Monday, 10 May 2010

I Coulda Been A Contender

I have a strong appreciation for Elia Kazan even though I realise that it’s often more of a sympathetic appreciation than an objective appreciation of his talent. Not that the man hasn’t done good work (three of his films appear in my top 100 - previously, previously) - look at his resume! but I always feel sorry for him. The first thing that occurs too often when they hear his name is his involvement in the naming of names in post-war America. No paragon of goodness myself I often wonder about the backlash that occurs when persons criticise Kazan. It’s a dissonance that further ensues when one of my favourite playwrights Arthur Miller severed his bond with Kazan over the issues. Miller wrote his masterwork “A View From the Bridge” to show what he thought of informers (a play I love), Kazan crafted On the Waterfront to assess the motives behind the informer. I can’t pit play against film, but I will say that few stories of the time are as moving as Kazan’s On the Waterfront. It’s the classic Brando performance, the rebellious young man at odds with the world he lives with. On the Waterfront’s story is simple.
Not so long ago I cited Brando’s performance as the best actor decision the Academy made. It’s a clichéd thought, and though I may change some of the choices I’m not liable to change that one. The film is constructed as such that Brando is give a chance to run the full gamut of his talent, and he plays it just right – never too much, or too little. There is not a moment onscreen where his eclectic charm isn’t obvious. Little moments like his chemistry with Eva Marie Saint, his conflicted decisions between right and wrong and those fierce final moments with Lee J. Cobb. It is true that On the Waterfront is at its best when he take the screen, but considering that he is in virtually every scene that means the film is always soaring.
However, it’s not a one-man show. That’s what makes On the Waterfront the little bit of excellence that it is. From Eva Marie Saint’s nervous Edie, to Karl Malden’s somewhat hammy (but still effective) priest, Lee J. Cobbs terrifying “boss” and Rod Steiger’s conflicted brother. Take for example the famous scene from On the Waterfront, everyone knows that Brand “coulda been a contender”, but as noted in the DVD commentary this scene works not only because of the ferocity of Brando here. Steiger knows full well when to hold back and when to let loose. The expression on his face as he gives Brando that gun is a brilliant moment for him, he knows full well what this means for his life and with two geniuses in the backseat of that car Kazan works magic.
For a director so often enraptured with the eccentricities of humanity I can see how On the Waterfront seems like a discordant note in Kazan’s repertoire. I’m aware, actually, that it’s more than just a little zeitgeist and perhaps just a tad – a tad – but On the Waterfront is crafted with intelligence and with skill. Always taut, never pandering, On the Waterfront may be idealist in the strictest of definitions but it is never implausible and it is smart. In the battle of Miller vs Kazan I can’t choose a winner, but On the Waterfront always thrills me and remains as a deserving Best Picture winner, if there ever was one.


Twister said...

Excellent post, excellent movie.

I saw it for the first time about a year ago, and I was blown away. Brando's performance is truly the best winner of all time, and had he won for his exquisite representaion of Stanley Kowolski they would have been tied in my book.

Simon said...

Oh, Brando. What happened? You were so cool.

Jose said...

I think Elia Kazan is one of the most consistently underrated directors in history.
I don't understand why the film industry is so hypocritical when it comes to separating the personal and professional lives of the people involved in it.
Who cares what Kazan or Polanski do in their lives when they deliver art?
Nobody today hates van Gogh paintings because he was an alcoholic or Michelangelo's work because of his sexual orientation.

Alex in Movieland said...

what a weird coincidence. I was just thinking about the quote and the scene 36 hours ago... :D

i've seen it just once years ago, and i was planning on revisiting soon. those guys rocked the supporting actor category, Godfather-style

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

"On the Waterfront" sent me on a Lee J. Cobbs binge -- what a great actor, and his performance got overshadowed a bit by the hype (deserved, of course) surrounding Brando's.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

twister well stanley is my favourite non winning performance so he tops both ways.

simon well he turned into the godfather, then he died. we can't really blame him for that.

jose preach to the choir.

alex they did, and lost godfather style too.

m. carter lee j. is brilliant, and he's also brilliant as willie loman in death of a salesman.

Simon said...

I can blame him for dying. I can blame anyone for dying in this great nation. GOD BLESS AMERICA!

Eh. So he shoved cotton balls in his mouth and petted a cat.

You notice how when something is pardoied enough, you can never take the original seriously?

Runs Like A Gay said...

You've made me want to revisit as well; a collection of top notch performances very rarely seen and timely and conflicted message.

Few American films reach these heights.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

runs like a gay i'm glad i did. the film really is like lightning in a bottle.