On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront Study Guide

Released in 1954, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is considered by many to be one of the greatest American films ever made. While Kazan and his legacy have been complicated and in many ways tarnished by the fact that he testified against friends and colleagues in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities during an industry-wide purge of Communist sympathizers, the film is still celebrated today. It is applauded for its cinematic merit, the stellar performances of the cast (Kazan was known especially for his finesse with actors), and its underlying story of a man fighting corruption to do what is right. The screenplay was originally written by celebrated American playwright Arthur Miller, but Miller abandoned the project over his disapproval of Kazan's choice to testify against those who had attended meetings of the American Communist party. Budd Schulberg took over writing duties, and an American classic was created.

The script for On the Waterfront went through many iterations, and many early readers of the screenplay did not think its story, that of a rough but noble longshoreman, would go too far in Hollywood. After Schulberg wrote various versions of protagonist Terry Malloy—at one point he was a detective, then a middle-aged divorcé—they eventually decided to base the character of Terry on a real-life whistle-blowing dockworker, Anthony DeVincenzo, who testified in Hoboken against the corruption of his union, and received a great deal of flack from his colleagues for doing so. Originally, Frank Sinatra was signed on to play Terry Malloy, after Marlon Brando turned it down (because of Kazan's politics). Eventually Brando, after some cajoling from Kazan, signed on to star. Grace Kelly was the first choice to play Edie, but when she chose to make Rear Window instead, newcomer Eva Marie Saint was cast.

In spite of the controversy surrounding Kazan and the rhetorical subtext of the film—Terry Malloy, the whistleblower, was perceived as standing in for the much-maligned Kazan and his political informing—the film went on to win a number of awards at a particularly controversial Academy Awards ceremony. Nominated for a total of 12 Academy Awards in 1954, On the Waterfront won awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. In 1999, when Kazan went up to the stage to collect an honorary Oscar, the crowd was still divided, with many in attendance giving Kazan a standing ovation and defending his incredible career, and others sitting in protest, refusing to applaud. Kazan's legacy, and the legacy of On the Waterfront, is complicated by Kazan's participation in what many saw as a traitorous act. Although the film cannot quite be separated from Kazan's politics and this legacy, taken at face value, it is a splendid cinematic achievement, and it is still celebrated to this day.