Mar 26, 2013

Where do great films come from?

'I’m just about to start my second semester teaching a history of film course at NYU, which means I’ve spent the last few months getting up close and personal with a list of classics — On The Waterfront, Vertigo, The 400 Blows, The Graduate, The Godfather, Raging Bull. I have come out of the experience with three observations to share: 1) The 400 Blows is as close to perfection as anything touched by human hand.  2) James Stewart can’t kiss a woman convincingly. 3) Great films arise when there is a triangulation between director, actor and protagonist — when all three are linked by the same spiritual umbilicus.  As first written, Budd Schulberg believed On the Waterfront to be the story of the priest but Kazan knew it to be the younger brother, Terry’s film. In a remarkable letter to Brando which should be read by anyone curious about directing actors, he singled out Terry’s orphan status, and struggle for recognition, explaining, “Marlon this part is much closer to you and to myself, too.” The Greek immigrant who had ostracized himself from the Hollywood community by testifying before HUAC, Kazan saw his own knotted history in the part, and stayed on Brando’s side of the camera during rehearsals. “On the Waterfront was my own story,” he said. “Every day I worked on that film I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves.” 
 This goes beyond merely saying that certain actors become a director’s alter egos. Scorsese worked with De Niro many times but it was only on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull that they seemed to take up residence within the same lost soul, on loan to them from writer Paul Schrader. Two people must tell their most intimate story through third. Mike Nichols struggled for long months to cast Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, as written a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, southern Californian wasp. For a while, Robert Redford was in the frame.   “Are these people having a breakdown?” thought  Dustin Hoffman when was approached, “the guys name is Benjamin Braddock. He’s like six feet tall, he’s a track runner.” Nichols told Hoffman, “Maybe he’s Jewish inside.” And of course he was: The Graduate is all about spiritual misplacement, about being a stranger even to your own family, so Hoffman’s feelings of being miscast — which persisted right up to the film’s opening — were crucial. Nichols, the displaced Jewish boy, the lone observer, had finally worked out why the part had been so hard to cast: “without any knowledge of what I was doing, I had found myself in this story”. The list goes on: the Godfather is Coppola’s shadow-King as much as he is Brando’s; One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest is Milos Forman’s kiss goodbye to soviet Czechoslovakia as it is Nicholson’s middle-finger salute to Hollywood. It also explains the airlessness that hangs over Citizen Kane, for of course actor, director and part are already united in the singular frame of Orson Welles himself. What was never sundered cannot coalesce." — Intelligent Life


  1. It's interesting that you single out Stewart's apparent discomfort with the onscreen kiss. It's not that he can't play romantic ardor: In the shared telephone scene in It's a Wonderful Life, he convincingly portrays a visceral attraction to the touch and scent of Donna Reed. So maybe it's just a matter of technique. Many of the best examples of romantic intensity are carefully, almost clinically orchestrated rather than passionate explosions -- even when there's real chemistry between the two performers. James Garner, a through-going professional who didn't engage in many Method-enhanced quests for character or motivation, was a famously powerful kisser. Recalling her experience with him in The Americanization of Emily, Julie Andrews said she'd never been kissed like that before and "it was delicious" -- so much so that her knees buckled. But Garner was all business: it was a kiss for the camera, not for his costar.
    As for your larger theme, do you rate any of Hitchcock's films as "great?" And if yes, does your theory apply, even when the relationship between star and director is chilly, formal or perhaps even a little twisted?

  2. It's also interesting and not at all surprising that Mr. Schulberg saw his movie as Karl Malden's movie... told from the priest's point of view... based on a conversation I once had with him. Bud was sitting at our bar one night with his good friend Roger Donoghue, a retired boxer who was Marlon Brando's technical advisor on the film, where I had the distinct honor later of talking with Bud long after Roger had left. About everything! But most of all "On The Waterfront"... my absolute all time favorite which I just watched again last week on TCM. Anyway, when we got around to talking about the most famous scene in the movie, the "I coulda' been a contender" scene, Bud was rather dismissive of it saying it got all the play but it wasn't his favorite. Then he said this, "The scene I was most proud of, and remember, I'm a Jew, was the scene down in the hole after that case of whiskey was dropped on that worker who was about to talk to the Commission. When Karl Malden gave that speech where he quoted Jesus Christ saying, 'What you do to the least of me so you do to me', and about Christ not being up in heaven but right down there in the hole with them at that moment. I loved that scene," he said, "that to me was the heart and soul of the movie." And he was actually a little emotional when he said it. So yeah, Mr. Kazan obviously took the movie in Terry Malloy's direction (no pun intended), but Bud still somehow saw the movie through eyes of the Catholic priest based on that.

    What a night that was, I'll never forget it.
    Cheers, Tom!