I once talked to Budd Schulberg, who died yesterday, on the phone; a mutual friend put us in touch in the Fall of 2003 – I was eager to put on an event to mark the 50th anniversary of ‘On the Waterfront’, and, innocent/enthusiastic/grasping and annoying film fan that I was, figured I should just call up the screenwriter and see if he wanted to come to a poetry club on Bleecker Street to talk about it while we showed clips. He was 90 years old by the time I called – and if he had felt significantly older by the time the call was over, I couldn’t blame him. Grace and conciseness don’t always come easy to me. It’s even harder than usual when I’m talking to someone whose identity – although he was just an ordinary guy (and Schulberg would have been at pains to remind people of that fact) – had become mutated and mingled with my memories and experience by virtue of having written a myth that had gotten under my skin. ‘I coulda been a contender’ is, of course, now a cliche – but that’s not Schulberg’s fault: someone had to write it down first, someone had to create it.
Now, who knows what kind of man was Budd Schulberg?
We know that he wrote ‘On the Waterfront’. We know that his life span was such that he was able to collaborate with both F Scott Fitzgerald (on a film called ‘Winter Carnival’) and Ben Stiller (who may turn ‘What Makes Sammy Run’ into a movie). We know that he established the Watts Writers Workshop in the aftermath of the civil unrest. We know he named names after he himself had been named as a Party member. We know that he made documentaries for the army. We know that he’s in the Boxing Hall of Fame. And I know that, a few years ago, even though my plans for the poetry club event didn’t get beyond the idea stage, on the phone, at the age of 90, he was gracious, sweet-natured, generous and patient with a northern Irish film critic who thought – presumably like many others – that he had some special magic, just because he carved a cinematic myth into stone. Rest in Peace.
I’m going to watch ‘On the Waterfront’ today. Five of its principals have died in the past few years – a fact which only makes it seem more important: Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Karl Malden, Budd Schulberg. It may not be a subtle film; it may have come from all kinds of ambivalent or complicated motivation (a film that justifies ratting on your colleagues); its dialogue may sound more theatrical than realistic…It may be all these things: but, and I don’t know how much this should count for anything, other than the fact that it’s true: every time I see it, it moves the hell out of me.
‘On the Waterfront’ is a simple story in which Brando stands up for what he believes in by refusing to give in to the corrupt oppression of gangsters who control the New York docks. He is caught between a rock and a hard place, because his brother is a mob flunkey. Brando’s character Terry is broken on the wheels of circumstance, his dignity stripped by not being able to follow through on the only natural talent he believed he had – boxing – because his brother’s job depended on Terry throwing a fight. He’s a man who wanted ‘class’, who ‘coulda been a contender’, has been let down by his own choices, by the one guy he should have been able to trust, ultimately, he feels, by the whole world. He feels that he embodies failure, although his priest, played by Karl Malden, understands the difference between ‘success’ and ‘honour’, says that ‘Every time the mob puts the squeeze on someone that’s a crucifixion; and those who keep silent about it are as guilty as the centurion.’
When Terry agrees to testify against the people who might kill him, ‘On the Waterfront’ is dealing with the sacrifice that is often required to be of any use in this world. When he takes the risk of honesty, to do the right thing, his peers initially only stand by and watch; at which point, ‘On the Waterfront’ is about how easy it is to get into bed with evil. It is a well-worn cliché, but like many clichés, it’s true: all it takes for evil to prosper is that good people do nothing; or, as one character puts it: ‘I don’t know nothing I’ve not seen nothing and I ain’t saying nothing.’
That kind of silence, of course, kills. It makes me think about what it would mean if we really were to speak out for those who have no voices. Human beings everywhere are capable of terrorising others. But human beings are also capable of crossing boundaries, loving people who are different, forgiving those who have hurt them. It takes a huge psychological leap to be able to kill another human being – or even just to deliberately hurt them. You have to pretend that the other person is less a ‘self’ than you are.
You have to wipe the slate clean before you can break it.
Human beings become broken slates because we have made it too easy to erase any sense of unique dignity from others. The stories we tell teach us to devalue, and dehumanise others because of who they are, or who we think they are. It is a tragedy that religious, political, and cultural mavens (like, I suppose, churches, governments or movie studios) reinforce this myth by implying that people need to become more like us before they can be part of us. I imagine that Budd Schulberg knew this; and that it isn’t stretching a point to also guess that he knew that it was not the path he imagined for a person who really wants to be a person – to contend as a human being – someone able to welcome and accept everyone, to relate to them with confidence, and not to put people into ideological boxes. Schulberg knew that if we devalue the humanity of others, we cannot be fully human ourselves.