Thursday, August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg, wrote 'On The Waterfront,' dead at 95

Aug. 6, 2009
Posted by Noah

It's not a bad epitaph, really: Budd Schulberg, writer, wrote one of the most famous lines in cinema history, "I coulda been a contender."

It's not exactly front page news when a screenwriter dies, even a good one - it takes a legend to make major publications and media outlets to give it significant space and attention. If Budd Schulberg ever had any worries, which I doubt he did, then they are eased. When he sat down to write a little script about violence and corruption among longshoreman, he created one of the most memorable characters in cinematic history, and - as written above - a line that is right up there with the most famous in the whole history of cinema.

The movie, On The Waterfront. The character, Terry Malloy, was played by none other than Brando, the very best actor of his generation, and the line, in its entirety is as follows:

TERRY: I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.

Gut-wrenching, even now, and an amazing bit of writing. Those acid, self-loathing words, spoken by Brando to Rod Steiger, assured Schulberg of immortality. It is a line that has been quoted and re-quoted so many times that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who have no idea what its original context was. If you're one of them, then I urge you to rent it right away and take notes. On The Waterfront is what real drama is all about - expert storytelling. Get that in line and all the rest will follow. There are few dramas of the last 50 years that can even hold a candle to this masterpiece.

Schulberg has also done pretty well at Heritage, as testified to by the steady prices for On The Waterfront movie posters, the most valuable of which is the Italian version. The top example, from back in 2005, brought nearly $3,000. A contender indeed…

Schulberg was born the son of a Hollywood producer. He was a child of privilege in the Great Depression, and it wore on him keenly. He lived in luxury while so many starved and, as a young man on a trip to the Soviet Union, he was inspired to join the American Communist Party. He hewed to its beliefs for several years before finally growing disenchanted with the dogma of the party, especially when it pressured him to tailor his writing to party lines. When called before the notorious senator Eugene McCarthy in 1951, and his tyrannical House Un-American Activities Committee, he named names of other Hollywood communists, most notably Ring Lardner, Jr.

It wasn't Schulberg's best moment, but he escaped the lasting tarnish that befell fellow communist and fellow whistle blower Elia Kazan, whose genius as a director was always shadowed, if not eclipsed, by his finger pointing before the HUAAC. It's almost quaint now, when you think about it… At least America had a monolithic enemy in the former USSR, but I digress…

Schulberg was also the author of a scathing 1941 book about Hollywood greed and ambition (I know, I know: In Hollywood? Say it ain't so!) called What Makes Sammy Run. It got him in hot, but not deep water, and allowed him to continue on with the rest of his very interesting life, which also included collaborating with F. Scott Fitzgerald and taking part in the arrest of Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl.

Truly a giant voice in Golden Age Hollywood has now left, leaving so few witnesses to such an important time in American pop culture…

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-Noah Fleisher

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