Thursday, August 13, 2009

Battling screenwriter who penned "On the Waterfront dies," by John Matuszak.

"I coulda been a contender!"

Movie buffs will recognize this line from "On the Waterfront," uttered by Marlon Brando as a prizefighter who let his big chance go by when he took a dive for the mob. Even those not familiar with the film probably know the line that has entered our culture as a catch-phrase for all of our thwarted ambitions.

Few remember that one of the most famous lines in the movies was written by a man named Budd Schulberg, who died Aug. 5 at 95.

Such is the fate of the writer. Somehow we assume that the golden words magically arrive in the mouth of the actor, without the endless research and re-writes that are the daily work of the author.

Actors such as Brando are idolized, and directors, such as Elia Kazan, who helmed "On the Waterfront," are hailed as visionary auteurs, while the writers toil in relative obscurity. Most of them probably prefer it that way, solitude being more conducive to creativity. But it all begins with the written word, so attention must be paid.

Schulberg spent four years researching and writing about the lives of the longshoremen depicted in the film, seeing first-hand how the corruption of the mob-controlled docks and unions robbed them and their families of a decent existence.

He was inspired by another crusading writer, Malcolm Johnson, whose series of articles for the New York Sun in 1948 and '49 first exposed the violence and greed on the waterfront and brought to light for the public the international crime syndicate that wielded the real power.

Johnson witnessed the "shape-up," where hundreds of longshoremen waited anxiously to be picked randomly for a day's work, their selection by the hiring boss usually dependent on their willingness to kick back part of their pay to the gangsters. This practice, unique to the New York docks at the time, had been outlawed in England in the 19th century.

He also found evidence of extortion and murder throughout the waterfront that was described as "a lawless frontier."

Under threats to himself and his family, and false accusations that he was a communist, Johnson showed that the corruption went to the highest levels, from the heads of large unions to the halls of Congress and the military brass.

He also discovered heroes such as Father John Corridan, the waterfront priest who "knew the score" and educated the beleagered longshoremen on ways to take their unions back from the mob. Corridan became the model for the priest played by Karl Malden in the film version.

Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. Schulberg received an Academy Award for his screenplay. More importantly, the articles and the film spurred changes to the crooked hiring practices and other abuses along the waterfront.

It is a coincidence that, at the time of Schulberg's death, I had been reading a collection of the original articles by Johnson and Schulberg about waterfront crime. What emerges is a portrait of courage and perseverance behind one of the greatest movies of all time.

Following Johnson's lead, Schulberg's screenplay spins out like a documentary, and almost all of the incidents came from real life, down to the father's "Christ on the Waterfront" sermon. But what occurs in a few weeks in the film took months and years of effort on the part of Johnson and the people he chronicled.

By personalizing the struggle of concience in the person of Brando's character, Terry Malloy, Schulberg also created a work of art with deep human emotions. He knew that, in order to teach, you first have to entertain.

Schulberg had a track record of fighting the powers that be. The son of a Hollywood studio head, he earned the scorn of the movie colony when he wrote "What Makes Sammy Run?", a portrait of unbridled ambition in Tinseltown. He also wrote the novel in defiance of the Communist Party, which he had joined as a young man.

Schulberg later testified before HUAC, naming names, as did Kazan, believing the communists were a threat to free speech.

Schulberg and Kazan teamed up again three years later to film Schulberg's expose of the corrosive power of television, "A Face in the Crowd."

A neglected masterpiece, the film stars Andy Griffith as a hillbilly singer who discovers the persuasive influence of the new medium and becomes a power-mad demagogue. The film is almost prescient in its insights into the growing threat of television to shape our opinions and actions, coming several years before the watershed Kennedy-Nixon televised debates and 20 years before Paddy Chayefsky's "Network."

The film stands as the high-water mark of Schulberg's screenwriting career, but he did continue to write and to try to make a difference in the world by establishing writing workshops in Watts and Harlem. Last year he was working with Spike Lee on a screenplay about Joe Louis.

The next time you visit your local movie theater, or are enjoying a classic film on television, pay attention to that name that comes after "screenplay by..." and appreciate the effort that goes into creating a memorable story or an indelible line of dialogue.

1 comment:

StayBank said...

How would OTW have played if Sinatra played Brando's role? Where would their careers have gone?