Worst Best Picture: Is Gladiator Better or Worse Than Crash?

Russell-Crowe-in-Gladiato-001

Alex Russell

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. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2000 winner Gladiator. Is it better than Crash?

Gladiator may be the only Best Picture winner that has absolutely nothing to say. There are worse movies, to be sure, but there aren’t any that attempt to do less. You probably saw it — we all saw it — but do you remember it? Is there even anything to remember?

I committed myself to rewatching every Best Picture winner for this project. I’ve seen some of them so many times that it doesn’t seem necessary — American Beauty and Annie Hall are among my favorite movies — but I want to give every single movie the same chance to be worse than Crash. I want all 86 movies to get the same treatment. As I see more and more of Hollywood’s most anointed, I am definitely noticing some trends.

People talk about “Oscar bait” a lot. People define the term differently, but they usually mean something that was clearly made just to win an Oscar. Maybe it’s the flash (The Last Emperor is an enormous movie, even if that’s all it is) and maybe it’s the message (The King’s Speech and Rain Man both take on challenging themes, though your mileage about if that is ‘bait’ or not will vary) but people think better of a movie that was clearly made just to tell a great story.

Gladiator was definitely not made to do that. Gladiator was made to put butts in seats. It’s a “popcorn movie” through-and-through. It’s the story of the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) who is betrayed and cast into slavery by the murderous Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus has to get out of slavery by winning his freedom as a gladiator. If you haven’t seen it, well, you’re caught up.

There are other characters, but it’s really hard to call them that. No one exists for any reason other than to further Maximus’ stoic goodness or Commodus’ relentless evil. Both characters are dull cartoons of morality. There’s just about no attempt made to establish either of them, either. Just: Commodus is a bad guy and Maximus is a good guy. You know this because this is a story about the good guy. Characters are for movies that don’t have lions! Look at the lions!

To call Gladiator a stupid movie is to stop short of the truth. Nothing at all matters in this movie. What even is the moral? “Don’t be an unceasing asshole all the time?” or “Do try to be a good guy and don’t murder anyone unless they try to murder you with a trident first?” OK, got it. Real groundbreaking stuff here, Russell Crowe.

People are dismissive of Gladiator because it’s ambitious only in scope. It does feel like Rome. It feels “epic” at times. That said, it’s just not a movie about anything. If you want a story about a hero’s journey down to nothing and back up, you can watch any other movie. And you should.

The Best Part: The closest Gladiator comes to an interesting character is Proximo (Oliver Reed). He’s a former gladiator who now makes a living selling out current gladiators for fights. That should set him up for some interesting commentary on the duality of the sold sometimes becoming the sellers, but it doesn’t. Proximo does offer a little bit of complexity in that he can’t decide if he wants to help or not. That’s enough praise for this.

The Worst Part: Can I say everything? The worst part is that this won the same award The Godfather won. It’s not an interesting story and it offers no challenges along the way. The fact that the villain’s motivation is essentially “being evil” makes Gladiator a little less complicated morally than some Disney movies.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Gladiator isn’t a worse movie, but it’s certainly a less interesting one. I hate the message of Crash, but it has one. There’s nothing worth gleaning from Gladiator. It’s just a long series of events that offer no commentary on human existence. Crash is worse because it’s bad, but damned if Gladiator isn’t about as close to zero without going under as it gets.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: The Guardian

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