(Editor’s note: Portions of this essay originally appeared in The Freeman, June 2012.)
This weekend marks the 85th Academy Awards, which for some cinephiles is the highlight of our current journey around the sun. The event also grants an opportunity for public policy pundits to bemoan the overall statist bent of the entertainment churned out each year by Hollywood studios. Even Jonah Goldberg joined the club this week with an essay on why he believes conservatives should leave the talkies to the liberals.
But something else happened this week that should remind and embolden moviegoers who like a little tea with their Oscar party and prefer priestly pugilism to progressive politics: the Blu-Ray release of the classic 1954 Elia Kazan-directed masterpiece “On the Waterfront.”
The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won eight — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Best Story and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg) and Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Editing (Boris Kaufman and Gene Milford, respectively). Other supporting actors nominated included Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger. Take that, Ben Affleck and Steven Spielberg!
The Vatican listed “On the Waterfront” on its list of the 45 Best Movies, and among only 15 films in the “Values” category (the other two categories being “Religion” and “Art”). Note that the Vatican’s 1995 list isn’t limited to just American movies, but exhibits a decidedly international flavor.
Identified by none other than Stanley Kubrick as “without question, the best director we have in America,” Kazan rebounded from the public relations disaster of testifying as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, where he gave up the names of eight former associates with whom he shared Communist Party affiliations nearly 20 years earlier. Whatever his regrets and explanations, they were never sufficient to assuage the left’s anger, and many used his testimony as a cause célèbre, choosing to sit on their hands rather than applaud when Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro presented Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1998.
By the advent of sound in the late 1920s and during the Great Depression, movies increasingly reflected a decidedly statist worldview. Seemingly no problem existed that couldn’t be solved by smart government employees. The films of the World War II years championed patriotism in general and the U.S. war effort specifically but, leaving aside the body of work left by John Wayne, the common perception is that the entertainment industry at large, and Hollywood in particular, has been and is increasingly in the tank for left-statist causes and big-government remedies.
Of course the statist impulse was curtailed somewhat by the insanity of the HUAC hearings, which resulted in the 1947 blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten — including director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo — and ruined the careers of dozens more in perhaps the most unintentionally ironic defense of American freedom and constitutional rights.
It was while cutting his theatrical teeth in the early 1930s that Kazan joined the Communist Party, as did many from the Big Apple’s stage community. Disgusted with the CP’s micromanaging of artistic content — such as its insistence on romanticizing the working class rather than depicting them, warts and all, in realistic fashion — Kazan resigned from the CP in February 1935 after 18 months of membership.
After 1952 many of Kazan’s films can be viewed as, alternately, an apologia for choosing to inform on his former Communist Party comrades, expressions of an immigrant’s love of the American ideal, and illustrations of his distrust of centralized government control. As he noted in his autobiography: “Did I really want to change the social system I was living under? Apparently that was what I’d stood for at the time. . . . Everything I had of value I’d gained under that system. After 17 years of watching the Soviet Union turn into an imperialist power, was that truly what I wanted here? Hadn’t I been clinging to once-held loyalties that were no longer valid?”
What makes “On the Waterfront” so special that it warrants recommendation to Mackinac Center readers? Well, for one, it features the pugilistic priest (Malden) mentioned above. But it also depicts the union corruption of real-life New York dock workers in near-documentary, cinema verite fashion as well as the eventual redemption of Brando’s character, Terry Malloy. Malloy is prompted by his girlfriend, a priest and his own conscience to inform on racketeering and murderous union bosses.
Based on real-life events, “On the Waterfront” introduces Malloy as a once-promising boxer who “coulda been a contenduh” but for taking a fall at the behest of union goons betting against him. His life has been relegated to errand boy for the mobbed-up union boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb), who employs both Terry and his bookkeeping, attorney brother Charley “The Gent” Malloy to do his dirty work.
Among the tasks given the brothers is setting up Joey Doyle for a dive off a tenement roof to prevent him from testifying against Friendly to the New York State Crime Commission. The remainder of the film depicts Terry’s eventual conclusion — with the help of Joey’s sister, Edie (Saint), and Malden’s Father Barry — that in order to respect himself and earn the respect of Edie, with whom he’s fallen in love, it’s necessary for him to fill the role left vacant by Joey.
“On the Waterfront” is perhaps the closest Kazan came onscreen to defending his HUAC behavior, but despite its entry into the canon of classic cinema, many progressives continue to rankle at the very mention of his name (as well the name of screenwriter Schulberg, who also appeared as a friendly HUAC witness).
So as you ponder visiting the local cineplex or surf your online video queue this weekend and worry that all that’s available is statist propaganda, keep in mind that you could do a lot worse than Kazan’s work. Not only is it Oscar’s Best Picture of 1954, it’s also one of the best films of all-time and it dazzles in the Blu-Ray format.