On the Waterfront is a strong demonstration of director Elia Kazan at the height of his career. The story pits longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) against the stranglehold of powerful union officials. Written by Budd Schulberg (taking over a screenplay by Arthur Miller), the film is typically read as Kazan’s defense against criticism of his decision to name names during testimony for the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. While Malloy’s struggle and eventual agreement to testify against union bosses even at the cost of his own safety is an unambiguously heroic decision within the movie, the allegory to Kazan’s outing of Communists has long sat poorly with historic commentators.
Historic commentators, however, aren’t a part of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. Academy Voters. Most of them are actors, and they named Waterfront the Best Picture of 1954. They likely responded as much or more to the contributions of young Brando and co-star Eva Marie Saint, who both won Oscars for their performances while the cast received a total of five acting nominations overall. The merits were enough to propel the film to the top award, and it was perhaps incidental that it pleased a certain conservative section of the voters.
One can imagine a similar trajectory being traced by a winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The movie which, like Waterfront, concerns violence spiraling from an attempt to make corrections from within a corrupt system, has also built momentum behind popular performances; both Francis McDormand and Sam Rockwell are favorites to come away with awards on Sunday. But Billboards has been dogged by accusations of, if not outright racism, an untoward sympathy for Rockwell’s racist cop and a marginalization of black characters. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement Billboards comes across as similarly favorable to a controversial section of conservatism.
There’s a key difference in intentions at play. While Waterfront is unmistakably influenced by Kazan’s beliefs and past, the reactionary elements of Billboards seem more like the result of poor research on the part of an outsider. As a demonstration of the film’s mixed response and the clout of the acting branch of the Academy, British-Irishman Martin McDonagh was nominated for Best Screenplay but not Best Director (Kazan, incidentally, won Best Director in 1954). Despite this, the film remains the second-most likely BP winner this year.
Intentions and politics haven’t buried Waterfront, but neither will they let go from Billboards. Our theoretically future reunion of Best Picture winners will find these two films as uneasy partners when the bridge tournament starts. They may have more to say to each other than the other films will have to say to them.