I missed the debates last night, but I did finally see On the Waterfront, and surprise, surprise, it's incredible. I recently finished the recently deceased Elia Kazan's autobiography. At one point in the narration, Kazan refers to the group of actors he'd worked with on a certain movie as second-rate actors. Then he stops and notes that this is not meant to be an insult. He says he's known mostly third-raters. He's worked with a fair number of second-raters, he says, a handful of first-raters, and one genius. Brando. Kazan said he received a lot of praise, and an Oscar, for his direction in On the Waterfront. But you don't direct Brando, Kazan confesses, you just film him.
Knowing this would be another tough guy role, I was expecting Stanley Kowalski in flannel. But it's not that at all. There's no bluster and bravado to Terry Malone, though he's every bit as raw. Brando takes this washed-up prize-fighter-turned-longshoreman and plays him rough, sure, but with this touch of tenderness so light and so natural, it doesn't confuse the character by making him improbably sensitive. It looks like Brando was born in Terry Malone's skin. Lots of movies will tell you, ham-handedly, that their protaginist is special, that he has somehow transcended his pedestrian surroundings. Kazan and Brando are both too good for that, and they give their audience some credit. Terry Malone isn't any smarter than anyone else, he isn't terribly braver, he isn't really a man of principle surrounded by wolves. But when he gets to the famous "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender," you believe it and you already knew it because of something Brando drew out of Terry naturally--not because of some cleverly inserted scene that told you so.
It's refreshing to watch a film in which the director refrains from manipulating your emotions with treacly melodrama and passionate declarations of love that let you know with no doubt that somebody's about to get whacked, and you'll be expected to cry. When directors trust their actors (and have actors worthy of trust), you end up with something much more interesting and complex than the simplified saccharine we're used to--something resembling life a little more.