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 1973 winner The Sting. Is it better than Crash?
There really aren’t that many comedies that have won Best Picture. The Apartment was intended as a comedy, but because of the consistent message of suicide it certainly feels much darker to a modern audience. Annie Hall and It Happened One Night are romantic comedies, but that’s really a different beast. You Can’t Take It With You and Tom Jones are funny, but the jokes are mostly dated so badly that they seem more like odd time capsules of what comedy once was rather than actual comedies. That leaves really only one comedy in the way we still use the term: The Sting.
Robert Redford and Paul Newman play incredible con men who want to pull off one last big job to make it rich. They decide to try to con the un-connable Robert Shaw through a complicated series of fake horse bets in a fake OTB. The setup is the first of many complicated elements of The Sting, and it sets the stage for the two hours of twists and turns that comprise the film.
The basic plot is this: Robert Shaw is notorious for being a card cheat and a dangerous man. Robert Redford is a young gun who wants to take on whatever people say can’t be done. Paul Newman has retired from the illicit world, but he sees promise in the kid and agrees to teach him the more complex ropes of grifts and cons. That part is simple. What isn’t simple is goddamned everything else. To get into Shaw’s inner circle, they stage a situation where they convince him that Redford needs to double-cross Newman, when in reality they’re working together to get at Shaw. Everyone’s playing each other — or are they? — and everyone’s doing a damned good job of it.
Robert Shaw deserves special mention here, because Paul Newman and Robert Redford are already names you know. While Shaw’s most celebrated role is definitely Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, his role as the crooked Doyle Lonnegan is what I’ll always love best. A movie with lovable grifters needs someone worth taking down, but Shaw elevates the role beyond sneering rich guy. He’s a figure that you’ll want to see taken down, but he’s also a figure that you’ll fear. That mix is why he’s more interesting than a stand-in for “undeserving richness,” and that’s why this has more to it than some dumb heist movie.
Beyond the acting, which is unparalleled in the world of comedy, this one is all about the ending. As the police figure out the con that’s about to take place and step in to protect Lonnegan, the characters have to pull double- and triple-crosses to try to figure out ways to pull certain strings. They have to mock up entire fake offices in minutes, and a lot of the comedy comes from this scope. It’s exciting — Robert Shaw is going to figure this out and get you — but it’s also hilarious. It’s not hilarious in that “oh, I get it” way, either. It’s a legitimate string of jokes, big performances, and absurd doubling of situations that is still funny four decades later.
The Best Part: This has to be the original poker scene. Paul Newman’s character has to anger Robert Shaw to the point where Shaw will accept Robert Redford into his circle when they meet in the next scene. Shaw’s character tells Newman’s that everyone who plays at their poker table must wear a tie. It’s a respectable game, and Newman insults Shaw deeply by showing up (fake) drunk and tie-less. Watching Paul Newman stumble around fake-drunk and consistently get the notorious Doyle Lonnegan’s name wrong on purpose (Lonniman? Lonnham? Lonnigram?) is priceless, but watching him win…
The Worst Part: The movie uses “The Entertainer” to transition between the “acts” and it doesn’t really work for me. Everything’s already so crazy and so layered, this whole structure feels unnecessary. Apparently when The Sting came out the soundtrack was a huge hit, but it adds some extra silliness to it all. It’s not terrible; I just don’t love it.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Both are movies about layered events and how a big cast all ends up crossing paths. The Sting does a better job with it, but it’s certainly “the point” of both of them. I often spend this space discussing the “message” of Crash, but The Sting isn’t interested in being a morality play. There’s a surprise hitman and a series of cons that go mostly unpunished and a crooked cop and a not-so-crooked con-man and it all makes for a set of conflicting messages. What’s really going on in The Sting is an ode to the structure of the con itself. It’s a light look at what isn’t always a light topic, but roguish people doing roguish things for two hours is a better way to spend your Saturday afternoon than finding out that Crash thinks everyone is terrible, forever.
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 Slave | The 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 | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.