On the Waterfront (1954): Brando’s Oscar Winning Performance

Political corruption within labor unions was the topic of Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” Elia Kazan’s 1954 Oscar-winning picture, which features one of Brando’s two or three greatest performances.  The movie goes beyond its formal subject, serving effectively as an expose of union racketeering and as a thriller involving the murder of an innocent longshoreman.

Filmed on location, “On the Waterfront” was photographed in black-and-white, semi- documentary style (Boris Kaufman won an Oscar), which suited its realistic subject matter and commonplace characters. Marlon Brando won Best Actor for one of his most touching and memorable performances as Terry Malloy, an ex-prizefighter who transforms with the assistance of his girl (Eva Marie Saint) and the neighborhood’s priest (Karl Malden) from a passive dock worker into an a crusader fighter against trade unions tyranny.

“On the Waterfront” brought Oscars to director Kazan, supporting actress Saint, story and screenplay to Budd Schulberg, art direction, and editing. The only categories in which the movie lost were Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Leonard Bernstein) and the supporting actor, probably because three male roles were nominated within the same league. Rod Steiger was nominated for playing Brando’s brother, an opportunistic lawyer working for the arrogant racketeerboss, played by Lee J. Cobb, who was also nominated. Karl Malden, who had previously won for “Streetcar Named Desire,” was also nominated for playing a militant yet sympathetic Father Barry.

Much has been written about Kazan as a friendly witness testifying before the HUAC, in which he repudiated his leftist past and named names. The movie itself has been interpreted as a “McCarthy film,” one that favors informing, though the analogy between informing on Communists and informing on corrupt crooks is problematic.

Nonetheless, “On the Waterfront” is a powerful and enjoyable film even without this ideological reading. And the picture would have won the Oscars regardless of its politics considering the weak Best Picture competition that year.

Oscar Context

The other Best Picture contenders in 1954 were a court drama based on Herman Wouk’s novel, “The Caine Mutiny,” which starred Humphrey Bogart; Clifford Odets’s stiff backstage melodrama “The Country Girl,” with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and William Holden; MGM’s musical Seven Brides for “Seven Brothers,” starring Jane Powell and Howard Keel; and the romantic comedy “Three Coins in the Fountain,” which did more for the encouragement of American tourism to Rome than for the advancement of film art.





Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando)

Father Barry (Karl Malden)

Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb)

Charley Mallon (Rod Steiger)

Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning)

Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint)

Glover (Leif Erickson)

Big Mac (James Westerfield)

Truck (Tony Galento)

Tillio (Tami Mauriello)

Pop Doyle (John Hamilton)

Mott (Heldabrand)

Moose (Rudy Bond)

Luke (Don Blackman)

Jimmy (Arthur Keegan)

Barney (Abe Simon)

J.P. (Barry Macollum)

Specs (Mike O’Dowd)

Gilette (Marty Balsam)

Slim (Fred Gwynne)

Tommy (Thomas Handley)

Mrs. Collins (Anne Hegira)




A Sam Spiegel Production, released by Columbia Pictures.

Produced by Sam Spiegel.

Directed by Elia Kazan.

Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, based on articles by Malcolm Johnson.

Photographed by Boris Kaufmann.

Art direction by Richard Day.

Edited by Gene Milford.

Musical score by Leonard Bernstein.


Running time: 108 minutes.


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