Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "On the Waterfront" (1954)

Scene from On the Waterfront
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

On the Waterfront
Release Date: July 28, 1954
Director: Elia Kazan
Written By: Bud Schulberg (screenplay, based on an original story by), Malcolm Johnson (suggested articles)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
Genre: Crime, Drama
Running Time: 108 minutes

Oscar Wins: 8
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Elia Kazan)
-Best Actor (Marlon Brando)
-Best Supporting Actress (Eve Marie Saint)
-Best Screenplay
-Best Cinematography (Black and white)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Film Editing

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Supporting Actor (Lee J. Cobb)
-Best Supporting Actor (Karl Malden)
-Best Supporting Actor (Rod Steiger)
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Caine Mutiny
-The Country Girl
-Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
-Three Coins in the Fountain

And the winner is...

When it comes to films about the underdog standing for social justice, there are few that cinephiles will choose besides director Elia Kazan's On the Watefront. Following the dock workers in Hoboken, New Jersey, it was a film that managed to be politically charged for actions both on screen and off. It was also controversial with producers such as Harry Cohn initially rejecting to produce it because of its anti-union themes. While some saw it as Kazan's own commentary on his past actions, it manages to escape all of these traps and instead serves as an empowering, iconic film about doing the right thing in the face of adversity. Thankfully, it came out better than its production would make it sound.

Among the more controversial moves of Kazan's career was his earlier days with the Communist Party. When the House of the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) called upon him to name fellow celebrities who were Communists, he willingly gave eight names. As a result, he became a divisive figure in Hollywood. More recently when he received an Honorary Oscar in 1999, the audience was expectantly divided. At the time, it was even more controversial, as he lost friendship with playwright Arthur Miller - who had intended to work with Kazan on a very similar movie and had been told by Cohn to change the script to being less-anti-union. Among other things, Miller wrote "The Crucible" as his form of protest to the HUAC Incident.

As a result, Kazan admits that On the Waterfront is his attack on "The Crucible." Many also see it as his confession about the HUAC Incident. Beyond the political themes at the center, the film had an uphill battle since the beginning. Producer Daryl F. Zanuck refused to make it because it didn't meet his studio's transition into Technicolor. Marlon Brando initially refused to be in it after reading the script. Frank Sinatra reportedly had a hand shake agreement to play Brando's role, only to become upset with Brando finally signed on. Sinatra insisted on playing a different role, which was already cast. There was no swaying Kazan, who believed that Brando's fame would allow for a bigger budget. Even Cohn was reluctant to let the film be made in Hoboken because he felt that he could have better control of the film in Hollywood. The set was also close to Mafia organizations that would intimidate them to the point that Kazan hired a body guard. Likewise, there was later conflict that the story was plagiarized from the life of real life dock worker Anthony De Vincenzo, whose attributes were very similar (they settled out of court).

It is a miracle that the film ended up becoming a masterpiece. Even the production, filmed in 36 days, had its own set of problems. For starters, majority of the actors had trouble showing up on time due to the freezing cold weather. Likewise, Brando rarely shot past 4 PM because he had psychiatric appointments to attend. This would annoy co-star Karl Malden a lot, especially in more key scenes. The film incorporated a lot of actual dock workers to serve as extras in the film and this was the debut of Eve Marie Saint, who would go on to win an Oscar for her role. It was also Leonard Bernstein's only non-musical score, which he did based upon a rough cut that he really liked. Malden, who played Brando's brother, had always been disappointed that he had to change his name for acting because his original was too ethnic. As a result, he incorporated his real name "Mladen Sekulovich" into the actual film. Likewise, James Westerfield, who played Big Mac, yells Westerfield during a scene where he calls for dock workers.

The one scene that everyone remembers also has its own storied history. In the back of a cab, Brando would give the line "I could have been a contender." That line wasn't improvised. However, Brando and Malden riffed several times before being told to just read the script. Due to issues that included not having a rear projection and being shot in a hub instead of a real cab, the shot was compiled oddly. There's curtains over the rear view mirror and lights were used to indicate motion. Due to Brando's psychiatric appointments, Malden often had to shoot his close-ups opposite a different actor reading the lines. He turned out to be Paul Newman - who had  yet to star in any major movies. This infuriated Malden and he had trouble forgiving Brando for many years. In an odd twist of fate, Brando saw a final cut of the film and reportedly was very disappointed in his performance.

That didn't stop the film from being a success. Where Cohn predicted box office poison, even for its $900,000 budget, it was quite the opposite. On initial run, it garnered 10x as much. It was critically acclaimed and went on to earn 12 Oscar nominations - which put it up there with Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity (13 each) for most nominations. The film won big that night. However, there was more consideration that Brando's win was a major upset with many expecting Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny) to win Best Actor. The two had previously faced off in the category in 1951 with Bogart winning for The African Queen (Brando was nominated for A Streetcar Named Desire). 

Much like the film and its production, even the history of the Oscar statues following the film were mired in controversy. The most noteworthy is that Brando was either lost or stolen. While nobody is sure as to the whereabouts of it, the statue did show up when it was sold at a London auction house many decades later. Likewise, Budd Schulberg ran into conflicts of his own when his Best Sceenplay win was asked by the Monticello Film Corp in October 1955 to revoke the statue, as he was under their employ at the time. While he kept the statue, the results were never officially decided. While unrelated, Schulberg would later publish a novel called "Waterfront" that featured a more accurate depiction of his screenplay - which included Brando's character being killed off brutally. The film also inspired real life change in the dock unions and the treatment of their workers.

So while On the Waterfront may be mired in a lot of controversy, its final film lacks any of the deliberate spikes that would make this seem problematic. While Brando famously disliked his work, it ranks among some of his most iconic works. His lines have become some of the most quoted movie dialogue in history and the battle for what's right continues to wage on. Even if the story of dock workers may not be universal, the story of equality at work remains as true as ever. Is the story a metaphor for the HUAC Incident? Maybe, but the film is not bogged down by any ulterior motive. It is a simple story meant to incite what's truest about the human spirit. It is a quest to fight for what's right, even if that sometimes itself isn't always the easiest thing to do.

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