When Barry Levinson plays host for On the Waterfront at the Senator TheatreThursday night -- the opening attraction for this year's Maryland Film Festival -- he hopes audiences will feel the same thrill he experienced as a12-year-old seeing it in 1954 at the Ambassador Theatre, at Liberty Heightsand Gwynn Oak avenues.
As he says over the phone from his headquarters in Connecticut, where he'sfinishing a comic fable about envy called Envy (with Ben Stiller, Jack Black,Rachel Weisz and Christopher Walken), part of that excitement came from thespontaneity and pop majesty of picture-going in the era when seeing a Saturdaymatinee was for many kids the national cultural pastime. "We didn't know whatwould be playing; we just went to the movies on Saturday. Still, there wasthis grandeur to it. The theater would have a curtain -- it opened for thecoming attractions and the shorts, then it closed and opened again for thefeature -- and I just loved the whole thing."
But the visceral response that On the Waterfront roused in him came fromsomething more than ritual pleasures. "Suddenly I went, 'Wow!' It was thefirst time I can remember really paying attention to a movie beyond going andenjoying it and leaving. It stood out for me as a defining moment." The memorystuck to him so closely and strongly that its director, Elia Kazan, became theembodiment of filmmaking for Levinson.
"Coming from Baltimore, I never knew of anyone who was a movie director --the one idea I had of a director was Alfred Hitchcock, because he was on TVevery week." Yet, On the Waterfront affected him so deeply that he wrote whathe says must have been an amazingly callow letter to Kazan, asking thedirector for a chance to watch him make a film. Levinson never got a reply.But he did finally get a chance to meet Kazan a year ago. "He's in his early90s and he's not always totally alert, but he has these moments when he'll saysomething that has all his authority and power behind it."
In the nearly 50 years since Levinson saw On the Waterfront, he has becomea director who in strong and subtle ways follows in Kazan's footsteps. He maynever have made an out-and-out muckraker like On the Waterfront, with itsfierce Budd Schulberg script exposing the corruption of union bosses on theHoboken, N.J., docks. But Levinson's Wag the Dog (1997), in its own comicalmanner, has had, over time, just as great a political impact. And, moreimportant, Levinson has mostly resisted special-effects genres: "I like allkinds of movies, but I've always gravitated toward subject matter andcharacter."
The complex, detailed comedy work that Levinson's Diner helped bring intoour culture in 1982 is one of the greatest contributions to screen actingsince Kazan brought complex, detailed Method emotions into movies likeWaterfront. Today's mass-audience mania for observational humor is rooted inDiner : for generations of comic artists, it proved the potency of nuance.There's a straight line from the guys in Diner spinning their wheels incontinual diner talkfests to the Seinfeld gang's spinning their wheels incontinual diner talkfests -- and even to Larry David kvetching in an L.A.coffee shop. And from Kevin Bacon and Mickey Rourke in Diner (1982) to Adrien Brody in Liberty Heights (1999), Levinson has shown a Kazan-like knack forshowcasing young performers in signature roles.
Of course, Kazan's On the Waterfront holds up as one of the purest examplesof the creative synergy of a gifted star, Marlon Brando, and a landmarkcharacter.
At the age of 29, boxer-turned-dockworker Terry Malloy carries ahard-knocks malaise -- an instinctive withdrawal from the compromise andcorruption into which he's sunk. Before he realizes that there exists a lifeapart from his crooked union and its degrading labor practices, Terry is anarrested adolescent, living for jokes, thrills and camaraderie. The worst sideof this life is the cruel joshing he endures in union boss Johnny Friendly'sbar; the best side is the bond he shares with a young kid from his old gang,the Golden Warriors, who loves to watch Terry race pigeons. In an instance ofthis movie's root honesty, that narrow friendship excludes anyone beyond thesecret world of the rooftops, shutting out even the Nice Girl (Eva Marie Saint), who helps a priest (Karl Malden) fight for Terry's heart and soul.
The fulcrum of On the Waterfront is Terry's relationship with his brother,Charley the Gent. It's a variation on the Cain and Abel theme, with the brainybrother being more destructive than the brawny one. Rod Steiger is brilliantas Charley, embodying a glib maturity that even Terry sees through at the end.And Brando makes us see and hear what we never have before. He mixes an oddlanguor with physical menace, shadowy gestures with sudden decisive actions,and an unconventional stop-and-go phrasing that makes each line his own. Heexpresses the inexpressible and gets at the core of Terry's angst -- histhrottled howl against a world that would label and pigeonhole him, a worldthat lacks even the love he gives his pigeons. Director Kazan and screenwriterSchulberg had intended this child / thug to emerge as the epitome of theirbrand of liberal working-class heroism. And Terry Malloy is a valiantwhistle-blower. But when Brando says, "I coulda been a contender," his lamentgoes beyond a lament for social corruption. It's a cry for authenticity andmeaning -- a cry in the dark that lights up the dark.
"You know what's interesting about the film," says Levinson, "is that tomake something real is not the test of a good movie. Real by itself is justreal -- not earthshaking in any way. But to make it theatrical and have itseem incredibly real -- that's what On the Waterfront does. That it's bothreal and operatic is to me the extraordinary aspect of the movie."
As I watched Waterfront again, it seemed inevitable to me that Levinsonwould be drawn to this movie.
Long before pop psychologists and sociologists began describing Americanmales as commitment-phobes and Peter Pans prone to staying with Mom and Popinto their 30s, Levinson etched life as it is lived on the postponement plan.In Diner, Levinson's characters use their fixations on everything from theBaltimore Colts to the relative merits of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, andElvis Presley to fill up the hollows of a post-adolescent, ersatz-adult limbo.Bacon's Fenwick may be smarter and quicker than the college nerds he watchesplaying College Bowl on TV, but he can't help asking Boogie (Mickey Rourke),"You get the feeling there's something going on we don't know about?"
Levinson can see the connection with Waterfront in this area: "It's true:the guys have these little conversations where they're trying to comment onstuff, but they're myopic and unable to grasp the bigger picture. The women --and there are very few women in this movie -- may have a better understanding,but are excluded." When Saint's character comes back from her Catholic collegein Tarrytown, and picks apart the reality of Hoboken, it both attracts Malloyand drives him crazy. "What's that line he uses? 'Shut up about thatconscience, that's all I've been hearing.' "
I mention how extraordinary Saint is in what could have been a clichedrole. The first time we see her, she protects the body of her dead brother andsays, "He was the best kid in the neighborhood, and everybody said so" -- andin an instant she defines the heartbreaking simplicity of her character.
"She does," Levinson breaks in, "and she's also incredibly plain-looking inthis movie: so plain that she becomes attractive because of it."
It's not surprising for Levinson to savor the intersection of an inspiredperformer and a deceptively straightforward verbal and visual presentation.Right from the beginning of his career, Levinson showed a masterly use ofcolloquial language in a style that could be called "the demonic demotic" --for example, the Diner guys refer to beautiful gals as "death." No wonder he'sturned into a tough, sharp collaborator for idiosyncratic word men like James Toback (who wrote Bugsy) and David Mamet (who wrote Wag the Dog).
Levinson cites as an overwhelmingly sexy interlude in Waterfront the scenewhen Saint's in her white slip and Brando's Malloy bangs on her door. Standingin front of it before he breaks it in, she reflexively checks her hair withher hands -- even as she begs him to stay away from her. "Compare that to amoment in a modern film: There's nothing close to that intimacy, nothing withthat kind of humanity about it," Levinson says. "You realize how much film hasevolved since then, and not necessarily for good. The fundamental change isthat films are now basically about the adrenaline rush that the studio gets,not simply by the action on the screen, but by how big the movie can be,dollar-wise. If a movie costs 100 million and makes 125 million, it's less ofa moneymaker than if it cost 5 and made 40. But the studio gets thatadrenaline rush of having a film do more than 100 million."
For Levinson, the rush in movies still comes from the way artists likeKazan can turn observational truths into startling flights of imagination.Take Brando's and Saint's one prolonged courtship pas de deux. Kazan breaksoff an intimate conversation between this man and woman with a rowdy weddingparty that takes place steps away yet appears to come out of nowhere. Then hecaps the sequence with a thug from Friendly's gang leaning on Terry rightbefore two men from the crime commission hand him a subpoena.
"That's what I mean by the extremely theatrical and operatic nature of thismovie," says Levinson. "It's so quiet, and then you see this gigantic weddingmaybe 15 feet away, but the way Kazan choreographs it, he gives it emotionalcredibility. When you look at how he manipulated the material here, it's thefurthest you can get from reality for the sake of reality."
Kazan's achievement there is as bold in its melding of poetry andjournalism as anything in early Fellini. Why, then, does a filmmaker likeKazan still have a lesser academic reputation than his European peers? "Mytheory is that when you have foreign films and when you read them, withsubtitles, the experience has more of a literary aspect to it: it's a littlemore grand than hearing it in English. We revere some of those works partiallybecause of subtitles. On the other hand, foreigners who embraced John Fordearlier than Americans did also were 'reading' his films with subtitles.'Let's move 'em out' probably was more grand to them in French."
No more ambiguity
The only groaner I could find in On the Waterfront comes when Terry, aftertestifying against boss Friendly, confronts him with his fists on the dock."This boy fights like he used to," says one of the dockworkers, underliningthe theme of redemption with a heavy magic marker.
But the powerhouse three-stage climax of Terry taking on Friendly,crumbling under the blows of his palookas, then rising slowly to his feet,remains a rouser -- in part because of Brando's unique physical performanceand in part because of Kazan's pinpoint, superbly stylized staging. Much ofthe fight takes place off-screen. "It could have been hamfisted," Levinsonsays. "In fact, if there was any way of making On the Waterfront today, theviolence would have to be heightened by 40 percent. The first killing would bea big deal. The scene of Brando and Saint running down the alley to findCharley would be a giant action sequence. The fighting behind the union shedwould be a huge set piece. We now think we have to do all that, which isanother unfortunate, fundamental change. Because in On the Waterfront, thelittle that you see goes a long way."
Also, I remark, the movie is neither holy nor gleeful about violence. Thewhole push of the drama is for Terry to move beyond brute force, but hispublic pummeling of the boss (before the goons gang up on him) has anundeniable inspirational force. "That's another thing that has disappearedfrom film," says Levinson. "You no longer get ambiguity." And ambiguitydistinguishes a number of Levinson's favorite Hollywood movies from thepostwar years. "I love Red River," he says, "and it has this incredibly braveperformance by John Wayne. He raises a kid as his son, but then has a fallingout with him -- and the vengeful, homicidal side of the man surfaces. He's sodark that he wants to kill the 'son' that he raised. And this is John Wayne!By today's standards, he never could be 'likable' enough."
Kazan always denied that On the Waterfront presented a veiled defense ofhis decision to name Communists in American film and theater for the HouseCommittee on Un-American Activities. Levinson has had his own experience withthe political exploitation of a movie. Wag the Dog -- Levinson's satire ofpresidential administrations using media to change public agendas and escapepersonal scandal -- has been invoked whenever a reigning chief executive hastaken international military action. But Levinson sees this phenomenon as partof the movie's vitality. "I was down in Cuba when the Baltimore Orioles wereplaying the Cuban All-Stars. In the lobby was a television tuned to CNN,broadcasting Wag the Dog as it was being shown in Albania or some other place.There must have been four different languages going on! Look, certain moviesenter the ether and people experience them as they want to experience them.They give it their own truth. Who could have predicted when they shot On theWaterfront that 'I coulda been a contender' would still be out there as one ofthe definitive scenes in film history?
"That's what's so fascinating about film. It sometimes connects in ways wenever anticipate. We can analyze it, but elements coming together at a certaintime and in a certain way to make that happen is a piece of magic."