Scene Study: On the Waterfront (Marlon Brando)…

In this lesson, I (Phil Svitek) am doing something a little different – I’m going to share one of my favorite movie scenes and extrapolate the lesson I take away from it because movies are a beautiful tool that can move us & more importantly, they have the power to teach us about life. The movie I’m highlighting is Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando. While it’s primarily known for its famous “I coulda been a contender” scene, I am using a different scene from the movie to showcase. This movie holds such a precious spot in my heart because it teaches us not only the true meaning of helping others but to also believe in ourselves. After you check out this lesson I hope you’re inspired to watch the full movie, whether it’s your first time or you’re just revisiting it. Let me know what you took away from the scene or the full movie (if you’ve seen it). PS: Next week I’m covering effectiveness vs efficiency!

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Today though, I’m not going to talk about TV, but rather another one of my passions – which is movies. In particular, I’m going to do something different today and do a scene study of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando. What’s On the Waterfront? Oh come on. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It’s the very famous movie where Brando says “I coulda been a contender.” Which of course has been imitated hundreds of times. (Margot Robbie Impersonation: & Raging Bull scene: Today though, I want to focus on a scene that to me is equally as powerful but not as well cited.

To understand the full impact of the scene, here’s a little background context regarding the plot. Warning, spoilers ahead.

Dockworker Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, had been an up-and-coming boxer until powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly persuaded him to throw a fight.

When a longshoreman is murdered before he can testify about Friendly’s control of the Hoboken waterfront, Terry teams up with the dead man’s sister Edie and the streetwise priest Father Barry.

Terry against the advice of Friendly’s lawyer, who happens to be Terry’s older brother Charley, testifies in court against Friendly and his waterfront mob.

This is where the scene I want to highlight picks up. Terry knew by testifying that the mob would end up against him. But he never expected the very people he was trying to help to despise him for his actions. In this scene, even the kids who once looked up to Terry hate him for what he did, and aren’t afraid to let him know.

Right here is Terry questions everything. He’s so defeated. His whole life he was told how stupid he was. That he was a bum. Boxing was the only thing he felt he had a shot at and that was taken away from him in order to make a few bucks. He went along with it out of a sense of duty to someone else – specifically Johnny Friendly. And now, it’s even worse. By testifying against the mob, he wasn’t trying to be a hero. He just wanted to do the right thing as they say. To help his fellow longshoreman by not keeping D&D, which is a term from the movie meaning deaf and dumb. He hoped through his selfless act that union rules would change for the better instead of being corrupt. That people would be inspired. None of that came to pass following his testimony. So how does Terry reach in this moment?

Hearing the words “we could live on a farm” from Edie create an epiphany for Terry. Even though she keeps on talking, he realizes what must be done. She says: “You’re going down there! Just because Johnny warned you not to, you’re going down there, aren’t you? You think you’ve got to prove something to them, don’t you? That you are not afraid of them and— you won’t be satisfied until you walk right into their trap, will you? Then go ahead— go ahead! Go down to the shape-up and get yourself killed.”

Terry’s transformation is so profound, not even Edie, who loves him, understands Terry’s true motives. Furthermore, she is actually more thrown off by this whole ordeal than him. Edie has been the audience surrogate, learning the ins and outs of the waterfront, more specifically the behaviors and the culture. The fact that she’s ready to walk away from all this showcases her belief that thing can’t change on the waterfront. Pun intended.

But Terry believes something different. Terry says, “They always said I was a bum. Well not anymore. I’m going down to the dock. Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill anybody. I’m just going to get my rights.”

With that, he’s said what needed to be said. Edie understands what he means. Terry goes down to the docks and…

Hold up. We can’t spoil the ENTIRE movie for people… See the ending yourself. In fact, for those interested, we’ve provided an Amazon link for you to be able to directly purchase the movie. The best part is by doing so, this show gets a kickback from the sale. And no, it doesn’t cost you any extra. It’s a win win! You get the movie, we get some funds for the show. So please, if you’re going to buy the movie, do so using the Amazon link provided below. Enjoy the movie if you do…

So we just watched a great scene from a movie regarded as one of AFI’s top 100 films. But why? If you’ve made it this far, it’s because you trusted me enough to explain the takeaways of this scene and how you can apply them in your life. Thank you for that trust. See, like I quoted Robert McKee in my last lesson, “stories are the creative conversion of life itself.” For more on this specific quote and it’s meaning, check out that episode. Link is provided below.

But I digress. Hopefully you’ve already discerned some meaning from this scene already. If you have, good for you. Here are the lessons I learn when I watch this scene.

First off, it teaches us the true meaning of helping others. If we’re doing something selfless, we have to do it without expectations. We can’t expect rewards or praise of any kind. Those may come. But they shouldn’t be expected. In fact, Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art, teaches us that “we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor.” In that moment, when Terry says he’s going to get his rights, he’s not just doing it for him. He knows it’s the right thing to do for EVERYBODY. He doesn’t know the outcome but that doesn’t matter to him anymore. He doesn’t concern himself with what people think of him. They can call him a bum. He knows the only way he’ll truly be a bum is if he continues to listen and do what others expect of him, rather than what he knows he wants and needs to do.

David Foster Wallace also speaks about the importance of helping others selflessly in his speech “This Is Water”. In it, he says, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.” Most of his life, Terry blindly did what Johnny Friendly and his brother Charley told him to do. He thought THIS was the right thing to do. But it wasn’t. It was just the easiest for him. The entirety of On the Waterfront is about Terry becoming free of Johnny Friendly. This is a metaphor for gaining freedom in all aspects of his life. By saying the line he says to Edie, he’s saying that he’s going to become free. He’s standing up for himself, yes, but he’s also helping the longshoreman regardless of how they may feel initially. And as Wallace’s quote also say, this “kind of freedom involves attention and awareness…” Terry certainly embodies both of those.

The second aspect this scene relays to us is to not run away from our problems and instead face them head on. I find people try to escape constantly. That can be in the form of social media surfing, the YouTube rabbit hole, going out with friends when a person knows he or she can’t afford the time or the money wasted by doing so. It can be by avoiding certain emails or phone calls altogether. Sometimes even people. But at the end of the day, all you’re doing is avoiding something. Eventually it’ll come to pass. By avoiding it, the issues can escalate further. And, most often times, the problems you’re avoiding aren’t that big to begin with. What makes them momentous is not the problem itself but you! Ever hear the quote, “No matter where you go, there you are”? It’s a way of saying you can’t escape your thoughts and your thoughts are what escalate these problems. In the scene shown from On the Waterfront, Terry chooses not to run away from his problems. He faces them head on.

How he manages to do this is two-fold. One, he believes in himself. He does away with all everyone’s viewpoint of him and knows he is capable of so much more. He listens to his own inner voice about what is right and what is wrong regarding the mob. He listens to himself about what must be done. Not even Edie, whom he loves, can convince him otherwise. The second reason he chooses to face his problems head on is because he stops blaming others for him problems in life. By listening to other people his whole life, he had no control of it. When people said he was a bum, they were right because he allowed others to dictate his life. Ironically, they too were allowing that in their own lives. Anyway though, the spirit of blaming someone else is best encapsulated in the famous “I coulda been a contender” scene. In that earlier scene in the film, Terry blames his brother for his problems in life.

In the scene I’m showcasing today, Terry can’t fall back on that anymore. That’s because, sorry, major spoiler, Charley is dead. Terry has no other choice but to accept responsibility for his own life moving forward. There’s a great quote from Charles Swindoll about this notion. The full quote goes as such: “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church….a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.”

Terry embodies this quote in that moment brilliantly. Now, will you get your rights and take ownership of your life or will you continue to blame others and let them dictate how you spend your precious time on this earth. I leave that to you.

A few final things before you click away to watch previous lesson from Phil. First, the transcript of this episode is in the description. Again, if interested in seeing Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, click the Amazon link below to purchase it. That way you get a great film and we get a portion of the sale at no cost to you. And be sure to leave a comment with any thoughts, opinions or questions you may have so Phil or I can respond. Please be sure to hit that like button and let your friends and family know about it. If you’d like to be notified when future episodes release, be sure to subscribe on either Apple Podcast or YouTube. Lastly, if you’re a new host in the LA area and would like to join AfterBuzz, visit AfterBuzz TV’s contact page. A direct link is provided. Or, of course, you can Tweet @PhilSvitek or Instagram me @BonjourJuliet. Thanks for watching. I’m Juliet Vibert, a producer on the show and we’ll see you next time with another one of Phil’s life lessons, which will be all about effectiveness vs efficiency. Bye.

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