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 1992 winner Unforgiven. Is it better than Crash?
Only three Westerns have ever won Best Picture: Unforgiven, Cimarron, and Dances with Wolves. Two of those are among the worst on the list, in my opinion, but does that make it a coincidence or do I just hate Westerns? What does that mean for the third, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven?
I certainly don’t hate Westerns by rule, though I’ll admit to being more unfamiliar with the genre than others. I like Tombstone and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which feels a bit like saying that because I’ve seen Empire and Jedi a million times each I can talk about sci-fi as a genre. But out of my element or no, Unforgiven won in 1992 and must be compared to Crash.
Eastwood plays Will Munny, a retired murderer (do you ever really retire from that, though?) who just wants to live out his life quietly. When a prostitute in a nearby town is disfigured, another young gunman named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) seeks him out and asks him to help him get the reward by murdering the two men who harmed the girl. They’re joined by Munny’s old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the trio heads out to kill two evil men in an evil town.
It seems fairly straightforward and it mostly is. Three mildly complex “good” guys have to go catch two totally uncomplicated “bad” guys. The only wrench in the works is that the sheriff of the town of Big Whiskey pardoned the two men responsible and won’t tolerate any weapons in his town. Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) reasons that if only the lawmen have guns, they can keep the populace safe. There’s a not-so-subtle message of gun control in this movie, but considering everyone with a gun has basically the worst life ever in a Western, it’s hard to consider that viewing of Unforgiven reasonable.
Munny, The Kid, and Logan show up in Big Whiskey and have to find a way to murder these two assholes before Little Bill takes their guns and throws them out of town. They’re met with resistance, and in the resistance lies the depth of the film. It’s internal, since “the game ain’t in them no more” for Munny and Logan, as they say, and it’s external, since Little Bill is basically running a kingdom that they’ll need to topple to reach their goal. With the added (but obvious) problem that The Kid might not be the fearless gunslinger he claims to be, the deck is pretty stacked. There’s some lightness to the struggles — especially a scene where the other two learn that The Kid maybe, just maybe, can’t really see — but for the most part, Unforgiven is dark as all hell. I may not be telling you something new by saying a Western called Unforgiven isn’t a happy journey, but it goes in some unexpected places that I don’t want to spoil.
Unforgiven‘s win falls in between Schindler’s List and The Silence of the Lambs, so it feels a little dwarfed by the competition. That said, it’s far-and-away the best Western to ever win and it did so mostly without issue. The problems that critics found to point out in Unforgiven feel slight now, and the overall message about the senselessness of violence is still a powerful one. I may not be a good go-to on Westerns, but I think Unforgiven definitely falls in top handful of Best Picture winners.
The Best Part: The ending, which I can’t talk about in any way. Clint Eastwood can at best be called a “complicated” figure in today’s world, but his performance in Unforgiven is both terrifying and riveting, and he makes the entire thing work. Now he just needs to stop saying crazy shit to empty chairs.
The Worst Part: There’s a short diversion from the plot towards the middle of the movie where a famous gunfighter named English Bob (Richard Harris, in a real weird turn) tries to infiltrate Big Whiskey. To call him armed is to sell him short, and Little Bill isn’t having any of it. It serves as a way for Unforgiven to show that Little Bill is ruthless and doesn’t tolerate weapons in his town, but then they essentially repeat the scene when the trio comes in a few scenes later. It could be argued that it’s important because English Bob’s biographer decides to abandon him and instead tell the tale of Little Bill, but even though the biographer is used as a narrative device through the rest of the movie, he’s certainly not necessary. It’s not bad, it’s just unimportant and it breaks up the sense of an inevitable march of one group against an entrenched foe.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s miles better, and it may be the last Western to win for a long time. Dances with Wolves is a really strange mess of a movie and it’s nearly unwatchable even a few decades later. Cimarron, the only other Western to win, is even worse. The “subcategories” of Comedy, Western, and Musical are discussed a lot with regard to Oscar winners, because the great majority of these are sad, long movies about horrible things and worse people. Unforgiven is more than a novelty on the list, though. It’s a truly great story told through great performances, Western or no. Eastwood isn’t my favorite person in the world, but he does what he does better in Unforgiven than in anything else, and you’ve really got to see it to believe it.
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 | 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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven
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.