Worst Best Picture: Is On the Waterfront Better or Worse Than Crash?

on the waterfront

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1954 winner On the Waterfront. Is it better than Crash?

When I was younger I set out to watch every single Marlon Brando movie. I didn’t make it, but I saw enough that I feel confident that his role in A Streetcar Named Desire is his best. He plays the lead Stanley like an animal; he’s constantly hulking around in various states of undress and drunkenness and he’s always sweating. He makes the movie feel hot in the literal sense to the degree that you will sweat just watching it.

He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for Streetcar, but he did for On the Waterfront, and a lot of people consider his washed-up boxer Terry Malloy to be the quintessential Brando role. Those people are wrong, but there’s certainly a case to be made.

Let’s get this out of the way: a lot of people hate On the Waterfront because of the circumstances behind the message of the movie. Elia Kazan, the director who also directed Streetcar and Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement, had recently named names as part of the Hollywood blacklist investigations of the 1950s. The act was hugely controversial, and many people consider On the Waterfront his response to the backlash.

On the Waterfront is the story of a group on longshoremen who exist under the brutal regime of the local mob. The union boss at the docks controls who works, and he doles out fewer hours (and far worse punishments) to people who threaten to report any illegal activity to the cops. It’s a bad scene for everyone involved (except the mob, of course) but things get really dark when the union resorts to killing anyone to stop them from talking.

Brando’s character was forced to throw a boxing match as a result of some mob dealings and he spends most of the movie depressed about work and his wasted life. There’s a love story — sorta, not really — but he’s mostly just working and regretting. The most introspective moment features the line you know: “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

It’s certainly iconic for a reason. There aren’t many movies where all you know is one line, and this might be the best example of them all. In the context of the story it really hits home, and you feel for Terry when he delivers it. However, the fame of it does a disservice to the incredible work of the supporting cast. Father Berry (Karl Malden) constantly encourages the men at the docks to stand up for themselves and bring the mob to justice in court, and most of his “sermons” are every bit as riveting and intense as the famous line.

Is it just a defense of “talking to the cops” as something you have to do to stay alive? No, it’s a lot more than that. It’s a look at how difficult it is to stand up for what is right and how sometimes, it doesn’t really make sense to do that right away. It’s a complex look at what initially seems to be a simple situation, and while it’s remembered in history for Brando’s amazing line read in one scene, it’s so much grittier and tougher than that 30 seconds alone.

The Best Part: At one point the priest needs to convince the dockworkers that he’ll be there for them, and he delivers a speech that will go down in history. I couldn’t love Malden’s performance in this more. The performance is so powerful that the Vatican actually included the movie on it’s list of “best values films,” along with Best Picture winners Chariots of FireSchindler’s List, and Gandhi in 1995. Weird!

The Worst Part: Eva Marie Saint won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and while she is perfectly wonderful in the role, it’s not really a big part of the movie. It feels like her character gets washed out a little bit, and the love story itself is extremely forgettable.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I didn’t consider, when I wrote this template almost a year ago, that I would have to answer this for On the Waterfront. I would argue that there is no part of this movie that is worse than Crash. The closest I can come to a compliment is that Crash has more literal color in it, because it was released during an era where films were made in color. Congratulations on this technical achievement.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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