Ed Driscoll

On The Waterfront

Two recent articles look at the prime movers behind Hollywood’s great 1954 movie, On The Waterfront. Harry Stein writes of Elia Kazan, its director:

As a chief villain in the blacklist myth, Kazan got his due and then some when the Motion Picture Academy announced in 1999 that it would at last award the sickly 89-year-old filmmaker a lifetime-achievement Oscar. The firestorm that followed split Hollywood between those who insisted that Kazan should never be forgiven and those who argued that honoring his artistic work wasn’t the same as excusing his testimony.

None defended Kazan’s actions a half-century earlier. What put Kazan beyond redemption wasn’t simply his cooperation with HUAC. He could still have won forgiveness. But far from repentant, Kazan was defiant. The day after his HUAC appearance, he took out a New York Times ad entitled, almost regally, “A Statement by Elia Kazan.” “I believe that communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem,” it read. “That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien society and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.” Kazan then briefly recounted his youth in the communist movement and the contempt that he came to have for the totalitarian mentality that he’d seen firsthand.

Waterfront’s screenwriter, Budd Schulberg also saw the totalitarian mentality first hand–when he arrested Leni Riefenstahl:

Years before he wrote “On the Waterfront,” before that film brought him an Oscar, and before he earned the ire of many colleagues by testifying during the Hollywood communist witch hunt, writer Budd Schulberg had the distinct honor of arresting Leni Riefenstahl.

He was in Germany, assembling a film to be used at the Nuremberg trials as evidence against the Nazis. Riefenstahl, the legendary director and propagandist for Hitler, knew where the skeletons were. So Schulberg, dressed in his military uniform, drove to her chalet on a lake in Bavaria, knocked on her door, and told the panicked artist that she was coming with him.

“I tried to calm her down,” says Schulberg, 91, remembering in a thin, dry voice an episode more than a half-century distant. But he needed her to identify the seemingly endless gallery of faces on film that he had been collecting. So, very much against her will, he drove her to Nuremberg in an inelegant open-air military vehicle, and listened to a sad and defensive argument that would define the rest of her life, and that no one would ever believe.

“She gave me the usual song and dance,” he says. “She said, ‘Of course, you know, I’m really so misunderstood. I’m not political.'”

(H/T: Brothers Judd)

Wonder if this scene will be in the Jodie Foster’s recently announced biopic in which she attempts to resuscitate Riefenstahl’s reputation, much like Hollywood’s recent string of pro-Che and Castro movies. And if so, which artist will she portray more sympathetically: Schulberg or Riefenstahl?