An Appreciation – On the Waterfront
“…I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am”
Perhaps no other name in film acting is equated to that of an icon quite like Marlon Brando. He has been referenced and pointed to countless times, and his practice of the Method approach has become legendary. Brando has influenced actors who can be identified by their last names: Dean, DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson. To say that someone is the “greatest” in anything is a hyperbolic statement, because an idea like that could never be truly measured. But it can be said that Brando, in his laidback, naturalistic, and even quirky manner of performance, helped transition screen acting to how it is seen in the modern day. You can even see the difference in approach in the films themselves, with other actors boldly gesturing against his more unorthodox style. That’s not to say that either is right or wrong, but one thing is undeniably certain: Brando stood out from the rest.
One of his greatest performances was as the down-and-out ex-fighter Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s masterpiece On the Waterfront (1954). It’s a performance (and a film) of great emotional complexity and crisis. Terry Malloy is a character that required Brando to exhibit a wide array of feelings: he had to be tough, naïve, vulnerable, scared, courageous, and everything in between. Terry was once a boxer who had no limits, who could have been a champion in another life. But his loyalty to his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and the crooked people he worked for prevented him from achieving that stardom. Instead, he devolved to working the docks as a longshoreman, and getting paid by the corrupt bosses that run it. That is the set-up that stands as a platform for Brando to masterfully craft a character in a way that only he could have. Why is his performance so remembered in this movie? It’s been said that screen acting can be split into two sections: before Brando and after. So what is it about him that has influenced so many others?
The first of many answers is that he had the uncanny ability to play a scene with two noticeable effects. He can exude both a dangerous thug and a vulnerable man at the exact same time, resulting in a presence that is offbeat but also very attractive. Take for instance the scenes between Terry and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint). Edie is the sister of a man who attempted to rat out the illegal practices of the docks, and whose murder Terry unknowingly played a part of. Watch how they interact with each other. Terry does not come off as someone who was once in a brutal sport. Yes, there is a certain level of toughness there, but at the same time we see his uncertainty and quirkiness. He cracks jokes, takes Edie to a bar to drink and dance, plays around even while telling her that the docks are a dog-eat-dog environment. It’s hard to think of another person who could have played those scenes the same way. They would have been either too weak to be a believable tough guy, or too closed off for Edie to try to convince about speaking out against the union bosses. Yet somehow Brando works out that balancing act out to perfection.
And there are the classic scenes we could refer to, involving the picking up of an accidentally dropped glove or the motion of very gently pushing away a gun, those moments that have been etched forever into classic movie history. In a way, those two moments don’t necessarily mean much within the whole of the film, but they’re worthy of note because they are added texture that could have very easily not made it into the movie. Brando was well known to always use his hands—in almost every film he is holding something, playing with a prop, scratching his face, keeping his hands moving instead of simply having them down by his sides. In the outdoor scene where Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops one of her gloves while in the middle of a dialogue, they could have stopped filming at that moment and restarted. Instead, Brando (not breaking character) quickly picks up the glove and continues on while working with it, even putting it on. It’s a tiny moment, really, that could very well have been dismissed by the casual eye. However, it brings an added visual element to the scene that would have not been there initially, and the way Edie takes the glove off of Terry’s hand contributes to the building chemistry that the two have.
The moment with the gun is a part of the one the greatest scenes in all of the movies. You know which one it is. In a desperate effort to prevent Terry from ratting out the union bosses to the port authorities, Charley takes him into the back of a car to plead, even beg for him to keep quiet. When those efforts seems to fall in vain, Charley points a gun at Terry in a last ditch effort. Brando was reported to have issues with this scene—not understanding how Terry could possibly speak with Charley while a gun was pointed at him. The answer was simple, and fitting, with Terry very delicately moving the gun away. Again, a small moment in terms of what is actually happening on screen, but what it means is much larger. The dynamic between the two brothers is startling and moving simultaneously. Startling in that Charley could even threaten his own brother’s life, and moving in how heartbreaking it is to see how their relationship has broken apart. Following is the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech given by Brando, one of the most remembered and oft-quoted speeches of all time. It’s in this speech where we learn of everything Terry has been holding in up to then, how his acceptance of throwing fights and becoming known as a “palooka” weighed on his soul, how he thinks himself as a bum who had a chance to do something but failed at the last moment, and how all of that was spurred by his love and loyalty to Charley. It’s a classic scene of acting and dialogue, and deserves all the acclaims it has received.