Wins Best Picture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Director Elia Kazan sparked controversy when he “named names” before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His On the Waterfront, a film about a dock worker informing on union corruption, was widely interpreted as a justification of his actions. The film’s Best Picture Oscar—voted by the members of the Academy—thus seemed to vindicate not merely Kazan’s artistic vision but his political activities as well.

Summary of Event

Having won the New York Film Critics, National Board of Review, and Golden Globe Awards Golden Globe Awards , On The Waterfront (1954)—a relatively small-budget, black-and-white film, produced by Sam Spiegel—was the favorite to win the 1954 Academy Award for Best Picture. The film received twelve nominations, including Best Actor Academy Awards;Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Supporting Actress Academy Awards;Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint), three Best Supporting Actor nods (Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb), Best Director Academy Awards;Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Score (Leonard Bernstein), and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Academy Awards;Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Budd Schulberg). It won a total of eight awards: In addition to Brando, Saint, Spiegel, Kazan, and Schulberg, Richard Day won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White Academy Awards;Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White[Best Art Direction Set Decoration, Black and White] ; Boris Kaufman won for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White Academy Awards;Best Cinematography, Black-and-White[Best Cinematography, Black and White] ; and Gene Milford Milford, Gene won for Best Film Editing Academy Awards;Best Film Editing . On the Waterfront (Kazan) Academy Awards;Best Picture [kw]On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture (Mar. 30, 1955) [kw]Best Picture, On the Waterfront Wins (Mar. 30, 1955) On the Waterfront (Kazan) Academy Awards;Best Picture [g]North America;Mar. 30, 1955: On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture[04810] [g]United States;Mar. 30, 1955: On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture[04810] [c]Motion pictures and video;Mar. 30, 1955: On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture[04810] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Mar. 30, 1955: On the Waterfront Wins Best Picture[04810] Kazan, Elia Schulberg, Budd Johnson, Malcolm Miller, Arthur Spiegel, Sam Brando, Marlon Saint, Eva Marie Steiger, Rod Malden, Karl Cobb, Lee J. Bernstein,Leonard Kaufman, Boris

Despite its triumph, Kazan’s film had had to overcome serious obstacles. No major studio had been interested in a story about corruption among longshoremen and mob violence in New York—especially one to be shot relatively quickly on a budget of less than $900,000, when the trend in Hollywood was in favor of big-budget, Technicolor films shot in the new wide-screen process of CinemaScope. Moreover, On the Waterfront’s writer and director were men who had been implicated in the notorious “witch hunt” of professed or suspected communist sympathizers by the House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities];investigation of Hollywood HUAC;investigation of Hollywood McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] Hollywood studio system;investigation by HUAC (HUAC). They had thus made many political enemies in the arts. Nevertheless, critics lauded the finished film for being galvanic, powerfully written and acted, impressively shot around Hoboken by Kaufman, and scored with dramatic intensity by Bernstein.

On Oscar night, March 30, 1955, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California, On The Waterfront collected its eight awards, wresting the Best Picture statuette from conominees The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Country Girl (1954), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). The film was in a strong sense Kazan’s reply to his critics—including former friend Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and others—who had vilified Kazan for his testimony before HUAC in 1952. Kazan had named ex-colleagues as Communist Party members or associates, adding their names to the notorious blacklist and destroying many careers and lives. He was attacked by liberal newspaper columnists, as well as his fellow writers and actors. However, what to others seemed an unforgivable betrayal became for Kazan a point of patriotic honor, because he believed he was trying to save the United States from communist infiltrators.

Despite his controversial status, Kazan was determined to make a film based on a series of twenty-four articles published in the New York Sun in 1949. The series by investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson, “Crime on the Waterfront,” was an exposé of the graft, extortion, kickbacks, theft, and killings that were common on the New York waterfront. Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;journalism for his investigation, had examined the grinding servitude of longshoreman life, in which wages were siphoned off by the mob while the workers were expected to conform to the code of “D&D”—deaf and dumb. In other words, they could not divulge anything about their oppression or the crimes committed against them for fear of merciless reprisals, including murder.

The rights to Johnson’s story were owned by Kazan’s friend Budd Schulberg. Schulberg, the author of the best-selling novel What Makes Sammy Run? (1941), was a former Stalinist like Kazan. Also like Kazan, he had rejected Joseph Stalin and embraced capitalism. Schulberg had already written a screenplay entitled The Bottom of the River that was based on the Johnson source material. It was never filmed.

In 1950, before he teamed up with Schulberg, Kazan had hired Arthur Miller to research the world of longshoremen in Brooklyn’s Red Hook area and to write a script to be called The Hook for Columbia Pictures Columbia Pictures . However, the HUAC hearings had put an end to this collaboration, as did political pressure by Harry Cohn Cohn, Harry , head of Columbia, who wanted Miller to change his villains from corrupt union officials and gangsters to evil communists. Miller had refused and withdrawn—to be replaced by Schulberg, who spent the next few years studying the West Side of Manhattan, visiting New Jersey bars, interviewing longshoremen and their union leaders, and getting to know the fearless, outspoken labor priests from St. Xavier’s Church in Hell’s Kitchen. One such priest, Father John Corridan Corridan, John , was a ruddy, fast-talking, chain-smoking, tough, and sometimes profane Roman Catholic, who became the model for the character of Father Barry (Karl Malden). Other real-life models for the movie’s characters included gangster Albert Anastasia of Murder, Inc. and whistle-blower Anthony De Vincenzo. Eventually, the script for what would become On the Waterfront took shape as the two men worked on it, sometimes at Schulberg’s Pennsylvania farm and sometimes at Kazan’s New York apartment.

Schulberg’s first draft, called The Golden Warriors, was sent to producer Darryl F. Zanuck Zanuck, Darryl F. of Twentieth Century-Fox, who liked the basic material but was worried about labor support. Zanuck eventually decided against making the movie, using the excuse that business was bad at his studio and that his plan to save it involved committing all of his resources to CinemaScope features. Kazan became even more determined to make his film, and he won the backing of Sam Spiegel, producer of The African Queen (1951), who arranged a deal with Columbia.

In due course, a final script (then titled simply Waterfront) was readied, and Kazan was able to sign Marlon Brando for the lead role of Terry Malloy, although the actor at first rejected the role without reading the script. Brando no longer wanted to work with Kazan, who had directed him on stage and film in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (play, pr. 1947; film, 1951). Brando’s initial objection was political; he disapproved of Kazan’s testimony against his supposed friends and colleagues before HUAC. Ironically, however, when Brando eventually relented, his performance rendered not merely sympathetic but also immortal a fictional character whose experience bore obvious parallels to that of Kazan.

On The Waterfront is a taut drama about Terry Malloy, a retired boxer who runs errands for the Dockers Union, a mob-controlled organization that mercilessly exploits workers and then intimidates them into keeping silent about the mob’s criminal activities. Malloy finds himself unwittingly involved in the murder of Joey Doyle, though he falls in love with Doyle’s sister Edie. His conscience begins to bother him, and he balks at further involvement in the union, putting him, his older brother Charley (who is a henchman of union boss Johnny Friendly), Edie, and her father at deadly risk. Eventually, Malloy confesses his guilt to Edie and Father Barry, and after a brutal beating by Friendly’s thugs, he musters the courage to testify before the Crime Commission and break the mobster’s control of the docks.


On The Waterfront helped bring a new sense of realism Realism;cinema and relevance to the American cinema. Although there had been earlier masterpieces on social and political subjects, including A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Informer(1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), All the King’s Men (1949), and A Place in the Sun (1951), few if any American films could claim to intertwine morality, politics, and romance in the gritty, intense, yet sensitive manner of Kazan’s film. The film was also very much a product of its setting: Filmed in winter in ships’ cargo holds, workers’ slum dwellings, bars, and littered alleys, as well as on pigeon-riddled rooftops with the wind blowing from the Hudson River, the movie had the distinctive look and texture of Hoboken. Its sound track was filled with the sounds of the waterfront, foghorns, ships’ whistles, stevedore chatter, and so on, adding to its verisimilitude.

Kazan multiplied this verisimilitude by casting former professional heavyweight boxers as bodyguards and goons, alongside professional actors who were masters of method acting. Brando, for example, improvised brilliantly, setting an unparalleled standard for realist acting that combined inarticulate stumbling with poetic brooding and vulnerability. His scene with Rod Steiger in the back of a taxi became a classic, and their dialogue exchange—included the line “I coulda been a contender,” has been quoted countless times in the years since the film’s release.

With an anger and passion that still holds, the film was able to transcend its inherently melodramatic material, Christian symbolism, and moments of blaring emptiness. It powerfully consolidated Kazan’s preoccupation with the subjects of corruption and the wrongly accused, a preoccupation that was already evident in his Boomerang (1947) and that would surface again in A Face in the Crowd (1957). Deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress, On the Waterfront was voted eighth on the American Film Institute’s list of the one hundred greatest American movies of 1896 to 1996. On the Waterfront (Kazan) Academy Awards;Best Picture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kazan, Elia. A Life. New York: Knopf, 1988. A candid autobiography full of anecdotes and gossip, with an insider’s look into the genesis and making of the film and of the political controversy surrounding Kazan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neve, Brian. “On the Waterfront.” In The Movies as History: Visions of the Twentieth Century, edited by David Ellwood. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. Argues that the film is more than just a naked apology for Kazan and Schulberg’s decision to inform on their colleagues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rapf, Joanna, ed. On The Waterfront. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A comprehensive examination, with essays on the screenplay, Kazan as director, Bernstein’s score, the reception of the film in classrooms, and contemporary reviews. Preface by Schulberg.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schickel, Richard. Elia Kazan: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Substantial discussion of every stage and film production directed by Kazan. Sympathetic to Kazan.

Kazan Brings Naturalism to the Stage and Screen

Blacklisting Depletes Hollywood’s Talent Pool

HUAC Investigates Hollywood

A Streetcar Named Desire Brings Method Acting to the Screen

McCarthy Hearings

The Crucible Allegorizes the Red Scare Era

Categories: History