If ever anyone needed proof that Hollywood is a conservative town, On the Waterfront would be that proof. Here is a movie that won eight Oscars and was nominated for another four more. Even today, Hollywood continues to honor this film among the best it has ever produced. And yet, distilled to its basic essentials, On the Waterfront remains one of the most conservative statements ever put on film by major Hollywood talents. Its most virulent critics take the stance that On the Waterfront is nothing more nor less than a 108 minute-long justification by its director for his decision to name names during the Hollywood communist hunt.
Director Elia Kazan took his own story of giving up the names of his friends who had committed no crime by attending meetings of the American Communist Party; he transformed what his critics viewed as the actions of a cowardly fink into the story of a heroic whistleblower protecting the community against the violent actions of criminals threatening to undermine the rule of law. Terry Malloy’s decision to become an informant against the mob is in actuality nothing at all like Kazan’s decision to become an informant for the House Committee on Un-American Activities because it was not then, and never has been, a crime to be a member of the American Communist Party.
Despite this reality, everyone in Hollywood knew exactly what story On the Waterfront was “really” meant to tell when Oscar voters awarded the film its many honors. Ultimately, On the Waterfront led to two of the most controversial nights in the history of the Academy Awards. The first occurred in the 1950s when Elia Kazan glibly collected his Oscar for Best Director while those writers and directors whose only "crime" was attending meetings were preparing to head to jail or writing their suicide notes.
The second occurred at the 1999 telecast when Kazan was presented with a special honorary Oscar. While many in attendance that night stood up and gave Kazan a standing ovation, some like Nick Nolte and Ed Harris remained defiantly seated with their palms coming nowhere near each. Steven Spielberg only tepidly clapped his hands while remaining firmly seated.
The political legacy of On the Waterfront has remained intact right along the film's legacy as a Hollywood classic to the point where for many the ability to enjoy its cinematic aspects is inseparable from the inability to ignore its ideological foundation.