In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1947 winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Is it better than Crash?
The year was 1948. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won an Oscar for Best Original Song. Doris Day performed at the ceremony. It was only four years after Casablanca‘s win. It was the year that Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish for a magazine article, won Best Motion Picture.
It was another time, to be sure. That’s the entire point: Gentleman’s Agreement is about Philip Green (Gregory Peck) becoming “Phil Greenberg” to experience what it’s like to be a Jew in the 40s. He’s new in town, his wife is dead, and he wants to make a big impression at work by taking on a tough assignment. He’s had success in the past by “becoming” the subject of his work, and he figures that writing about being Jewish can only be achieved by, well, “being” Jewish.
After the game is on, his Jewish secretary (who thinks he’s also Jewish) starts a conversation with him about how much she doesn’t like “the wrong type” of Jews. Peck takes her to task for what she expects to be an easy conversation full of slurs and stereotypes. He straight up lectures her on how he can’t stand even internalized racism (she says she even says those things about herself!) or racism against other members of the same group. Gregory Peck being Gregory Peck, this scene works even though it’s pretty broad when he starts listing the slurs he can’t tolerate.
Crash does the same thing, but Crash doesn’t have Gregory Peck. It’s too simple to say that one of the greatest actors in American history is the only difference, but he absolutely is one of them. The rest of it is the proving ground for this whole damn argument: Crash is already a travesty of a Best Picture winner because it already feels like it handled a sensitive subject poorly and it hasn’t even been a decade yet.
Gentleman’s Agreement is nearly 70 years old. The film centers on the idea that it’s difficult to be an “other,” even if you’re just perceived as one. Crash is about nothing but others, but much in the way that a little salt makes beef taste more like beef and a lot of salt makes beef taste like salty garbage, Crash is about ten tons too much.
Gentleman’s Agreement was a controversial film in the 40s. America was still in the business of yelling at people for standing up for minorities of all types (well, we still are, but now we’re at least a little more guarded about it, since there’s no specific government-sanctioned committee for it anymore) and there was a lot of fear of a movie willing to put a spotlight on that.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place when Gregory Peck tries to secure a reservation at a hotel rumored to be “restricted.” He causes a scene in the lobby (insofar as Gregory Peck can “cause a scene” – you really have to see it) and ends up leaving angry with the tacit bigotry of the world.
The movie’s greatest success is that it doesn’t have a lot of people screaming about Nazis or throwing rocks at people in the street. It deals with the quiet racism in people, even supposedly good people. It exists to show that it’s easy to label people in white hoods racists, but it’s hard to face up to smaller, more insidious racism. Peck takes issue with his fiance’s “smaller” bigoted moments, and delivers the should-be Oscar-winning speech:
“But I’ve come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That’s the biggest discovery I’ve made. The good people. The nice people.”
Crash is worried that if someone doesn’t very literally try to murder someone of another race, the audience won’t understand the racial tensions between them. Sandra Bullock’s poor character yells slurs constantly, to the point where she is essentially a See ‘N Say of racial epithets. Crash is like trying to do surgery with a sledgehammer. It doesn’t work, but it certainly does make a mess.
Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t exactly using modern tools for that same surgery, but it isn’t trying to deliberately kill the patient. There are scenes that are a little obvious – a man in an extremely classy restaurant at one point starts a fight with Gregory Peck’s friend just because he’s Jewish – but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly reasonable critique of a difficult topic.
It must have been that much more difficult seven decades ago (just a few years after Hitler’s death) and the fact that Gentleman’s Agreement is still a solid look at de facto segregation as opposed to de jure segregation all these years later is astounding. Crash doesn’t understand the basic difference between the two in the first place, so the idea that it could have any nuance is a bridge too far, entirely.
The Best Part: In looking up how people remember Gentleman’s Agreement I’ve found that people take issue with the fact that it came out just after World War II but never really addresses Hitler. It makes the film timeless, because outside of a few of the slurs being completely out of fashion now, this could happen 10 or 20 or 30 years later and be mostly unchanged. It handles tacit racism well.
The Worst Part: That said, it doesn’t go very far beyond that. Blackness comes up twice in the movie (in the form of unacceptable slurs to use) but only in reference. No one ever discusses race beyond Jewishness as present or absent. When Gregory Peck comes out as “not really Jewish” he’s immediately Christian. When his son asks him about different religions he names… three. Baby steps, 1947, but it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of it.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Both movies supposedly aim to do the same thing. Crash is a failure as a movie, but it only comes across as a failure as a lesson about racism when compared to something that does it well. The ultimate lesson of Crash is that race defines all interactions, at all times, and must always be considered as divisive. The lesson of Gentleman’s Agreement is the most important thing to remember about evil in general: You need to be equally afraid of the person who does nothing to stop it as the person that perpetrates it.
Image credit: The Telegraph