One-way Ticket to Palookaville
Filmmaker Elia Kazan once commented: "If there's a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don't know what it is." He was speaking of Marlon Brando's performance – in Kazan's "On the Waterfront" – as Terry Malloy, a washed-up boxer-turned-longshoreman-turned-informer.
The 1954 classic won eight Academy Awards: Best Picture, Actor (Marlon Brando), Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), Original Screenplay (Budd Schulberg) and Director (Elia Kazan). To celebrate its 50th anniversary, and perhaps to commemorate Brando's death earlier this year, Sony Pictures Classics is re-releasing "Waterfront" with a new 35mm print restored from the original negative, and digitally re-mastered sound, featuring Leonard Bernstein's Oscar-nominated score.
Brando's improvisational acting in "Waterfront" still packs a punch. He was tender in love scenes opposite Saint, spontaneously picking up her dropped glove and squeezing his paw into it, decades before Johnnie Cochran crooned: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
And certainly, no actor ever acquitted himself better than Brando did in the role of Malloy, becoming the youngest thespian at that point to win the Best Actor Oscar. The film's most famous scene takes place in a taxi's backseat, as Terry's shyster brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) pulls a gun on the ex-pugilist to stop his testifying against mobsters. Improvising, Brando reminds Charlie that his order to throw a fight had ruined Terry's boxing career:
...What do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charlie ... You should have taken care of me better ... I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charlie ...Kazan was already an accomplished stage and screen director when he made "On the Waterfront." In the 1940s, Kazan had directed the Broadway debuts of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (as well as 1951's screen version). After "Waterfront," Kazan went on to direct James Dean in 1955's "East of Eden" and Warren Beatty in 1961's "Splendor in the Grass." But as "On the Waterfront" is re-released it's important for 21st-century audiences to place the movie in its proper historical context as a case study in Red Scare movie propaganda.
In 1952, Kazan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he named eight people from the Group Theater who in the 1930s, along with him, had been members of the American Communist Party. Rubbing salt in the wound, Kazan justified his squealing with a self-serving New York Times ad. According to Victor Navasky's "Naming Names," "Kazan emerged in the folklore of the left as the quintessential informer ..."
"On the Waterfront," made shortly after what is widely perceived as Kazan's treachery, is a cleverly camouflaged attempt to justify informing. Betrayal is the film's theme. Brando's character raises pigeons – an explicit reference to "stool pigeons." Like Kazan, screenwriter Schulberg was an ex-Communist who informed to HUAC.
Despite his stellar stage and screen work, Kazan is probably best remembered as "'notorious,' an 'informer,' a 'squealer,' a 'rat,'" as Kazan's own memoir put it. In his 1988 autobiography "A Life," Kazan called himself "the bone of contention." He remains so, even in death, according to those who were touched by the Hollywood blacklist. If there was an Oscar for the Most Hated, it might have been awarded to Kazan. Instead, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.
When, in 1999, the Motion Picture Academy awarded him the prestigious award, critics protested actively. "I'll be watching, hoping someone shoots him," declared ex-Red Abe Polonsky, whose career as a screenwriter and director of hits such as "Body and Soul" and "Force of Evil" was cut short in the 1940s by the Hollywood blacklist. "When he goes to Dante's last circle in hell, he'll sit right next to Judas," the late Polonsky insisted at the time.
Asked about his reaction to the news of Kazan's death in September 2003, Ed Asner – who had his own battles with censorship – said that he thought "snitching must be good for longevity." Nat Segaloff, a blacklist scholar and former vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union's Hollywood chapter, said, "I'm ashamed to say I sang, 'Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.'"
Blacklisted screenwriter Norma Barzman said "You don't rejoice when somebody dies. Death is always sobering. I didn't think about his death, so much as I thought about his life. What was that really when the Academy awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar? At the time, we victims of the blacklist said: 'He had two Oscars for his films, and we'd gladly have given him two more Oscars for his work.' It wasn't a question of that. Lifetime Achievement to us was a very dramatic thing."
Bernie Gordon, another blacklisted screenwriter, chuckled when asked about his reaction to Kazan's passing. "He was 94 ... It was about time, he lived a long life. Maybe, in my opinion, he lived too long. But I'm not going to get into ... whether somebody should or should not die," said Gordon, who scripted the only movie Ron and Nancy Reagan appeared in together – 1957's "Hellcats of the Navy" – under a pseudonym. "If Shakespeare was right about Caesar, then the evil Kazan did will live after him," he added.
Gordon, whose new book "The Gordon Files" is about the FBI's 20-year surveillance of the former Communist, wrote a letter to the L.A. Times that initiated protests against Kazan's special Oscar. "Kazan was an informer, an unsavory person who did something for personal interests, and against the interests of the country," stated Gordon. "Therefore, it was okay to give him an award for his work as a director – nobody ever objected to that. But to give him an award for Lifetime Achievement on the Academy's [broadcast] was to say: 'America approved of what this stool pigeon did.'"
The letter spurred formation of the Committee Against Silence, which Gordon co-chaired. CAS launched a media offensive; hundreds demonstrated outside the awards ceremony. According to Norma Barzman, quoting Sophia Loren in Barzman's memoir "The Red and the Blacklist," when Kazan received his statuette, "Only about a third of the audience stood and applauded." Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, David Geffen, Sherry Lansing and Roberto Benigni sat – some on their hands – protesting.
Kazan critics contend that the director informed on others to HUAC in order to save his job in Hollywood. "He was a Broadway director, and Broadway did not have a blacklist, and he could have made lots of money in the theatre," insisted ex-Red Bobby Lees, who co-wrote "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and was blacklisted after he refused to name names when he testified before HUAC.
"There's no doubt he was motivated by the fact he was offered big salaries and positions to continue his work as a Hollywood director ... he did not want to give up that career for refusing to name names," Gordon insisted. "Kazan had to have a rationale for what he'd done. He started out by telling all his friends he'd never give names ... But after Hollywood studio [chiefs] like Darryl Zanuck talked him into it, he went back, gave names, sold out and crawled before the committee. He claimed it didn't make any difference because those names were already known and given to the committee. But that's the whole point ... The committee was not interested in getting the names – they had those names."
Gordon added, "What they wanted was to get named people like Kazan up in front of them, cooperating with them, and in effect, validating them, and saying, 'Yes, you have a right to ask these questions.' It was strictly a stunt to get headlines ... It was a sellout on his part for personal gain."
Kazan denied having career and money motives, but continued working openly in Hollywood – unlike many others who had refused to fink. Kazan sought to answer his detractors in "On the Waterfront" and tried to project himself into the character of Terry, who bravely testifies against mobster and dockworkers' union chief "Johnny Friendly," played by Lee J. Cobb – who, ironically, testified before HUAC in 1953 as a "friendly" witness.
(Cobb's character may have symbolized one of America's most militant union leaders, Australian-born Harry Bridges – president of the CIO-purged ILWU – who beat government attempts to deport him with a 1953 Supreme Court ruling. As Bridges noted when he retired in 1977: "the attacks on me were all directed at ... members of this union.")
Ex-Red Lees pointed out, "A whistleblower sacrifices the good of himself for others. [In "Waterfront"] Brando was a whistleblower – at great risk, for the union's benefit, he exposed gangsters. Kazan thought of himself as a whistleblower ... But an informer sacrifices everybody for personal gain. Kazan profited by snitching," Lees told me in an interview prior to his murder in June 2004.
Over half a century later, Kazan's naming of names during the HUAC witch-hunt remains resonant in our own age of the USA Patriot Act and Homeland Security, as artists opposed to the Iraq War and Bush administration come under renewed calls for blacklisting and boycotting.
That's why – no matter how great the film's achievement – as "On the Waterfront" returns to the screen, the public must never forget that its story is a McCarthyite movie metaphor made by informers to justifying finking. Kazan's informing cost him more than his reputation – it psychologically plagued King Rat throughout his life. When pressed about informing in Jeff Young's 1999 "Kazan, The Master Director Discusses His Films," Kazan blacked out.
When the congressional grand inquisitors asked the Hollywood Ten's Ring Lardner, Jr.: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" he wittily replied: "I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning." Kazan arguably spent the rest of his life hating himself in the morning, afternoon, and night. Despite his aesthetic achievements, instead of having "class" and being "a contender," Kazan took a dive, becoming "a bum." Like all of today's would-be blacklisters, censors, muzzlers, prosecutors and persecutors, Kazan bought a one-way ticket to Palookaville.