ON THE WATERFRONT
Even today, nearly 60 years later, there’s no denying the intensity of On the Waterfront. The story focuses on Terry (Marlon Brando), a corrupt New Jersey dockworker who grows a conscience and blows the whistle on the crooked union boss who ruins his life — both destroying his career as a boxer when he orders Terry to throw a fight and murdering Terry’s brother in a campaign to eliminate enemies. But in many ways it is the particulars of the production that have insured Waterfront’s longevity. Immediately upon the film’s release in 1954, critics identified the central theme as director Elia Kazan’s response to those who criticized him for naming names and identifying Hollywood communists to the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities. When Brando’s working stiff shouts down a union boss at the docks by declaring “I’m standing over here now, I was rattin’ on myself all those years, I didn’t even know it,” one can almost hear Kazan defending his radical turn against communism. Far more important than the politics, however, was Brando’s breakthrough performance. Working with Kazan both here and in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando introduced the Method into mainstream Hollywood, and movie acting would never be the same again. Not surprisingly, On the Waterfront scored a handful of acting nominations (nods for Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint); the film would go on to win for best picture, director, actor, screenplay, supporting actress, art direction, cinematography and film editing.
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Boil down the particulars and the appeal of Titanic all but parallels the structure of Saving Private Ryan, Gone With the Wind and this year’s War Horse: Evoke the scope of a historical spectacle, while simultaneously straining the event down to an intimate character study. In framing the sinking of the world’s grandest ship through the flirtatious eyes of steerage boy Leonardo DiCaprio and posh upper cruster Kate Winslet, director James Cameron shrewdly amplifies the heartache of this tragedy, merging the awesome carnage of a shipwreck with the internalized despair of a doomed romance. It’s a formula that offers something to everyone, from history buffs to disaster fans to those merely in search of a date night. Thanks to this universal appeal, and the film’s rabid teenage fan base, Titanic remained in theaters for 10 months, raking in $600 million in the U.S. alone. The pop hit also resonated with enough constituencies within the Academy that it scored a total of 14 nominations, tying the all-time record previously set in 1950 by All About Eve. On Oscar night, Titanic took home 11 statues, for best picture, director, cinematography, original song and a slew of technical categories.