Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando as a dock worker who acts as a whistleblower against elements of organized crime among longshoremen. In 1954 this film, its director, leading actor and "Supporting Actress" (in a lead role) Eva Marie Saint won Academy Awards for their work.

In 1952 Kazan had testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and named eight members of the Group Theatre who had been Communist Party members or sympathizers during the Depression. This act was part inspiration for Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and led to Kazan's being ostracized from the Hollywood community for the rest of his career.

In 1999 Kazan received a lifetime achievement award, which was fairly controversial event as many members of the motion picture community, including plenty who did not live through the events in question, chose to sit and not applaud.

Many have suggested that this slighting of Kazan was inappropriate, especially as Hollywood warmly welcomed Charlie Chaplin home for a lifetime achievement award after years of exile as a result of the Red Scare. As Los Angeles film critic Kenneth Thran put it, "We applauded when the great Chaplin finally had his hour. It’s now time for Elia Kazan."

Because having a personal political philosophy is exactly the same as identifying others' political philosophies before a hostile government committee. But I sarcastically digress.

Kazan chose this project in response to his own persecution by those who judged his actions, not least of whom his collaborative partner, Arthur Miller. Marlon Brando as failed boxer Terry Malloy, doing odd jobs for a corrupt union boss, gently tending his flock of pigeons, is a troubled and sympathetic figure, raising pigeons and trying to get by. The most familiar, oft-imitated line is "I coulda been a contender," but it's what Brando says next -- the plaintive, "I coulda been somebody" -- that rings mournfully in my ears. Terry's decision, after he witnesses a murder, to testify in court against the union bosses, is the central conflict of the movie.

How this down-and-out lug daring to finger murderous gangsters compares with the artistically and financially successful Kazan identifying those who never committed a crime, I don't know. But we all like to think of ourselves as the underdog. Especially the gangsters, you know?


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