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 1987 winner The Last Emperor. Is it better than Crash?
If you need to know what kind of year 1987 was, it was the year that Throw Mama from the Train earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Anne Ramsey (who played Danny DeVito’s horrible, angry mother) lost the award to Michael Dukakis’ cousin, who was in a movie with Cher.
That’s what the world was watching in 1987, when The Last Emperor beat Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck for the Oscar for Best Picture.
The Last Emperor is a true story, more or less, and you watch a true story differently than the average movie. The film is set in a difficult time for Asia that Western audiences will never understand the entirety of, but the basics are simple: China dethrones the Emperor (Pu Yi, the titular last Emperor), Japan invades part of China and sets up a puppet government led by the ousted emperor Pu Yi, and China throws him out again after Japan loses the war. World War II is in many ways a more complicated time in history than “good” and “bad” and thankfully, the movie doesn’t do much to paint anyone as necessarily any better than anyone else.
It’s not a movie about rightness or goodness; it’s just a movie about Pu Yi. He is born into his ruling life in the Forbidden City and sees no reason to question that he’s in charge. He grows up untroubled by the country he supposedly leads until he finds out that he’s not actually as in charge as he’s been told. He senses that the end is coming far before it does, and the movie is about the development of the kind of person who ruled everyone he’d ever met into… well, a regular person.
He learns much of the world outside of the Forbidden City through his tutor (Peter O’Toole). O’Toole gives a surreal performance as he rides a bike around and talks about tennis and manhood. This tutor apparently existed for the real Pu Yi, but while it’s nice that the film wanted to nail this bit of accuracy it’s just a really odd performance. O’Toole has the gravitas to not ruin the tone of the epic itself, but his performance is so rushed and spotty that it seems like he feels like he has a more important movie to be in at times.
Pu Yi learns, he marries (two women at the same time), and he leaves. The army throws him out and he wanders Asia for a bit before returning to a form of his throne during a Japanese invasion. Once the Japanese are expelled by Russian troops, Pu Yi is captured and forced to tell his life story as part of his war criminal rehab. The movie uses this life story retelling as a structure for “why” we see all of Pu Yi’s life. It’s an effective technique, but the movie aims to include so damn much of his life in this telling that it ends up being something they would definitely cut into pieces in 2014. It’s a really full movie — I would like to go into his wives and opium and pregnancy, but that part of the movie drags a bit — and it can be tough to watch as a result. The payoff is good, but the movie could have benefited by being more judicious with the editing.
There’s no spoiling the end of a true story, especially a biography. Pu Yi lives to see Mao’s rise and Maoists in the streets. He is just another gardener by the end of the movie, and it’s hard to determine if he minds having lost his royal roots. China has changed. He is both better and worse off. He won’t be part of the Great Leap Forward, but he also knows what it’s like to be a real man. Such is the cost of progress.
As far as Crash is concerned, I’ve talked a ton about a particular scene where Terrence Howard’s character is carjacked. In the scene, Howard turns the attempted carjacking into a police chase through the suburbs and eventually gets into a standoff with the LAPD. The short of it is that he is disrespected earlier in the movie (a few times, once by the cops) and the scene is meant to show that he has reached his breaking point. He needs to exert control over the universe to feel like he is still the arbiter of his world. Pu Yi has the same impulse when he makes a power play as the puppet ruler of Manchukuo during the Japanese occupation.
The easy difference here is that one happened and one didn’t, but even treating them both as elements of fiction they are stark. Howard’s character risks his life to feel in control of anything in his life, even something this risky. Pu Yi sides against his home country to rule his home state, risking his life if the Chinese take the state back. Howard risks his life because his wife yelled at him. Pu Yi risks his life because his ancestral homeland has been stolen from him by the march of time. The stakes are different, which is always going to be true, but it takes some real work to understand Howard’s motivation — and I picked the best damn character in Crash. Pick anyone else and that sounds even dumber.
The Best Part: The final hour. It’s the developed arc of the life of Pu Yi. Usually a journey is more fun to watch than a result in a movie, but not this time. The first hour drags impossibly and the narrative technique of flashing back to present-day Pu Yi telling his story to an interrogator works to weave multiple parts of his life together but it does not work to make the movie feel fluid. The connective tissue feeling ends for the last hour and the film’s ambiance really takes hold. It’s immensely satisfying as a viewer when it pays off.
The Worst Part: A lot of critical response judges the length — it’s almost three hours long — but this has to go to Peter O’Toole. In my review of 12 Years a Slave I judged Brad Pitt for his accent, but whoa. The single worst performance in a movie on this list so far has to go to the legendary Peter O’Toole in this one. He’s so clearly cashing a paycheck that he often seems to have just read from a cue card and told them “use that take or don’t, why would I care?”
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better, but it’s different entirely. They are both arcs of development, but in Crash the development is for the worse. People essentially look at the camera to say what they’ve learned by interacting with other races and classes, and what they’ve learned is that they hated people that are different for good reason. The Last Emperor is about one man’s journey through a life he never really controls. He is born into a world he cannot change. He is neutered even when he becomes Emperor again. He lives his life and the world changes around him. His arc is his own and the arc of China, the real story of the movie, is changed with him, not by him.
Image credit: AFI