In 1999, I’d gotten around to seeing some of the movies nominated, so for once I actually watched the Academy Awards. That was the year, Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar for his life’s work, presented by Martin Scorcese and Robert Deniro. But when the cameras cut to the audience during the ovation, they caught a few members not applauding, sitting with their arms folded.
The seeds for this reaction from the Hollywood community- a reaction not so much mixed, but downright polarized- were sown six decades prior, before most of that night’s attendees were even born. The nation was living through the Great Depression. A quarter of the workforce was out of a job and desperate poverty was becoming a new norm. Naturally, quite a few Americans searched for a solution, and many looked to the Soviet Union. With its emphasis on workers’ rights and an economy that was centrally planned rather than subject to the vagaries of the business cycle, it must have looked like an appealing alternative to the capitalist system that had failed so many. By the 1950’s, when the USSR and United States were direct antagonists and the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Soviet system were more well known, all but the most loyal comrades had long since moved on from the Communist Party. But then came the second red scare, when opportunistic politicians conducted investigations into supposed subversives. When they targeted the film industry, people were compelled to cooperate, including informing on others who had been involved in the Communist Party all those years ago. Some refused and had their careers destroyed. Kazan, on the other hand, was one of those who saved his career by “naming names”, an act some of his colleagues couldn’t forgive. And it was this rancor that ran so deeply that when Kazan stood onstage as an old man accepting his award, his esteemed body of work notwithstanding, some of the people in the room sat silent rather than acknowledge him.
On The Waterfront is the second Best Picture we’ve seen directed by Kazan. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, it’s a socially conscious film, this time focussing on the lives of working class dockworkers. Terry Malloy is a longshoreman and washed up pro boxer whose older brother is in the inner circle Johnny Friendly, a union boss as ruthless as he is corrupt. The movie begins with Terry luring a fellow dockworker to be killed by Friendly’s goons, to prevent him from testifying to authorities. Terry, though, believed the man was merely going to be strongarmed into silence, not murdered in cold blood. His unease grows into guilt when he meets the dead man’s sister and takes an interest in her. Meanwhile, a sympathetic Catholic priest rallies the rank and file of the union, encouraging them to break the unwritten rule of silence that permeates their culture and allows their leadership to exploit them.
It’s shameful that this was the first Marlon Brando movie I have ever seen, especially because I consider myself a fan. A fan of what, then? The myth, the legend. Mouse and I had a conversation after watching this film about method acting, and I have to wonder where the line between Terry and Marlon should be drawn. Continue reading