Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Great Face, Great Performance: Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront

Edie Doyle and Terry Malloy take a slow stroll through a park. He is affable and a bit common; she is painfully shy around him and continually fiddles with her glove. They make small talk and finally she makes an excuse to leave.

Terry: don't remember me, do ya?
Edie (stops and turns back to him): I remembered you the first moment I saw you.
Terry grins, leans back and pushes his nose to one side in profile.
Terry: By the nose, huh?
She laughs.
Terry: Well there's some people...just got faces that stick in your mind.

Hoo boy, ain't that the truth.

I am a prime specimen of that most dangerous breed of all: the Impatient Film Snob. To put it briefly, this means that I will frequently get myself into situations where I find myself adamantly defending "bad" films to my peers, usually finding myself citing reasons like, "Film is an entertaining medium and if a film doesn't entertain me, I don't want to watch it! I don't care how many people have wanted to kill themselves after watching The Decalogue! Besides, have you seen Channing Tatum's abs in She's the Man?!?" Dignified it's not.

So when I read a plot summary like, "An inspirational story of crime and corruption on New Jersey's gritty waterfront," mentally I'm already close to peacing out. But something nevertheless drove me to watch On the Waterfront (perhaps the photograph I saw of Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint embracing in a doorway in my Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Films of All Time). It is extremely rare that I am so moved by a single film. Everything...the casting, the dialogue, the story, the look of the film...everything came together in such a way that for me the movie was elevated to something nearer to poetry than just two hours of film. And at the core of it all, like a beating heart, is Marlon Brando's astounding performance as Terry Malloy, a dockworker who works as a stooge for the corrupt boss Johnny Friendly, until his conscience (and a sweet girl named Edie Doyle) take a hold of him and gradually turn him around.

Brando as Terry Malloy is one of those performances that is cited so often by actors and directors and film nerds as their favorite screen role that neophytes may overlook this film, feeling that they already know everything there is to know--who can't quote at least part of the "contendah" speech? But to those who haven't already done so: you must see this film. It is a great story and a truly beautiful performance. You haven't heard the Contender speech until you've seen it in the context of everything else that Terry Malloy has been through during the course of the film. My younger sister has been able to do a uncannily dead-on-balls-accurate "Nazi Marlon Brando" impression for about three or four years now and even she, during her first viewing of On the Waterfront, was in tears for a large portion of the second half.

Much of the beauty of this film is owed to the character of Terry Malloy. He is tough, coarse, and is well aware that he's not terribly bright (there is a world of difference between that and someone who is stupid and unaware of it). Physically, he's as beautiful as...well...Marlon Brando at his most beautiful. He's an ex-boxer who has a deep inner tenderness, which he tries to mask by being every bit as rough and as rude as those who surround him. But there is a gentleness about him that is instantly apparent to the viewer. Watch Brando's face in the moments when he finds out about Joey being thrown off the roof. His expression crumples into a look of genuine concern--not for himself, but for the young man. "Hey, he wasn't a bad kid, that Joey," he says softly. Watch the almost tender way he lifts his brother's (spoiler) dead body off of the wall and lowers him to the ground, wrapping his arms around his neck so that they seem to embrace one final time. Terry keeps a flock of pigeons on the roof and looks after them (and some local kids) with incredible care and then begins to tend to Joey's flock after his death. His is a soul completely incongruous with its surroundings. Everything around him is rough and dirty and unkind, but Terry is simple; someone who loves without wanting or getting anything out of it himself.

And, of course, there's the catalyst for his spiritual awakening, which comes in the form of the innocent, virginal Edie Doyle, who also happens to be the sister of Joey, the boy who Terry inadvertently sent to his death. There is such genuine chemistry between the two actors and an incredibly touching way in how Edie and Terry relate to one another. Terry looks at her wonderingly, as if he can't quite figure out which planet she hails from, and Edie sees through all of Terry's posturing in an instant. There is mutual protectiveness and tenderness, and when Terry asks Edie to come have a beer with him ("At a saloon?" she asks anxiously) we worry for her until we realize that he looks at her with the same gentleness with which he regards his birds. "She's the first nice thing that's ever happened to me," he explains to Father Barry, and we have good reason to suspect that he's telling the truth. Edie is far removed from the corrupted world in which Terry finds himself, so through her eyes he begins to see the darkness and evil that pervades the individuals on the waterfront. The most wonderful thing about their interactions are that they never seem forced; Edie says things that are realistic for her character to say, never overtly preachy or trying to force a message to the audience. Simply because of her innate (never saccharine) goodness and what we understand Terry's background to be, we can see the impact that her outlook has on him. Plus--there's sparks, there. The two of them share a smoldering kiss in which Brando quite literally beats down her door and corners her, and all she can get out is a bit of a whimper.

I can't really discuss On the Waterfront without saying at least a little bit about the "Contender" scene, which is not because I'm legally obligated but because the first time I saw it this scene made me burst into tears. I love it because the speech doesn't feel like the screenwriter made up his mind to write an Oscar-winning speech. It's a genuine turning point for the character in the course of the movie, when he finally confronts head-on the realities that he's been denying about his brother and, more importantly, himself. As players in this scene, Brando and Rod Steiger as his brother, Charlie, are simply beautiful. We can see every moment that Charlie is deeply struggling with what he has been told to do (threaten his own brother to clam up or be shot) and we sense his deep shame when his brother looks from his face to the gun, slowly shakes his head, smiles ruefully, and pushes the gun away. Brando portrays the levels of his character so perfectly--the joking amity when he first comes into the car, the confusion and realization when he becomes aware of his situation, the disbelief when his brother threatens him, and finally the anger, lost hope and wistfulness as he delivers the famous line:

Terry: You don't understand, I could've had class! I could've been a contender! I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it.

 Something inside Terry has snapped and from then on he's a changed man. His road isn't easy and, quite believably, he wavers from it every once in a while but ultimately he struggles to his feet to do the right thing.

The match made between Terry and Brando is fascinating from a technical standpoint. Brando was not a stranger to bringing his powerful raw physicality to the screen (i.e. I have yet to find a woman who, in the first shot of him in A Streetcar Named Desire in which he's starting a brawl in the bowling alley, fails to make some sort of "hrunh!" noise deep in her chest cavity), but Terry is miles away from Stanley Kowalski. In some ways they are similar: Terry isn't an intellectual and is valued primarily for his physical prowess, but Terry is far from the blunt instrument everyone takes him to be. It is nearly impossible for an unintelligent actor to convincingly play intelligent and almost as difficult for an intelligent actor to convincingly play honestly dumb--they tend to overact, to make the situations farcical to cover up their own failure to understand their character. But Terry Malloy is a revelation in the sense that Brando stays honest to the character and to himself--he doesn't try to sugarcoat Terry's lack of intellect, but ably portrays the positive sides of the man as well: his gentleness, his conscience, his protection towards Edie. We see him struggling with his emotions and his conflict, but it's never in the way he beats his head against the wall or throws a fit. It's as simple as the way Edie finds him lying on the roof by the pigeon coop alone, arms folded behind his head. We get a nuanced, realistic portrait of a conflicted man; his faults and his strengths, both of which ultimately lead to his triumph.

On the Waterfront isn't, as I first thought, a film about corruption and dockworkers and gang bosses at all. It's about a young man waking up, coming to his senses and realizing that injustice is something to be stood up to rather than tolerated. It's also a beautiful love story and, you know, one of the best screen performances of all time and everything, so go see it. Now.


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