Best Picture #27: On the Waterfront

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is On the Waterfront (1954).

A landmark of American cinema, On the Waterfront may have been Elia Kazan’s response to criticism for ending the careers of colleagues who he named as communists in a testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities but its content is so universal that it is instead a profoundly human call for fighting against corruption. The plot which details the corruption and violence perpetrated by a union and longshoremen on the docks of Hoboken sees Marlon Brando starring as Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who has spent his life caught up in the corruption and finds himself with a chance to take it all down. Though Brando initially turned down the lead role and Frank Sinatra was briefly attached, his return is one of the great moments in casting history. Marlon Brando reteamed with Kazan for the third time and not only bettered his previous performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata, but turned in the best work of his entire career. He effortlessly drifts between a tough persona and a sensitivity that drives his development and always has an immense power to elicit sympathy even as he acts beyond the confines of mirroring real life and lets quirks enter into every scene and action. Nearly every word he speaks has found itself mirrored in other films made since and imitations of his performance here have even led other actors to Oscars, but the moment I found most powerful was his nearly wordless walk at the end as he brought the film to an uplifting end that would seem out of place in this type of film had it not been built to with such ability.

The Real Best Picture:

On the Waterfront. Nothing else even coulda been a contender.

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