Films of the Week | 10th May 2021
Many would say this is a great film, though our reaction to it is forever compromised by the director Elia Kazan’s decision to cooperate with HUAC* and to name names, finishing off several careers, and subverting On The Waterfront into an act of self-justification**. We cannot help reading the film without having this in mind. As the bleeding, martyred Marlon Brando staggers to the resolution, he enacts Kazan’s self-pitying representation of himself. Brando informs on the Mob – hooray! Elia Kazan talked too.
Argument One. This is a great film. It is no exaggeration to say that Brando redefined film acting. He was never better. Kazan was great with actors, and there are career-defining performances from Marlon Brando*** (Terry Malloy), Rod Steiger (Charlie Malloy), Karl Malden (Father Pete Barry), Lee J Cobb as Johnny Friendly, and Eve Marie Saint as Edie.
Argument Two. The film is melodrama, too comfortable in its movement towards a resolution that makes everyone feel better about how America deals with corruption. It is intense and emotional, but within controlled and controlling limits, the product of a neat deliberative mind. Marlon Brando produced a performance that seduced him into thinking that that is how he was going to continue to act, and Lee J Cobb is more convincing. Compared with the expressive visual extravagance of Orson Welles, or the clarity of Hitchcock’s manipulation of what is on the screen, the direction is conservative.
Elia Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio through which Method acting was developed, so through his collaborations with Brando in particular he helped to reshape film acting, and all films since. I will watch On The Waterfront again, and I will be drawn in because it is emotionally gripping, but, fine though it is, it is not a personal favourite. I hope that many of you disagree.
The score was by Leonard Bernstein. Nominated for twelve Oscars, the film won eight. He didn’t.
*The House Un-American Activities Committee, founded in 1938 and not abolished until 1975, sought to expose Fascists but more importantly Communists, and ran parallel to the activities of Senator Joe McCarthy, who built a career on pretending to do the same. McCarthy came to a sticky end. HUAC was eventually denounced by ex-President Harry Truman as “the most un-American thing in the country today.” But both did serious damage to the creative arts in the USA.
** Kazan was never quite forgiven. When he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1999, there were demonstrations against him. Many members of the audience refused to applaud.
***As others see us…. When Joyce Grenfell met Brando she described him as “pale and tiny,” not, therefore, the 150-kilogram behemoth seen lumbering into the China Village Restaurant in Faversham to load up with his weekend nosh.
POV (Point of View) shots, noisy close-ups, reflections, travelling shots, shots from inside wardrobes and diving suits and cars, hand-held cameras, cameras within cars, cuts between past and present, cuts jumping scene to scene while the same conversation goes on, leaping from a swimming pool on to Anne Bancroft, all the gimmickry and cleverness of Hollywood Gets the French New Wave!
There is at times a slightly creepy feel. Anne Bancroft was only five or six years older than Dustin Hoffman, yet she was cast as someone of his mother’s age. Guess what: the sexually active but sexually frustrated older woman (who is not getting any sex from her alcoholic husband) turns out to be vengeful, vicious and needy – obviously – while her husband is just a drunk. But Anne Bancroft helped to redefine the notion of female sexuality in Hollywood. She is mature, clever and enticing (hey, a grown-up sexy woman! Wonders will never cease!).
Mike Nichols (the director) made his name with Elaine May as one half of a genius comic double act, a kind of Saturday Night Live of the day, and this film borders on the satire that they did best. There are some very funny lines. The men are sweaty, stupid and flashily dressed, and the women are braying and predatory. Only Katharine Ross escapes the slime. But how come virginity protects her from the rat race? Perhaps this film isn’t as radical as it pretends to be.
There are some fine scenes, like the moment when realisation dawns on Katharine Ross, the headshot starting out of focus and sharpening as she understands. The film was an enormous hit, smart, funny and flashy, but does this mockery of the plastics industry in the States avoid being plastic itself? Nichols can’t hold the satirical reins firmly enough. The film goes soft.
As for the score…. I loathe Simon and Garfunkel so much that pupils at one school I taught at would play the tracks during Assembly and turn to look at me to see how I was taking it. Bridge Over bloody Troubled bloody Waters? Don’t get me started. As for Scarborough effing Fair….
Best wishes, Bill.
NOTE ONE. As Film Club members know, I am interested in Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr, once labelled the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’, who also happened to be a genius. She had an affair with Howard Hughes, whom she found interesting intellectually but described as the worst lover she ever had. She did, however, help him to design aircraft, basing her drawings of aeroplane shapes on the smoother and more rounded shapes of fish and birds and thus teaching him to streamline his angular designs. Later, with George Antheil, she invented the system of frequency hopping that made possible Wi-Fi, Blu-Tooth, GPS and mobile phone technology, and so formed the world we live in.
With that in mind, this observation about Anne Bancroft seems to me poignant:
Bancroft's son, Max Brooks, said in a 2020 interview that she was "a secret, closet scientist." He said that, as a child, she read to him Paul de Kruif's "Microbe Hunters" (1926) as a bedtime story.
Much was lost. Anne Bancroft died of cancer five years before her mother.
I found this paragraph about frequency hopping in Wikipedia, and I quote it in the spirit of Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne:
Antheil's interest in this area brought him into contact with the actress Hedy Lamarr, who sought his advice about how she might enhance her upper torso. He suggested glandular extracts, but their conversation then moved on to torpedoes.
NOTE TWO. Shelley Winters went to a performance of Elia Kazan’s celebrated theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and she was, like everyone else, riveted by Marlon Brando. Every single human being in the theatre, she said, wanted to have sex with him. She went home with him after the show on a cold winter night, to a brownstone walk-up. He opened the door into a large room in which the only item of furniture was a bed. There was no heating. “We didn’t need heating,” she said.