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“On the Waterfront” is more than just a beloved crime drama; it’s a confession. When Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy sounds off to Lee Cobb’s mob boss, doubling down on his reasons for turning in his gangster employers to the Waterfront Crime Commission — “I’m glad what I done! You hear me? Glad what I done!” — that’s really director Elia Kazan using “On the Waterfront” to say he was glad he testified against eight of his collaborators to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
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Despite heralding a period of back-to-back masterpieces, Kazan’s McCarthy-era actions were not without controversy. Eventually, Kazan was handed an honorary Oscar in 1999, presented by Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, despite protests leading up to and even at the event, where many spectators did not know how to react. Steven Spielberg clapped, but did not stand for Kazan, famously symbolizing (as Karina Longworth points out in an episode of her podcast “You Must Remember This“) the celebrities who toed both sides of the aisle and, unsure where to stand, chose to stand nowhere at all.
Earlier this year at a TCA panel promoting David Simon and Ed Burns’ HBO miniseries “The Plot Against America,” the filmmaker’s granddaughter and the series’ star, Zoe Kazan, suddenly found herself having to answer for him. The HBO series, adapted from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, sketches a revisionist history where aviator Charles Lindbergh allies the United States with Nazi Germany, rising to the presidency in 1940, and antisemitism becomes a way of life as fascism ascends in a divided America.
Though “The Plot Against America” is set in the early 1940s, Kazan, who plays Bess Levin, the matriarch of a Jewish family in New Jersey, was asked about her family’s history during the period. “You’re not bringing up hard times for me,” Kazan told reporters. “You’re bringing up hard times for our country…I have not wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history, partially because of the other people it involved in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life. So I’m not going to go into it.”
Watching “On the Waterfront” with today’s headgear, it’s hard not to think about the filmmaker’s decision to throw eight people — communist collaborators he knew from the Globe Theatre, where Kazan cut his teeth in schooling actors — under the bus, and then reimagine that testimony in his film, recasting the communists as gangsters.
Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” is set in the port of New Jersey, where immigrant communities found work and contributed to a bustling economy, while mainly not benefiting from the fruits of their own labor. Terry is a dockworker at the mercy of the mob controlling the port, torn between his allegiance to their iron hand and the desire to clear his name of the bad deeds he’s been asked to do on their behalf.
This split between individualism and conformity to a “mob” mentality runs not only through the Best Picture winner, but also through “The Plot Against America.” Both tales are set in New Jersey, among the working class, and centered on individuals presented with opportunities for a better life, but with the price of forgoing their integrity. In the HBO series, that’s something Herman Levin (Morgan Spector), an insurance agent with a promising but stymied career and also an opinionated New Deal socialist overly obsessed with the news, is not going to do.
Other Jewish characters in the HBO series — one for which, if you’ve seen it, the word “prescient” barely scratches the surface — are more eager to sell their souls. There’s Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), Charles Lindbergh supporter and supposed Jewish ambassador to the right-wing goyim; Winona Ryder (Evelyn Finkel), the lost sister of Zoe Kazan’s character, who just wants to be loved; and Bess and Herman’s teenage son Sandy Levin, in whom seeds of doubt and discord begin to grow as Lindbergh support begins to surge in the Jewish community.
In “On the Waterfront,” Terry Malloy is trying to do the opposite, which is to not sell his soul. But it’s not easy, and comes at a high price of many people who once looked up to him turning the other way. It’s a plight that Elia Kazan clearly felt in every fiber of his being, and while Zoe Kazan may not be able to answer to his decisions, nor should she, they hang over the legacy of any American story since that queries seeking truth to power when the truth doesn’t come easily — and especially in a period of America that’s beginning to look a lot like our own.
“On the Waterfront” is available to stream on The Criterion Channel. “The Plot Against America” is available to stream on HBO platforms.
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