Written by: Jill Blake, CC2K Film Editor
Discussing movies with friends and acquaintances can be a fun exercise, until it turns into the “You haven’t seen WHAT?” game.
Let’s face it: we all have that movie on our list that we haven’t seen and have no desire to see. It’s the one movie we’re supposed to see, that’s classic, that’s essential, that’s the greatest movie ever. In other words, it’s the movie that has shaped all of humanity, for Chrissake! What is the movie? Well, it’s different for every person. For some it may be Gone with the Wind (how dare they!) or Wizard of Oz (yes, these people exist). Or maybe some that can more subtly escape under the radar, missing classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Some Like It Hot.
Many diehard classic film fans have seen some of the most obscure movies, but I can bet every single one of them has at least one major “must-see” classic they have not seen. And they are ashamed to admit it.
I am one of those diehard fans. I have been walking around with this giant pit in my stomach, weight on my shoulders, monkey on my back…you get the point.
I’m tired of being ashamed and nodding my head in agreement, trying not to be found out. Today I’m here to confess a cinematic sin and wear my scarlet letter with pride. And for some, it may be an unforgivable one:
Until last week, I had never seen Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954).
Whew. That feels good.
Before you start wagging your finger and telling me how great of an actor Brando was, let me explain myself:
I can’t stand Marlon Brando.
Let me backup; I adore Brando in The Godfather (1972). He is absolute perfection as the embattled head of the Corleone crime family, Vito Corleone. Other than that performance, I can’t stand Marlon Brando.
I realize this is a pretty ballsy statement to make in my second column here at CC2K, but readers from my website and Twitter followers know I don’t like to hem haw around. Why don’t I like Brando, you ask? I’ve always felt like he had a tendency to overact. I realize he was the poster boy for Method acting, but in its early stages, this approach felt forced and rather tiresome. Although Brando is considered the first true Method actor, some hold up Montgomery Clift as the first to effectively use it in film. Clift would become quite immersed in his roles, especially for a studio-era, contract actor. Brando would later be Clift’s main competitor for roles and awards, but the two greatly admired one another. I adore Montgomery Clift, and his efforts to redefine the limits of the Hollywood actor were overshadowed by Brando.
Back to On the Waterfront. Criterion just released a beautiful set on Blu-ray and DVD complete with 3 complete presentations of the film in different aspect ratios, and a full list of impressive features and extras. Anything released on Criterion is always hard to resist, so I steeled myself (I really, really dislike Brando) and sat down for 2 hours of his moody acting.
What I discovered is a truly compelling story, fascinating performances by the supporting cast, and a tolerable performance by Brando (this means I liked him). Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle is fresh, beautiful, and vulnerable. One tragic event in her life thrusts her into becoming a mature woman: she witnesses the harsh work conditions demanded by the mob-run union which controls the longshoreman on the docks; she has her first drink, first love affair with bad boy Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), no less. Although the longshoreman are tired of being pushed around by the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his mob, they dare not talk out of line or go against protocol. One false move, “stooling”, or “chirping,” not only risks livelihood and your life, it risks losing the respect of your fellow longshoreman, which is sometimes worse than losing your life.
Although I had never seen On the Waterfront, I was prepared for the famous taxi scene where Brando utters the line “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.” There’s no doubt the scene is intensely emotional, and I found myself wiping away tears. But for years we have seen that moment played in every montage, mocked in various forms, even lovingly nodded to by Brando himself in The Freshman (1990). I can’t fault the film, or Brando, or Kazan for this, because they can’t be held accountable for filming something so remarkable that has subsequently been deemed “iconic.” But I feel like some of the emotion I should have felt was stripped away from the repeated, isolated, out-of-context viewings of that scene over the years.
The film was a difficult one to watch, as are all movies we put off for one reason or another. My reasons for avoiding this film are the following: besides my general dislike for Brando, I have a complicated love affair with the films of the 1950s. A lot of the reason is the shift in the acting style brought on by the Method, and the beginning of the end of the studio era. In the 1950s many of my favorite actors and actresses had either retired from filmmaking or had fallen back to more supporting roles. Also, many of the films from this time have larger than life musical scores. I love a strong, memorable piece of music, but not when it overpowers the acting and direction. I know this is a rather blasphemous statement, considering the composer, but Leonard Bernstein’s score for On the Waterfront is overpowering and at times pulled me out of the story. In some moments it worked nicely, complimenting the scene. But during pivotal moments, the music is frantic, almost harsh. I found myself focusing more on the music than the performances.
I guess this was more of a classic film confession complete with a full redemption. I have other indiscretions, but you will only get one confession at a time from me.
Calling all movie lovers!
Here’s what I want from you, my readers, Twitter followers, and friends:
What are your Classic Film Confessions? If you’re on Twitter, use #ClassicFilmConfessions and join in on the conversation. Not on Twitter? Join in over on CC2K’s Facebook page. Or send me an email at Jill@sittinonabackyardfence.com. Your confessions will be posted in next week’s follow-up article.
Coming next week: Classic Film Confessions, Part II
I received the 3-disc DVD of On the Waterfront set from Criterion and viewed it in 1:66:1 Aspect Ratio
Criterion Disc Features
• New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
• Alternate presentations of the restoration in two additional aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (widescreen) and 1.33:1 (full-screen)
• Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition
• Audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young
• New conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones
• Elia Kazan: Outsider (1982), an hour-long documentary
• New documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with scholar Leo Braudy, critic David Thomson, and others
• New interview with actor Eva Marie Saint
• Interview with director Elia Kazan from 2001
• Contender: Mastering the Method, a 2001 documentary on the film’s most famous scene
• New interview with longshoreman Thomas Hanley, an actor in the film
• New interview with author James T. Fisher about the real-life people and places behind the film
• Visual essay on Leonard Bernstein’s score
• Visual essay on the aspect ratio
• PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Kazan’s 1952 defense of his House Un-American Activities Committee testimony, one of the 1948 Malcolm Johnson articles that inspired the film, and a 1953 piece by screenwriter Budd Schulberg
Images Courtesy of The Criterion Collection