For Science: On the Classic Oscar Front

On the Waterfront (1954)

Every time I sit down to watch a series of films For Science, something unexpected happens. I don’t ever plan for this to happen. In fact, I didn’t even pick these movies — Dr. Cole Abaius picked them for me as part of his work on Old Ass Movies. I just watch them and document. And what I’ve documented in the move from Olivier’s Hamlet to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is the difference (and thus, great deal of similarity) in the leading performances. Hamlet was Olivier showing off his stage presence, and On the Waterfront is a young Marlon Brando showing off his authenticity. Real, gritty, American underdog authenticity. He coulda been a contender, you know.

Despite the obvious quotability of On the Waterfront, a film I’ve taken far too long to see, there’s something telling about the choice of story. It is an essential American story of oppression, poverty and life on the mean streets, down by the docks. It is also one of those tumultuous love stories that we don’t see so much anymore, the good girl (in this case, the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint) falling for the rough-and-tumble thug (Brando). Where do you think the ‘girls only love bad boys’ cultural theme came from, anyhow? The key in all of this is Brando, who is magnificent. He’s the ultimate tough guy whose layers are peeled back over the course of the two hour narrative to reveal a hero. There’s something beautifully innocent about his toughness, his great defense mechanism. He’s the heart and soul of a gritty story, one about striking out for what is good and right. And did I mention his motivation of getting to canoodle with the super-hot Ms. Eva Marie Saint? Yeah, I’d go down to da docks and take a beating for her, too.

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

It probably wasn’t the best idea to save this two and a half hour war epic for last, but them’s the rules. However, despite the gigantic runtime of this film, there was no gap in attention — even for a child of the ADD generation. Why? Because there’s something so fascinating about the film’s central storyline. No, not the story about the American soldier (William Holden) who escapes captivity only to come back with his sights set on destroying the enemy’s big bridge. And no, not the story about the British soldiers held captive by the Japanese, who are forced to do the seemingly impossible and build a big bridge for the enemy. I’m talking about the gentlemanly rivalry between the commander of the British, played by Alec Guinness, and Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

Ever other ounce of this movie — the epic scope, the beautiful scenery, the awesome explosions — all exist only to serve as fodder for the chess match happening in the commandant’s quarters. It is such intimate, quiet and polite discourse that it feels like a small element within the story — the Brit wants to follow the rules of war, but the Japanese colonel says this is war, there are no rules. It what makes this movie so resonant, the power of principle. That, and the fact that Alec Guinness was a fine actor. His character is one of the toughest sonofabitches that I’ve ever seen in a movie. And all for a matter of decency, a matter of principle.

Another strong takeaway that I had, just as my will to watch movies for the day was beginning to drain, is that Bridge on the River Kwai is made even more entertaining with humor. It’s a pretty funny movie, in the end. From the matter-of-fact nature of Guinness in the dinner time cultural showdown to the strange British major who wears rolls of plastic explosives around his neck, there are more than a few laughs to be had. It makes the great emotional weight of Guinness’ characters journey that much easier to take. He is a tragic figure, after all.

Bringing It All Together

All day I spent watching movies, and all day I spent search for a theme, a common thread with which I can tie all four of these multiple Oscar winners together. There is the obvious. The well-crafted and layered narratives, the high level of technical proficiency. But perhaps it’s even more simple than that. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of an era, an era of iconic leading men. Each of these films centered on a great performance from an actor with an uncanny ability to take over. From Crosby to Olivier to Brando to Guinness, there’s not a mediocre moment in the bunch. They are dynamic, charismatic and hold an authenticity that supersedes the world in which their characters exist. They were the essential leading men.

It calls in to question what we see today. If we look at this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture, the remnants of the great leading man are still there. The Hurt Locker has its rogue cowboy (Jeremy Renner), Avatar has its middling underdog hero (Sam Worthington) and Up in the Air features on of the last great movie stars (George Clooney). But are any of these movies truly defined by their central characters? Not exactly. They’re environmental (they created great environments, not that they’re tree hugger movies) films, stories of tension and heartbreaking reality. And these leading men are part of the system, not quite the elevating factors that we see with the men of the four films mentioned above. In fact, one could argue that all three of the contemporary films I mentioned are more products of their respective directors than the performances of their leading men. Products of good writing, or great special effects, rather than simply stunning performance. Maybe that’s just a sign of the times. It doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it different. A difference that I didn’t really know about, until I watched a few old movies.

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet.

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