Budd Schulberg and the Small, Still Voice

Special For FILMS FOR TWO®
By Elizabeth Bagby

Though critics tend to inject too much of an artist’s biography into the interpretation of his art, it’s impossible to look at the life and work of Budd Schulberg, who died August 5, without seeing certain persistent themes.

Schulberg, the screenwriter behind the masterpieces ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) and A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957), spent his life writing about individuals who dare to confront oppressive systems. A former member of the Communist party, he drew fire when he testified for the House Un-American Activities Committee, speaking openly of his disillusionment that a belief dedicated to equality could culminate in Stalinism. The message that appears in his work, time and again, is that people of conscience--for their own peace if not for the greater good--must challenge power.

In WATERFRONT, that power is the mob that runs the longshoremen’s union. (Schulberg, inspired by real events, spent years immersed in the culture of the docks, and the result is pungently authentic.) The workers, dependent on the docks for their income, have adopted an omerta that prevents them from speaking up even as their own lives are manipulated for the bosses’ gain. Schulberg’s Everyman hero, “Terry Malloy” (Marlon Brando), has been content to be a tool of the system until he undergoes a brutal awakening.

In CROWD, Schulberg’s second brilliant collaboration with director Elia Kazan, the oppressive force is less overtly evil, but all the more pernicious: the seductive power of stardom. Unquestioned sway over a mass audience turns out to be quite as corrosive as unquestioned sway over the docks. Here, the Everyman is “Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes” (Andy Griffith), who goes from drifter to folksy superstar. But whereas Malloy confronts mass power, Rhodes grows desperately addicted to it.

Schulberg’s protagonists are markedly average--regular guys who discover extraordinary qualities. Both Malloy and Rhodes are notable for their flaws. We meet Malloy as he unwittingly facilitates the murder of a fellow dockworker. Rhodes first appears in a hung-over stupor in an Arkansas jail, the screen practically oozing alcoholic sweat. Both men are dangerously irascible. Neither is intellectual; Malloy admires education from afar, but Rhodes actively mistrusts it. Malloy, the ex-boxer, still settles problems with his fists. Rhodes prefers to use a bluster that often passes for charm.

But despite their heroes, these are not anti-intellectual stories. Each protagonist has potential redemption in the form of a love interest, and these two women are intellectual. Schulberg, thank goodness, avoids treating his leading ladies as one-dimensional paragons of virtue. In CROWD, “Marcia” (Patricia Neal) has a restless ambition that drives her to mercenary acts; like the dockworkers, she must eventually choose between conscience and career. And in WATERFRONT, “Edie” (Eva Marie Saint), once introduced to the violence of the WATERFRONT, finds her convent schoolbooks an unsatisfying proxy for the direct experience of life. But her naïveté lets her confront the Union in a manner none of the men is willing to do.

Each movie also has a gadfly character who represents the story’s true moral center. In WATERFRONT, it’s a priest (Karl Malden) who encourages the longshoremen to speak out and works to help Edie find justice. In CROWD, the moral center is an astute but mild-mannered TV writer, the third corner of the love triangle. (Walter Matthau gives a quiet masterpiece of a performance as the nice guy watching himself come in second to a swaggering blowhard, every line of his body aching with suppressed longing and defeat.)

Schulberg’s scripts are notable for the immense credit they give the audience, particularly in what goes unsaid. In WATERFRONT, Malloy must tell Edie what the audience already knows: he helped murder her brother. Any writer would be tempted to give Malloy a dramatic monologue, but Schulberg sets the scene by the docks, where a ship’s horn blasts out the characters’ words. It takes a gutsy screenwriter--and a wise one--to trust the actors, the director, and the audience this much.

With its eight Oscars, WATERFRONT is better known, but CROWD is the movie with greater modern relevance. In the age of Sarah Palin, we’re ripe for the story of a folksy demagogue whose ostensible straight talk masks a wholehearted contempt for the wits of the audience. And as we debate Big Pharma’s role in the health care crisis, we might consider Rhodes’s sponsor, a pharmaceutical company whose signature pills are little more than placebos. When Rhodes is hired to help a senator connect with the heartland, it scarcely matters that the senator’s views are at odds with the performer’s populist sentiments. The campaign simply provides another way for him to wield power over his audience.

If Rhodes is unwilling to acknowledge the hypocrisy of his behavior, others aren’t. Much of the commentary falls to Mathau, who delivers Schulberg’s zingers with trademark crustiness: “I’ll say one thing for [Rhodes], he’s got the courage of his ignorance.” Marcia also gets in a few jabs, notably when Rhodes marries a teenaged fan: “She’s the logical culmination of the great 20th-century love affair between Lonesome Rhodes and his audience.”

But, as in WATERFRONT, Schulberg often lets the audience fill in the blanks. On the sound stage for a show called “Just Plain Folk,” Marcia helps herself to champagne. Rhodes proclaims he’s “just a country boy” as a sleek necktie replaces his sweaty shirt. From the beginning, Schulberg quietly demonstrates technology’s power to deceive. Marcia covertly tapes Rhodes in jail. First innocently and then disingenuously, Rhodes exposes the artifices of television. He invents a laugh-track machine that, in the end, is his only audience. And finally Martha, yielding to her conscience, forces technology to be honest—she turns on an audio feed as Rhodes spouts invective, revealing the truth that his public persona has tried to conceal.

“Conscience!” exclaims a tormented Malloy. “That stuff’ll drive you nuts.” But, as Schulberg knew all too well, when larger systems and ideologies fail, the individual conscience is our best hope. If the artist is indeed the conscience of his age, then hope has just lost an eloquent champion.

© Elizabeth Bagby (9/1/09) Special for FILMS FOR TWO®

Elizabeth Bagby (writer, actor, and musician) is the author of the novel THE CRAZY GARDEN, the play PRACTICAL ANATOMY, and the Blog THE FIELD GUIDE TO FORBIDDEN BOOKS. Elizabeth lives in Chicago.







Click HERE to read a great interview with Budd Schulberg.



Click HERE to read Alan Waldman's Tribute to Elia Kazan.

Click HERE to read Alan Waldman's Tribute to Marlon Brando.