Worst Best Picture: Is All the King’s Men Better or Worse Than Crash?

all the king's men

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 1949 winner All the King’s Men. Is it better than Crash?

When you look at all of these in a row, you start to see trends. Broderick Crawford, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, was a giant of his time and apparently a huge alcoholic. There may as well be a copy-and-pasted subsection on every Wikipedia page for every Best Actor winner from 1930 to 1980 that explains how they were hard to work with because they were drunk half the time. They’re all eerily consistent from person to person. Since I never met the man, I’ll have to review this movie without those specifics.

The film is a retelling of the Robert Penn Warren classic about a politician based on Huey Long, the legendary Louisiana governor. It focuses on the rise to power of Willie Stark, a self-made lawyer who has good intentions but is consumed by his own ambition once he gains power. In his early days, he is followed by an earnest reporter who is glad to have found an honest man, but that same reporter parallels his downfall as he forgoes his own principles to fall deeper into the inner circle of Willie Stark. The reporter, Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a memorable character, and the parallels help Stark feel like less of a super villain and more like an inevitability of the “power corrupts” idea. Stark still looms through every scene he’s in — he’s still exceptional, which is important — but his motivations seem easier to believe when compared with Burden’s.

It’s fantastically watchable for 1949. It immediately follows 1948’s extremely hard to watch version of Hamlet and though 1950 offers All About Eve, the 50s features a few weird selections before the decades start to even out. At 109 minutes it’s one of the shortest films on the list, and it feels that way. The entire rise-to-power sequence is wonderful. It all feels like you’re watching an already great man be discovered, and the featured speeches help you forget as an audience that this is the villain. That’s the sign of great political drama: you root for the bad guy!

One of the greatest strengths of All the King’s Men is wrapped up in that sentence. Is Willie Stark the bad guy? Things certainly get less complicated as he’s forced to make more and more drastic plays against his enemies, but the people behind this movie certainly want you to wonder about what’s driving all that. Is this the story of one man blinded by ambition or is this the story of ambition itself, and the way it always manifests itself in the powerful?

The Best Part: Mercedes McCambridge might not be a name you know, but she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Sadie Burke, Stark’s fast-talking campaign assistant. The story of great men is often the story of the women behind them, and though her performance is dwarfed by his much larger role, she’s not to be missed. She wields actual power within the Stark regime, but there’s a sadness to her that makes her complicated. Walter Burke is also great as Sugar Boy, Stark’s gun-toting, crazed sidekick.

The Worst Part: As the world starts to fall down around Willie Stark, he is largely undone from the inside. His son is arrested after driving drunk, which sets off a chain of events that includes Stark’s pay off attempts of the victims’ family and his son’s refusal to play football out of disgust with himself and his father. All of it makes sense as it happens, and there’s an argument that it’s disjointed because Stark’s life is becoming disjointed… but really it just feels messy compared to the tightness of the first hour. Add on a love triangle that I won’t even get into and there’s a little too much happening for a 100-minute political drama.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There are weird choices that keep All the King’s Men from being one of the all-time greats on the list, but Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge turn in two performances for the ages. It’s a solid political drama with a point that has new relevance for the modern age, as presumably all political dramas will, forever. While the message of Crash carries as much timelessness as the “power corrupts” message of All the King’s Men, I don’t think Crash has any truly great performances. Everyone who is decent in it is better in something else. Even Terrence Howard, arguably the bright spot in Crash even though he has many of the silliest lines, is better in something else as Djay in Hustle & Flow, which earned him an Oscar nom. I know I’ve beaten this to death at this point, but even in trying to find the greatness in Crash the best I can come up with is “watch the people in it be better elsewhere.”

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 | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand 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 | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men

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.

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