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The 71st Academy Awards ceremony took place in early March of 1999, where, outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, hundreds of demonstrators gathered along the streets to both protest and praise the Academy for its decision to honor 89-year-old Hollywood titan Elia Kazan with an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar. Inside the venue, when Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro took the podium to present the director with the award, attendees inside appeared to be just as split as the demonstrators outside. Meryl Streep, Helen Hunt, Karl Malden, and Warren Beaty quickly rose to their feet to applaud and cheer Kazan as he slowly walked toward the stage, while notably, actors Ed Harris and Nick Nolte remained seated, refusing to applaud with the crowd. It seems that Hollywood was still undecided on whether or not to forgive Kazan for his infamous role in the Hollywood Blacklist debacle some 45 years earlier.
Elia Kazan introduced audiences to Warren Beatty, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. His films of the 1950s – including On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden – comprise perhaps the most impressive body of work of an American director of the decade. But Kazan, who was briefly a communist in the 1930s, likely would not have been able to make many of those films had he not become an informant to HUAC in 1952.
It’s hard to know where to begin when discussing 1955’s On the Waterfront, because in the last 70 years, a lot has been written by extraordinary heavyweights in the business, including Scorsese and Spike Lee.
But I thought a good place to start would be to discuss where movies were before On the Waterfront and before the arrival of its leading man, Marlon Brando, to cinema screens only three years prior. Films were generalized – written in codes and symbolism. There was a deep lack of realistic confrontation. The blue-collar society stories hadn’t been depicted yet, much less entertained as stories that may appeal to audiences. This was a far cry from Hollywood technicolor of the ’40s or the bright, sprawling Italian epics of European cinema.
When On the Waterfront premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York City on July 28, 1954, it was projected in the then-brand-new wide screen aspect ratio of 1.85 to 1—meaning, a screen almost twice as wide as it is tall. Before this, films had been shot at about a third of that, at 1.33, which had always been the standard. This widescreen expansion was a direct result of studios feeling threatened by the new arrival of television. Movie attendance had also dropped sharply by 1950. This directly resulted in the birth of the era of 3D, Cinérama, and the ultra-wide Cinemascope. Decisions to use full frame compositions meant the chance to reveal more of the environmental context and the very real locations in which the film was shot.
Director Elia Kazan had said he was tired of making one-dimensional studio pictures and wanted a return to realism. “Let’s stop shooting on production stages and let’s get the cameras out onto the streets.” Adjusted for inflation, the box office totaled a staggering 91 million, and the film received 12 Nominations in 10 categories, winning eight of those at the 27th Academy Awards in 1955.
Its arrival in 1954 felt to moviegoing audiences the way I imagine most recent Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once or 2020’s Best Picture winner, Parasite, audiences felt when seeing these films for the first time: hitting people hard with realistic depictions of family and culture with unconventional narratives and a rejection of standard acting or filmmaking styles audiences had grown accustomed to.
After all, Kazan was up for the challenge. His whole preceding career and artistic life had prepared him for the task, and he and actor Marlon Brando had launched their famous partnership three years earlier with A Streetcar Named Desire, revolutionizing acting for the stage and screen.
When Marlon Brando enters the frame at approximately 11 minutes into the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, it is palpable that a revolution has arrived with him. It isn’t just that he is a stunningly beautiful man on screen, that is painfully evident, but it’s in the way Brando carries himself. He is both masculine and feminine, forceful yet elegant. His stained clothing does not look like a costume. He seems to BE Stanley Kowalski, the character.
Brando’s visceral physicality had never been seen on big screens before his arrival in the early ’50s and was never better captured than through the lens of Elia Kazan. Both men were founding members of the Actors Studio a decade earlier and the Method’s developing signature style of an association with the lower classes or the “everyday working man,” with poor diction and bravura emotional displays would only be further cemented by On the Waterfront.
Kazan and Brando first worked together when Kazan directed the Tennessee Williams-penned play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened on Broadway in 1947.
But taking it back a decade, to the early 1940s, Kazan was an auxiliary member of the Group Theatre, joining the Communist party after his father became sick, which he blamed on capitalism.
Kazan wrote in his 1988 autobiography, A Life, (arguably one of the most raw and honest memoirs ever written about a career in show business) that he was “not a collective, but an elitist.” Eventually he was asked to leave the Group Theatre and from there he co-founded the Actors Studio in New York. Kazan spent some time out west, where he observed artisans at work on LA studio stage productions before soon returning to New York to begin directing plays and get to work on his next feature, 1947’s Gentlemen’s Agreement. The film cleaned up well at the 1948 Academy Awards, but Kazan was indifferent about the film, as he was neck deep in the stage production of Streetcar. Kazan’s style always began with the meticulous casting of his projects, and Kazan loved discovering new actors and using the burgeoning Actors Studio to find them.
By the late ’40s and early ’50s, the hunt for communists in Hollywood intensified in what was labeled “The Red Scare.” Actors’ groups and particularly those who had studied the Russian playwrights, those who had staged their plays, and who had studied the acting methods introduced by Constantin Stanislavski were easy targets. The government harassed and pursued the Actors’ Lab and the Group Theatre with hungry vigor.
The Catholic Legion of Decency had condemned Streetcar, and shortly thereafter in what Kazan expressed in his memoir to be related, he finally received a subpoena from HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, in December 1951.
Kazan first appeared in front of HUAC on January 15, 1952, during a closed-door interrogation. He was asked about the Group Theatre and denied that any of the founders or members were communists.
The HUAC also asked him to name members who were a part of the Communist party or showed sympathies, and in response, Kazan cited his knowledge of the damage that would be done to his peers’ careers if he were to inform on them. The committee told him he’d likely be called back for a public testimony before spring.
The personal paradox here was that Kazan was both anti-McCarthyism and anti-communist.
A therapist he had consulted soon after the private interrogation posed the question to him on “whether his peers would withhold the same information,” which sparked fear in Kazan.
In the meantime, the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, which had been tapped to sweep at the Oscars that year, lost… And Kazan started to think that these actions were direct political consequences of his having withheld names.
He mused 30 years later in his memoir why he had held out so long on his old comrades and this was the turning point during the period, when he began to lean toward naming names of old artistic peers. While confiding in his colleague, playwright and screenwriter Clifford Odets, both men weighed the options and agreed to give up the same list of names, names of their creative peers.
By doing this, Kazan had singlehandedly saved himself from going to jail and, more notably, saved his ability to continue working in Hollywood, but amongst a large number of his friends, he had wrecked his reputation, and his revelation had barred many of them from working artistically in the United States.
In an attempt to rectify his public reputation, Kazan took out a full-page ad in the New York Times explaining why he had done what he’d done. It explained his brief history as a member of the Communist Party, his current distaste for anything communist, and his position that Americans had an obligation to answer congressional questions, even if that meant knowing that innocent creatives would be placed on the Hollywood Blacklist – barring them from work in the business or gaining employment under their name.
He positioned his argument as the right thing to do but later reflected in his memoir that it was also an act of revenge. For how he felt the party had treated him. Enough people had turned on him in disgust that he became paranoid that every colleague had turned on him.
In an effort to fill the hole in his professional life, Kazan reached out to screenwriter Budd Schulberg, son of the pioneering studio executive B. P. Schulberg. The younger Schulberg had gone down to Hoboken, New Jersey, where his experiences there had inspired his latest screenplay. During their travels back together, Kazan and Schulberg met a longshoreman named Tony Mike, who had stopped corroborating with the Mob who ran things down at the docks and as a result found himself unable to work. Mike had been subpoenaed by a waterfront crime commission and instead of adhering to the laws of silence from the streets, he named everyone he knew. He had been warned to keep his mouth shut, or he’d be dead… He reflected to Schulberg and Kazan.
A lightbulb went off in Kazan’s head… What if you could make a movie that was pro-worker, pro-union but anti-corruption, anti-conspiracy? A bold statement of anti-communist liberalism. A dramatization of his and Odets’ own decision to name names before HUAC.
Terry Malloy, played by Brando, is an ex-boxer who works for the gangsters controlling the local longshoremen’s union. Over the course of the movie, he becomes disillusioned with them and decides to testify about their mob activities to the waterfront crime commission, informing on them.
In his 2022 book The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act, author and historian Isaac Butler writes that the film’s allegory “as an act of self-justification is preposterous.” Orson Welles called On the Waterfront “immoral.”
However, because the allegory is so broken, the political case Kazan and Schulberg attempted to make with the film is very easy to ignore, particularly since On the Waterfront is also an astounding work of art. Its electrifying performances from Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and Karl Malden were all actors connected to the revolutionary Group Theatre or Actors Studio. The film is laced with Method values and ideology, the basis of the ideas of which were ironically inspired by Russian actor and teacher Stanislavksi.
On the Waterfront is about the lives of everyday men and women, many of whom appear on screen as extras. One of the first films ever shot almost entirely on location, the film is less concerned with looking good than its desire to capture raw naturalism. These characters are living, breathing humans. Who are unsure how to express their feelings, who stumble upon words and have trouble articulating thoughts. Who stammer and rebel against their internal emotions. These on-screen depictions were such a stark contrast from the classically trained actors who big studios had steeped in a mid-Atlantic dialect and who required precise delivery of words and measured emotion.
When Brando delivers the most famous monologue in movie history, his “I coulda been a contender” bit, a powerful emotionality explodes off the screen that makes it feel larger and more alive than any depiction audiences had ever experienced on screen prior. Not only that but the tragic feeling he conveys in his speech, of a life not fully realized, resonated with audiences because this is the story of so many people.
On the Waterfront marked the pinnacle of Method actors and Method-style movie-making—note the capital M that began to appear around this time in print, as if to announce the arrival of a new force/noun. This change and style defined 1950s American cinema, destined to be studied and imitated for decades to come.
On The Waterfront nearly didn’t happen, for a plethora of reasons. Brando had told mutual friends that he would never again work with Kazan, apparently tearing up when he heard that his Streetcar collaborator Kazan had named names to the government. Brando told Odets that “that was a terrible thing Elia did in Washington.” But Brando then added, “But he’s good for me… Maybe I’ll work with him at least one more time.”
Reports vary on just how Brando’s ambivalence was overcome, but it was said that either Kazan or producer Sam Spiegel wrote a letter to Brando which made him feel as though he owed his sudden rise to Kazan, and he subsequently committed to the part of Terry Malloy.
And so, the then-most intriguing actor in the world became a stand-in for Tony Mike, who was a stand-in for Elia Kazan himself.
Of course, the stakes of Malloy’s conflict are far higher than those Kazan faced. Before Terry names names in the film, they sabotage his boxing career, force him to work as a spy, and murder another witness in front of him and eventually his beloved brother. Only after Malloy has been betrayed completely, does he then betray by testifying after the priest urges him to fight back in court “with the truth.”
This is exactly what Kazan always said he had done – fight corruption. The corruption of the American Communists and by extension the murderous, red Soviet regime. By telling the truth.
Though the ethical shades of gray of his own decision to inform were completely smoothed out in Malloy’s screen story.
Schulberg never acknowledged that his script was directly about his and Kazan’s personal experiences as informers. And Kazan, too, spent years trying to move that conversation away from this probing inquiry.
But in 1988, in his memoir, Kazan finally admitted that On the Waterfront was autobiographical.
He writes, “I did see Tony Mike’s story as my own. And that connection did lend the tone of irrefutable anger to the scenes I photographed, and to my work with the actors.”
He pointed to the scene at the end of the film, in which Malloy is confronted by one of the men he informed on… in which Malloy expresses his satisfaction with having named them, for the greater good.
Kazan writes, “That was me, that was me saying that I was glad I had testified as I had. On the Waterfront was my own story. Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood… and every day I was telling my critics […] to go f*ck themselves.”
In my opinion, to cast Marlon Brando circa 1954 as your alter ego, to essentially through him tell your haters to go f*ck themselves… that takes guts.
Kazan believed that in testifying and thus purging himself from his past he freed himself creatively. Over the next decade, there is no denying the fact great works for both the stage and screen poured out of him… East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd, Splendor in the Grass, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Death of a Salesman.
To some outside observers, given that Kazan never apologized for his role he played in the Hollywood blacklisting but justified it till the end, the movies of his which rehearsed themes related to Kazan’s decision can be seen as somewhat narcissistic.
Personally, I find that narcissism fascinating.
For better or for worse, he felt he had done what he had to do in order to keep from dying inside.
So that Sunday evening in March of 1999, a host of surviving writers and actors, who were blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing to testify before HUAC, whose careers were permanently derailed or who were forced into relocation to Europe, denounced Kazan’s honorary Oscar, and with good reason. Kazan defenders included a legion of Hollywood filmmakers and actors, including Warren Beatty and Nora Ephron as well as playwright Arthur Miller, who himself had been negatively impacted by Kazan’s disclosure.
On the Waterfront remains a direct product of its era, of its place in culture, which birthed its thematic ideas. And I think that is part of what makes great cinema and the Oscars that arrive each year like clockwork – serving as markers – (often) a reflection of where we as a society are at a given point in history.
On the Waterfront is a cinematic time capsule. A perfectly captured moment, like lightning in a bottle, preserving its “slice of life” for generations to come, and providing a glimpse through the lens, into what life was like in 1954. The Red Scare and the fear of the Hollywood Blacklist. The longing for a different kind of story. The arrival of a new style of acting that embraced a psychological complexity, served by a new generation of movie stars. A tale of corruption and power, and the decisions we make (for better or for worse) when called upon to face those adversities
On the Waterfront screens starting Friday, March 24th.
Friday, Mar 24 – 8pm
Saturday, Mar 25 -3pm
Sunday, Mar 26 – 4:45pm