stance that takes him out of his parish and into the everyday lives of his parishioners. Father Barry is one of the few people who see that there is more to Terry than simply being a hired goon.
• Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly. Johnny Friendly is the villain of the piece. He is the boss of the longshoreman’s union. Friendly is anything but, and makes no bones about resorting to murder to keep his pockets lined and his corrupt operation running smoothly.
• Rod Steiger as Charley “The Gent” Malloy. Charley is Terry’s older brother, and consigliere to Johnny Friendly. Charley ultimately shows more loyalty to his crime family than his blood family.

Each of these five actors received Oscar nominations for their roles in On the Waterfront (with Brando and Saint winning, and Malden, Cobb, and Steiger competing against each other in the Supporting Actor category). Each actor contributes to the core theme of the film—that it is the duty of an honest man to take an active moral stand against corruption.

On the Waterfront is impossible to discuss without digressing into the absolute greatness of Marlon Brando’s turn as Terry Malloy. The picture could easily have been titled Terry Malloy, so crucial is his character to the success of the film. Brando has the most difficult job an actor can have: effectively portraying an inner struggle. In the case of Terry Malloy that inner struggle is growing a conscience at the risk of his life. The entire success of the picture hinges on if the audience believes that Terry can make the journey from being a man who is nonchalant about witnessing a murder to a man who can galvanize his fellow dockworkers to take a stand against the union bosses who dominate their lives. Of course, Brando was magnificently successful in doing exactly that, and the strength of his performance lies within the style of his acting.

Brando was a pioneer in Method acting. Brando brought Method with him from stage to screen and revolutionized acting in film. Method is often misconceived as staying in character even after the cameras have stopped rolling and going to such extremes as if one was playing a blind person, then the actor would live as a blind person for a period of time to try and comprehend their world from the inside. While both of those techniques can be part of Method acting, Method is more simply defined as an actor drawing on internal techniques instead of external means to create and develop character. Whereas a more classically trained actor would use differing facial expressions and voice intonation to convey meaning, Method actors seek to discover the psychological and sensory motivations for their characters. In film, before Method, actors were largely cast to type. This is why—and I am in no way meaning to diminish any of these actors—Clark Gable played the roguish alpha male over and over again, Humphrey Bogart perfected weary cynicism, Bette Davis was the bitch. These actors played to type.

Brando, and other Method actors like him, could be chameleonic. For example, in 1953—a year prior to On the Waterfront—Brando played both a leader of a motorcycle gang in The Wild One and Marc Antony in the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. His previous roles also included Emiliano Zapata and his iconic turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. These roles came within four years of one another. More classical actors in Hollywood would take nearly their entire careers to break type and develop that type of range (of course, this is also largely a function of the studio system, but Brando made studio financed pictures, so his arrival to film represented a sea change in the function of actors).

With his internally-based Method, Brando did nothing but exist within the psychoses of Terry Malloy. The technique is ideally suited to showing how a man would grow a conscience. Method is also ideally suited to improvisation, and Brando made liberal use of the freedoms given to him by Kazan.

Two of the most famous scenes in the film show Brando using improvisation to reveal the soul of Terry Malloy. First is on a date with Edie. Terry is clearly smitten with her, and Edie is very tentative, but Brando makes an excellent, improvised choice that reveals Terry’s true feelings. During the scene where Terry and Edie are walking home through a park, Edie drops one of her white gloves. Brando has Terry pick the glove up and brush it off, but he first puts the glove on his left hand instead of immediately returning it to Edie. This action is code for Terry wanting to get close to Edie—it is a way he can hold her hand without holding her hand—but still displaying both an innocence and tenderness that will she will eventually warm to. Brando and Saint have a very unforced chemistry in the picture. Saint, for her part, recalled that Brando was constantly teasing her on set, and she was always kept on edge by him. That edginess transferred marvelously onto the screen.

The other major act of improvisation is within the most famous sequence of the film, where Charley and Terry share a taxi. By this point in the film, Johnny Friendly is afraid of Terry’s newfound conscience. Charley is sent to test his brother’s loyalty, and if it is no longer there, Charley must assassinate Terry. Friendly instructs Charley: “All I want to know is, is he D and D (deaf and dumb, the code the Hoboken longshoremen live by if they wish to keep a job) or is he a canary?” In the taxi, Charley presses his brother for an answer and doesn’t get one. In frustration, Charley pulls a gun on his brother, and it is how Brando has Terry react that tells the whole story. Instead of acting rashly—like immediately grabbing Charley’s gun, or resorting to physical violence—Terry slowly, gently pushes the gun away and says, “Charley…Charley…Oh, Charley. Wow.” That, right there is the essence of heartbreak.

Only a bit later, after Charley tries to cheer Terry up by waxing nostalgic—yet inaccurate—about his boxing career, does Terry become bitter. Finally realizing that Charley was in on the fixed fights that doomed his career as a prizefighter, that his own brother has betrayed him for years, Terry finds the strength to turn away from the corruption of the life led by Charley and Johnny Friendly.

"It wasn't him, Charley! It was you. You remember that night in the Garden; you came down to my dressing room and said: 'Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson.' You remember that? 'This ain't your night!' My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ball park - and whadda I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me - just a little bit - so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money. (Charley: "I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.") You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it…It was you, Charley."

Again, improvised reactions are the most telling here. Steiger, playing Charley, can barely look at Terry in the scene. And Brando, although he is playing Terry with anger and bitterness, isn’t directing all of the animosity toward Charley. There is a sense of internal loss and regret within Terry, for if he only would have had a conscience when he was boxing, if he had stood up to Johnny Friendly and Charley then, he would be a champion. He would have class. He would have been somebody. Ultimately, this is what provides Terry with the motivation he carries with him into the finale of the picture, when he stands up to Johnny Friendly (and in many ways, gets his championship bout—Kazan stages a bloody fistfight between the two men where Terry is ultimately overcome by Friendly’s goons).

Kazan also provides external motivation for Terry. While Terry, Charley and Edie make changes, develop and grow as characters (and Brando, Saint, and Steiger make the most of Method in conveying them), static characters like Father Barry and Johnny Friendly are just as crucial in the development of Terry Malloy. Here, casting to type works, as Malden and Cobb play opposing forces of good and evil, each in battle for Terry’s soul. Oddly, both Malden and Cobb are quite similar looking—large, hard-nosed (and nobody in Hollywood has ever had a more prominent proboscis than Malden) and intimidating men—as if they were two sides of the same coin. Each embodies their characters in ironic ways. Cobb plays Friendly as the ultimate smooth operator; trying his best to live up to his name all the while knowing that he uses everyone around him. Malden plays Father Barry as an instigator, demanding that the dockworkers become men of conscience and basically strong-arming Terry into cooperating with him. On a surface level, the smooth criminal is more appealing than the cajoling priest. Cobb and Malden know this instinctively, and play those aspects up to maximum effect.

Again though, it is how Brando has Terry react to the men that tells the story. When Friendly slips a fifty into Terry’s pocket, Brando makes Terry look physically uncomfortable. When Father Barry is sermonizing, he is asking questions like, “There's one thing we've got in this country and that's ways of fightin' back. Gettin' the facts to the public. Testifyin' for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. Now what's ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Now can't you see that? Can't you see that?” What Kazan focuses on is Terry. Brando initially is poker-faced when first asked these questions (and note also, how those questions are also directed at the audience). But after a man is killed on the job, and Father Barry—with trash being hurled at him by Friendly’s sympathizers—in his “sermon on the docks” speech (“You want to know what's wrong with our waterfront? It's the love of a lousy buck. It's making the love of the lousy buck—the cushy job—more important than the love of man! It's forgettin' that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ! But remember, Christ is always with you. Christ is in the shape up.”), elicits a reaction of affiliation from Terry. Kazan uses these effective performances from Cobb and Malden in type roles to show the audience how Terry is changing as well as probe the consciences of the audience watching the film.

Lastly, aside from the performances, Kazan strove to be authentic as possible in capturing the waterfront of Hoboken. It helps that the film was actually shot there. Unlike All the King’s Men, which was set in Louisiana but shot in California, Kazan knows that no studio could effectively recreate the locations he needed for his film to feel real. Adding to the authenticity of the film were real-life ex-boxers hired to play Johnny Friendly’s goons, and the use of actual dock workers as extras. On the Waterfront’s screenplay was derived from fact; a series of articles from the (now defunct) New York Sun about mob crimes and other corruption on the Hoboken waterfront provided the basis of Budd Schulberg’s screenplay. Of course, the story also had personal resonance for Kazan, who was undoubtedly attracted to the message of the power of testimony as a central theme of the film (of course, many feel that when Kazan played “canary” to HUAC, he was doing the ignoble thing…). Each of these elements contributed to On the Waterfront being an unforgettable cinematic experience that refined the socially conscious message picture. Authenticity in performance, story, setting, and character would be primary, and only with that authenticity could any sort of lasting moral, social or political message be gleaned.

The film, though popular and justly feted with Oscar gold, marked the end of an era for the socially conscious picture winning Academy Awards. First of all, not many “message pictures” are made better than On the Waterfront (if at all), and second, the movies faced significant threats from the popularity of television, and film storytelling became bigger, more spectacular, and simpler. The films of the 1950’s reflected the trends of the times. Unfairly or not, On the Waterfront is the film most closely associated with the Red Scare that gripped America. While the country remained afraid of communism, Hollywood is always eager to put politics in the rear view mirror.

A film as incandescent as On the Waterfront is hard to top, and it wouldn’t be until the late 1960’s/1970’s that more films tackled issues of conscience. Not at all coincidentally, that period of time is when many, many Method trained actors came into prominence (Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, and Ellen Burstyn). They all have Brando to thank for leading the way.

DETAILS

On the Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 8 (Best Picture—Sam Spiegel, Best Director—Elia Kazan, Best Actor—Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actress—Eva Marie Saint*, Best Original Screenplay—Budd Schulberg, Best Art Direction (B&W), Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Editing) from 12 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Lee J. Cobb, Best Supporting Actor—Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor—Rod Steiger, Best Score—Leonard Bernstein**)

*Eva Marie Saint won an Oscar in her debut motion picture performance
**The score for On the Waterfront marked the only time Leonard Bernstein delivered a score for a non-musical picture

NEXT BLOG: Marty