The Film That Wowed Barry Levinson

'On the Waterfront' still stands out for the director from Baltimore


April 27, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

When Barry Levinson plays host for On the Waterfront at the Senator Theatre Thursday night -- the opening attraction for this year's Maryland Film Festival -- he hopes audiences will feel the same thrill he experienced as a 12-year-old seeing it in 1954 at the Ambassador Theatre, at Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak avenues.

As he says over the phone from his headquarters in Connecticut, where he's finishing a comic fable about envy called Envy (with Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Rachel Weisz and Christopher Walken), part of that excitement came from the spontaneity and pop majesty of picture-going in the era when seeing a Saturday matinee was for many kids the national cultural pastime. "We didn't know what would be playing; we just went to the movies on Saturday. Still, there was this grandeur to it. The theater would have a curtain -- it opened for the coming attractions and the shorts, then it closed and opened again for the feature -- and I just loved the whole thing."

But the visceral response that On the Waterfront roused in him came from something more than ritual pleasures. "Suddenly I went, 'Wow!' It was the first time I can remember really paying attention to a movie beyond going and enjoying it and leaving. It stood out for me as a defining moment." The memory stuck to him so closely and strongly that its director, Elia Kazan, became the embodiment of filmmaking for Levinson.

"Coming from Baltimore, I never knew of anyone who was a movie director -- the one idea I had of a director was Alfred Hitchcock, because he was on TV every week." Yet, On the Waterfront affected him so deeply that he wrote what he says must have been an amazingly callow letter to Kazan, asking the director for a chance to watch him make a film. Levinson never got a reply. But he did finally get a chance to meet Kazan a year ago. "He's in his early 90s and he's not always totally alert, but he has these moments when he'll say something that has all his authority and power behind it."

In the nearly 50 years since Levinson saw On the Waterfront, he has become a director who in strong and subtle ways follows in Kazan's footsteps. He may never have made an out-and-out muckraker like On the Waterfront, with its fierce Budd Schulberg script exposing the corruption of union bosses on the Hoboken, N.J., docks. But Levinson's Wag the Dog (1997), in its own comical manner, has had, over time, just as great a political impact. And, more important, Levinson has mostly resisted special-effects genres: "I like all kinds of movies, but I've always gravitated toward subject matter and character."

The complex, detailed comedy work that Levinson's Diner helped bring into our culture in 1982 is one of the greatest contributions to screen acting since Kazan brought complex, detailed Method emotions into movies like Waterfront. Today's mass-audience mania for observational humor is rooted in Diner : for generations of comic artists, it proved the potency of nuance. There's a straight line from the guys in Diner spinning their wheels in continual diner talkfests to the Seinfeld gang's spinning their wheels in continual diner talkfests -- and even to Larry David kvetching in an L.A. coffee shop. And from Kevin Bacon and Mickey Rourke in Diner (1982) to Adrien Brody in Liberty Heights (1999), Levinson has shown a Kazan-like knack for showcasing young performers in signature roles.

Of course, Kazan's On the Waterfront holds up as one of the purest examples of the creative synergy of a gifted star, Marlon Brando, and a landmark character.

Brando's Malloy

At the age of 29, boxer-turned-dockworker Terry Malloy carries a hard-knocks malaise -- an instinctive withdrawal from the compromise and corruption into which he's sunk. Before he realizes that there exists a life apart from his crooked union and its degrading labor practices, Terry is an arrested adolescent, living for jokes, thrills and camaraderie. The worst side of this life is the cruel joshing he endures in union boss Johnny Friendly's bar; the best side is the bond he shares with a young kid from his old gang, the Golden Warriors, who loves to watch Terry race pigeons. In an instance of this movie's root honesty, that narrow friendship excludes anyone beyond the secret world of the rooftops, shutting out even the Nice Girl (Eva Marie Saint), who helps a priest (Karl Malden) fight for Terry's heart and soul.

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