Title: Gentleman’s Agreement
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Moss Hart
based on Laura Z. Hobson’s novel
Music: Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
A proselytising drama against anti-Semitism in the post-WWII America, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT is an Oscar’s BEST PICTURE winner and also gives Kazan his first BEST DIRECTOR triumph at the age of 39, his second win would come 8 years later for ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). It stars Peck as Philip Green, a reporter is assigned to write a serial about anti-Semitism in NYC, and being a Gentile, his unorthodox method is to purport himself as a Jew, and during an eight-week stint, his new identity causes some unexpected adversity which will endanger his nuptial commitment with a demure divorcé Kathy Lacy (McGuire), by whom he meets in the city and captivated.
Anti-Semitism may no longer appear on the headline in today’s media, but the astute depiction of bigotry and prejudice from this sterling classic can cogently transposed to any kind agency of discrimination, whether it is sexism, ageism, racism or homophobia, transphobia. Actually, there are only two direct confrontations throughout the entire film, one is when Phil insists to face the spurn from the hotel manager of a swanky hotel where he has booked for their honeymoon and is noted for “restricted” clientele only. Another case is when Phil’s eight-year-old son Tommy (Stockwell), yes, Phil is a single father who lost his wife years ago (so it is a carefully calculated match between him and the childless divorcé Kathy, divorce has always been another long-standing target of prejudice), being bullied by other kids for being a Jew (kids are the worst, since they would become the most reactionary resistance of this human frailty). Otherwise, which is the most appalling fact that the vicious prejudice permeates in every corner of one’s daily life, sometimes it seems trivial in its inception and even the participants cannot realise themselves, however, through time, it will transform into a rigid mindset, it may not be overtly violent, but the inculcating hostility will concrete and sooner or later, the collective aftermath is an invisible shield which segregates Jews from the rest of the crowds, and makes them the victim of being the minority. Plus, another interesting angle is that sometimes even among Jews, the discrepancy inconveniently breeds.
So the fundamental divergence between Phil and Kathy albeit they both abhor this unfair situation, is that he is a man of action while she is a passive recipient, and in Phil’s principles, there is no alternative in this, when you are against it, you must speak it out, confront it, otherwise, fuming inside but doing nothing also makes you an Anti-Semite, this may be a too radical statement, but the film points out that it is Kathy’s superiority of being a Gentile, which superbly symbolises the most detrimental core of any form of prejudice, it is this self-appointed superiority harmfully sets individuals apart and like Kathy it is way too easy to be infected by it since it can be shaped in any aspects of life (like she emotionally contests, being rich instead of poor, being beautiful instead of ugly, being healthy instead of sick, this toxic superiority is omnipresent)until it becomes a part of your personality, then the damage is permanently done. What a catharsis one can get from it!
Great performances galore, Anne Revere who plays Phil’s mother, upstages Peck in her “everyone’s century” speech for a better future, only now we are already in the 21st century and looking back, her expectation doesn’t actually materialise, the leap is not big enough to be complacent. Celeste Holm is Anne, a spontaneous and nimble socialite who turns out to be the most prejudice-free character towards Phil’s tactic. McGuire as Kathy, is the one being disciplined with a learning curve, it is not a grandstanding role, but she emanates gracefully her various sentiments: confusion, doubt, passion and disillusion. Peck, in his prime shape, is adept in the righteous good guy mode, adamantly juggles romance with his own conscience. All four are Oscar-nominated, with only Holm wins her trophy. However, one cannot leave John Garfield behind, who was in his heyday but accepted a third billing in a supporting role, he is Dave Goldman, Philip’s Jewish friend, he is the one who has been battling against the miasma all his life, and becomes a significant bridge between Phil and Kathy in their strained disparity towards the sensitive subject in the coda, it is quite bizarre how he was left out in the Oscar race. Also, I must name-check Stockwell, such a wondrous child performance in it.
When all is said and done, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT might not possess a visual flair to be outrageously engaging or innovative in its cinematic creation, in fact, it is a dialogue-laden (by the way, a compelling screenplay from Moss Hart) censure piece delivering a foremost message even today deserved to be watched by everyone, preferably in every high school, in spite of the black-or-white treatment of the problem. Overall it is more fitting to be greeted as a wake-up call than an actually sensible guidance of conducts, and that’s exactly what a reporter’s job should be, to arouse awareness, but in the field work, it takes different stratagems to achieve that noble goal, we are still fighting for it, relentlessly.