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The director of On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, made a really controversial decision. And we're not talking "liking Hydrox better than Oreos"-type controversial. We're talking serious, life-altering repercussions.
Back in the 1930's, Elia Kazan was a member of the American Communist Party. Even though Josef Stalin was off killing his political enemies and sending people off to the "gulags"—Siberian prisons and work camps—a lot of Hollywood actors thought Uncle Joe and the Soviet Union were pretty great. (To be fair, a lot of what ol' Joe Stalin was doing wasn't well-known at the time, and the Great Depression made the prospect of everyone having work seen pretty dandy.)
But Kazan eventually realized that Stalin was a jerk and left the party.
After World War II, people started to get amped to fight Communism, hunting out the Communists in their midst (many of whom were only socialists or milder left-wing people). Congress started calling on people to testify about Communists sneaking into different parts of American life. They were especially eager to ferret all the Communists out of Hollywood, which was considered to be a pretty left-wing place (like it is today, Jon Voight excepted).
Since Kazan used to be a Communist, he had to make a decision—name the names of his former comrades, or clam up and defy the government. Reasoning that the government already knew or would know the names of his former comrades, he decided to snitch.
Congress was happy—but Kazan's former left-wing pals? Not so much. Arthur Miller (author of The Crucible) refused to work with him again.
But Kazan was still able to find work. (After all, it was the blacklisted Communists and socialists who were losing their jobs—not the people testifying against them). When he signed up to direct On the Waterfront, he decided to go for a super-realistic feel in the movie. He'd already worked with Marlon Brando on A Streetcar Named Desire, but Brando wasn't hyped to work with Kazan because of his Congressional testimony. But the filmmakers eventually convinced him to go along with it.
Some critics have argued that On the Waterfront is Kazan and Schulberg's message to the people who attacked them for testifying. The argument is that Kazan and Schulberg felt like they were in Terry Malloy's position—forced to turn against their friends for the right reasons, defeating the menace of Soviet Communism. (Source)
We'll leave it to you: does Terry's story of snitching on Johnny Friendly still seem as inspiring, knowing that it has overtones of snitching of people like Dalton Trumbo, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Dashiell Hammett, and Paul Robeson?
When casting the movie, Kazan drew on actors (like Brando) from The Actors Studio in New York, which he helped found back in the mid-1940's. The Actors Studio focused on "method acting," which is all about experiencing the role as if you were actually living it.
The website of the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute says the method acting is:
[…] the (re)experiencing of life by the actor within the fiction of the story as if it were true and happening now. Aristotle said that the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself, and that moving oneself is made possible by bringing to the fore 'visions' of experiences from life that are no longer present. (Source)
By directing A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, Kazan brought major method actors into view. Brando is the most famous example, but other stars from On the Waterfront—like Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb—practiced the Method. Eva Marie Saint was picked for her role because she'd actually grown up near the waterfront in Hoboken N.J., where the movie is set. (Source)
On the Waterfront shows just how effective this acting technique can be. Sometimes, Brando's lines are delivered so authentically he seems to be casually mumbling things. It's genius. Yet Brando clashed with Kazan throughout that making of the movie, and finally became convinced it wasn't going to be any good. (Source)
But, of course, Kazan was vindicated, and the movie won a ton of Oscars—including Best Director for Kazan. He reportedly photocopied the Oscar statue's butt and then sent it by mail to Arthur Miller. (Okay, we made that last part up.)
On the Waterfront fits in with Kazan's other movies—they put an emphasis on real human situations, isolated individuals in difficult circumstances, and tackle big social issues. For instance, Gentleman's Agreement faces anti-Semitism in America, while On the Waterfront looks at union corruption. And A Streetcar Named Desire focuses on the emotionally and mentally fragile Blanche Dubois, while East of Eden centers on the angry and rebellious Cal Trask (played by James Dean).
There are people in Hollywood who still hold it against Kazan for testifying against his former friends. Yet, at the same time, Kazan made all these movies with a deep social conscience. It just goes to show…people are complicated.
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