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.


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


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