Worst Best Picture

Worst Best Picture: Is Out of Africa Better or Worse Than Crash?

out of africa

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 1985 winner Out of Africa. Is it better than Crash?

In 1985, Roger Ebert wrote a glowing review of Out of Africa. He summed up his review with this: “Out of Africa is a great movie to look at, breathtakingly filmed on location. It is a movie with the courage to be about complex, sweeping emotions, and to use the star power of its actors without apology.” It won Best Picture, Roger Ebert loves it, we’re good, right? That’s all we need to do, here?

Nah. Out of Africa has been rethought completely, and it consistently makes “worst” lists of Best Picture winners. I can see what Ebert loved about it — it’s certainly “a great movie to look at” — but while it may be complex and courageous, it’s pretty damned bland.

It’s the story of the rich Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) who needs a title and becomes a baroness by marrying the important-but-poor Baron (Klaus Maria Brandauer). They plan to move to Africa and start a dairy farm, but the Baron is an idiot and sets up a coffee plantation. This is the first of his many, many foolish mistakes, and it’s tough to determine if he’s supposed to be stupid or reckless. It doesn’t really matter, because he only stays on screen long enough to run poor Meryl Streep’s life.

He leaves her with a loveless marriage of convenience, a coffee plantation that can’t grow coffee, and a life that she doesn’t understand. The feeling of loneliness is real, and Meryl Streep of course sells it. She’s the lone redemptive quality of Out of Africa, and it’s impossible to not feel for her as her life gets destroyed rather early in the film. The Baron gets syphilis and gives the gift to her, so then she’s even out the ability to have children. Things look pretty dark, but she at least has the courage and ability to throw him out of the house. She may not be getting much from him, but he’s at least not going to get anything back.

She starts a school for local children in lieu of having her own, and things definitely look up when she meets the dashing, ridiculous Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). Redford is pretty dreadful in this, but that may owe to the fact that his character is just a rugged outdoorsman who has no defining characteristics beyond “rugged outdoorsman.” They fall in love, but will her syphilis or his wanderlust ruin their love? Can they make a life together in the distant, unfamiliar land of Africa? Is he ever going to turn into a real character? You’ll have to watch all 161 minutes to find out!

Out of Africa has been rethought mostly because a 161-minute movie with (and this is a stretch) 2.5 characters is tough to pull off. Redford’s acting seems like it comes from many decades earlier, and it’s really hard to see how he got so much praise in the 80s for this one. Streep is great, but she’s always great, and she’s not enough to carry this bloated mess. If you’re looking for forbidden love, watch From Here to Eternity, or, and I hate to say this, The English Patient. This one just isn’t worth your time, though it seems to have tricked people when it came out.

The Best Part: Meryl Streep.

The Worst Part: Everything that is not Meryl Streep. The “dashing-I-got-this-watch-me-kill-this-jungle-cat” Robert Redford performance is especially bad.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I don’t think Out of Africa is worse than Crash. The ending is pretty good, and honestly Meryl Streep’s depression is genuinely evocative. It’s a tough movie to watch, though, and I can’t suggest that you do it to yourself.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa

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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Worst Best Picture: Is The Great Ziegfeld Better or Worse Than Crash?

the great ziegfeld

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 1936 winner The Great Ziegfeld. Is it better than Crash?

Before we talk about the three-hour musical The Great Ziegfeld, I’d like you to revisit the most iconic scene in the film. It’s gone down in history as the most familiar scene in any musical (possibly any film) and thus this might not even be the first time you’re seeing it today. I speak of course of the eight-minute epic “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” and I’m totally kidding what the hell, y’all:

It’s tough to be respectful of something like this. It’s so grandiose and so much bigger than it needs to be, but then again, that’s the idea. This was one of the most expensive scenes ever filmed at the time (adjusted for inflation, the set alone for this one scene would run you 3.7 million dollars today) and it was supposed to be a monument to excess. It’s the big, showy center to The Great Ziegfeld, the sorta-biopic of a showman in the early 1900s. Movies were just starting to take the place of stage shows, but one man believed in the cause enough to want to put on a last great show and prove to the world that enormous groups of people singing and dancing in sync were more interesting than any “plot” or “story” that you could show through a dumb ol’ movie.

The movie is mostly fine, but there’s huge chunks like this that could be cut. It’s a musical, but there’s also a twisting love story and lots of setup to each song, all of which contributes to the 177-minute run time. It’s disastrously long at three hours, and it must have felt long even at the time. Most movie theaters had only been air conditioned for a few years in 1936, so maybe people just liked a chance to cool off. That’s the only explanation for the sixth 10-minute song or the third repetitive “twist” in the fortunes of the main characters. Maybe you could stomach it all just to not be outside.

The characters are mostly interchangeable to the point that describing them doesn’t matter. Ziegfeld is brash and confident and the movie follows his successes and failures as he tries to develop the perfect performance. Modern eyes won’t recognize it when he “does,” however, since his greatest accomplishments are to “glorify the American girl.” The result, his “glorified Ziegfeld girl” is totally undefinable. It appears to be a woman that has hair of any color (but not skin of any color, it’s 1936), looks any way, has no personality that matters, and sings and dances. If there’s a point, I missed it entirely. Everyone acts like he’s doing some great work, but everything seems the same as everything else.

There’s really no draw here. It’s deeply, deeply boring, maybe beyond the abilities of anything else on the list. It would feel long at half the length, and there’s nothing to really sink your teeth into. The characters are all essentially the same (aside from Ziegfeld, who is zany enough to be interesting) and every scene feels like you just watched it. His fortunes fail and he’s forced to take drastic measures… again and again.

I’ll accept that I can’t really offer up a critical view of this movie’s place in musical history. There’s something to be said for a hugely expensive musical that set the standard for how big and how flashy you could be — the other early, early musical winner The Broadway Melody feels almost cheap by comparison — but that’s hard to be impressed by, now. The spectacle is still there, but without anything behind it the whole production feels hollow.

The Best Part: I actually like the first 20 minutes or so. Ziegfeld and his great nemesis have to find the perfect act to steal each other’s crowd away, and Ziegfeld decides to go with “The World’s Strongest Man, Sandow!” Both Sandow and Ziegfeld are real people, and this is the only part of the movie where everything feels cohesive and well-paced. It’s an interesting little bit of 30s film, but I think everything goes to hell after that.

The Worst Part: All of this music has fallen by the wayside. Some of the songs are in the “Great American Songbook” of sorts, but there’s nothing in here you’ll recognize. Even The Broadway Melody, another weird, dated musical from the early Oscar days has a few songs that feel somewhat familiar. A musical without songs to enjoy is a really tough sell, and that’s why it feels 27 hours long.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Where is the comparison between a musical from 1936 that feels dated and a drama from 2004 that feels dated? It’s right there. Both of these movies feel ridiculous and they’re both two hours too long (Crash is 112 minutes the joke is that Crash shouldn’t exist).

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is All Quiet on the Western Front Better or Worse Than Crash?

all quiet on the western front

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 1929-1930 winner All Quiet on the Western Front. Is it better than Crash?

Just about all of the first 15 Best Picture winners are serious, but none of them are serious like this one. All Quiet on the Western Front is the original war movie, and its message is the message of every great war movie that followed it: “war is hell, don’t go to war.”

There are no names you’d know associated with it. No one involved in it has gone down in popular film history. It’s just a lone, strange piece of culture that is notable only because it’s a filmed version of a classic novel and because it’s one of the 86 “best” movies of all time. It holds up that end of the bargain well, its a monumental achievement that’s extremely watchable in 2014. It’s the story of young German boys who enlist for various reasons at the start of World War I. The film opens on their time in school, where a teacher gives a rousing speech about the need to prove oneself and the glory of fighting for country and for honor. They drink the Kool-Aid and they’re off to the front.

Every war movie has to decide what it wants to say, but I can’t think of any other one that is as determined as this one to say exactly one thing. Surely Full Metal Jacket doesn’t paint a positive view of war, but All Quiet on the Western Front is relentless. The boys fall under a brutal superior who tells them they are going to die. They meet older, seasoned soldiers who tell them they are going to die. They go to the front and then a bunch of them immediately die. Every single scene serves only that purpose: to dissolve the myth that war is anything other than the systematic killing of a generation of men by another country’s entire generation of young men.

This really can’t be overstated. A mortar lands in the open space near their trench early on in the movie and the camera holds on the removed hands and arms that are left holding on to barbed wire after the explosion. It’s a grisly shot, but for 1929 it seems unthinkable. It is striking 90 years later, but considering what the audience in 1929 thought of that is something I can’t even do. I suppose it may have been less shocking to some of them, considering that nearly four million Americans had just been to World War I. It’s hard to say.

There are too many war movies on this list. Humanity is obsessed with our most complete way of ending ourselves, and we tend to reward people that make us consider it in new light. All Quiet on the Western Front will mess with you if you watch it now, and I think that’s really all it takes to win an Oscar for a movie like this. It’s worthy of the honor beyond the shock value. There’s not really a lot of gore, most of the shocking scenes are reveals of character deaths off screen or tense moments in trenches and wilderness. None of the characters are particularly memorable, but many scenes stand out. I’ll never remember his name, but the man who loses a foot and asks his friends that “it hurts, what happened to it?” because he doesn’t know, yet, is ice-cold. In another scene, a man who charges a trench ready to kill anyone in it is forced to rethink his brutality when he’s stuck in that trench with the dying man all night. They’re human moments, and while they may come off as heavy handed to some viewers, they really work for me.

The Best Part: It’s the brutality of war, played out on screen. No one can walk away from this movie and say “yep, mow down an entire generation of men and we’ll fix all the problems.” War is complicated, but All Quiet on the Western Front takes a very “this can’t be your answer” approach.

The Worst Part: In one scene, the soldiers gather around to eat during a lull in combat and they discuss the causes of war. It’s the kind of scene that works well in literature, but when you’re forced to actually watch something that philosophical, you have to deal with the fact that people don’t talk like that. No one is sitting at Arby’s with their friend talking about the nature of absolute truth. Through the rest of the movie everyone deals with concepts through specifics, which always works, so the one time someone strikes up a “big conversation” with everyone about the “why” of war, it feels a little out of place.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Both movies want you to really think about a stark concept and both of them don’t want you to get distracted by characters. It’s effective in All Quiet on the Western Front, because it keeps the roster general. It doesn’t matter who these people are, because this experience will be true for all people. Crash doesn’t have that crutch, so it ends up giving too-brief back stories for everyone. I suppose a few connections are made that are the higher points of Crash (families love each other, cool, cool) but for the most part, no one is ever elevated to the point that I forget they’re Brendan Fraser or Sandra Bullock.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Better or Worse Than Crash?

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

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 1975 winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Is it better than Crash?

The five major Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture) combined are called the “Big Five.” Only three movies have ever won all five: It Happened One NightThe Silence of the Lambs, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those three, if we’re still working from a thesis where the Academy knows everything, are in rarefied air. Gone with the Wind only got 4/5, because Clark Gable lost. Annie Hall managed the same 4/5, since Woody Allen is a lot of things, but Best Actor is not one of them.

That’s all some basic-level Oscar trivia, but I mention it because I want to point out how special this one is in film history. The Silence of the Lambs should make every top 20 list of Best Picture winners, regardless of era. It Happened One Night is certainly the best of the first few, and probably deserves inclusion in that same top 20. Cuckoo’s Nest is certainly a classic in its own right, but do we remember it the same way?

The tricky part about movies like this is that they’ve been redone to death. There’s no remake of Cuckoo’s Nest (insert “get-off-my-lawn” style rant about remakes in 2014) but the style and the tropes have been emulated so much that the movie will feel familiar even the first time you watch it. You need to come at Cuckoo’s Nest with as fresh a perspective as you can. Disregard everything you know about mental health. Throw out every mental hospital in a movie you’ve ever seen and forget who Jack Nicholson is today.

Jack plays Randle McMurphy, a mental patient who doesn’t actually have anything wrong with him. He realizes too late that his gamble of an insanity plea after being arrested is not the easy way out he expected. McMurphy intends to make the best of a bad situation, then, by either ruining the process for the staff in the hospital or being such of a pain in the ass that they decide to release him. These initially seem like good plans, as McMurphy is built as the kind of guy who can grease any wheel needed, be it with charm or with stubbornness.

He meets his match with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the archetype that’s been lifted most often for other things. She’s cold and terrifying, but her real power isn’t in how she controls the easily controllable, but in how she breaks the will of those who aren’t used to having their will broken. She effectively can control anyone they put in the hospital, and she represents a stronger antagonist than any gun-toting psychopath in a handful of the rest of these. Nurse Ratched is one of the iconic characters in film for a reason. Fletcher is icy, but not ridiculous. You’ll often see a character like this played so over the top that she’s less scary and more “menacing,” but that’s not what they’re going for here. She’s supposed to be a terrifying figure, sure, but the real fear is that she controls your freedom and she controls whether you even have the right to ask for it. AFI ranked her the #5 villain of all time — right behind Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West — but she’s so much more than just a villain.

Both of them fight to control the hearts and minds of the rest of the ward, since majority rule at least appears to be important within their tiny world. McMurphy has to escalate his antics to get under her skin, while she has to exert more control to stamp out what he’s capable of. The beauty of the whole situation is that she doesn’t lock everyone down and rule by fear, she’s found a way to make the patients generate their own fear on their end. It’s troubling, and it’s a scary look into a process that is always a disaster, but was surely even more of one in the 70s.

The Best Part: McMurphy vs. Ratched is one of the all-time great psychological battles in film, and the best part is that they’re essentially working the same angles. Both of them have each other figured out, and they go to work on the other patients with the same tools of manipulation. It’s when Ratched really amps up that the movie starts to hum.

The Worst Part: I’ve never liked the scene where they steal a boat. Early on in his tenure, McMurphy engineers a temporary escape for the entire ward, and they all steal a boat for the day to go fishing. There’s an importance to this scene, because the patients have all told McMurphy that they don’t even want to return to the outside world, and the trip is his attempt to show them that they actually do. It’s funny as well, but it’s just too much for me. The tone of everything else seems much more “believable” than ten mental patients stealing a boat.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash won two of the “Big Five” Oscars, but did not win for directing or either acting award. Cuckoo’s Nest would probably still be a memorable adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel without Nicholson and Fletcher’s all-time performances, but with them it occupies a space very few other movies in history can. Even if you assume you know what it is, you should check it out. The specifics are impossible to explain, but I will say that there’s more in a blank stare from Louise Fletcher than there is in Crash.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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.

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

cimarron

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 1930/1931 winner Cimarron. Is it better than Crash?

Cimarron is an unmitigated disaster of a film. It’s slow, it’s weird, it’s boring, and it’s dated. There is absolutely no reason to watch Cimarron in 2014 aside from a desire to watch every Best Picture winner. This movie isn’t even fun to hate.

The answer to “what makes it so bad” is everything, but we’ll go piece by piece. It’s the story of Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), who is a newspaperman who also is a public speaker and is in politics and is a businessman and, honestly, I don’t know what Yancey Cravat is supposed to be. He’s mostly the editor of a newspaper in Oklahoma during the land rush of the late 1800s, so we’ll stick with that. Yancey Cravat (I can’t tell if that name was supposed to be serious or not for 1930) comes off like a madman. He’s supposed to read as a dignified, stately man in the wild, lawless West, but Dix plays him so silly that it’s impossible to feel that in the character. It’s full-on soap acting, and it’s way worse than in any of the other 30s movies. Plenty of them are bad, but none of them even approach the level of absurd, fake-deep voice that Richard Dix does in this movie.

Anyway, Yancey brings his wife and his kid to Oklahoma to get some land, but he has a tough time of it. His wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, who people mostly speak well of from this movie, but I don’t see it) also has a tough time of it, mostly because her husband has 17 jobs and leaves twice for five full years, each. This is where it becomes difficult to tell what is supposed to be weird within the world of Cimarron and what is weird because we live in 2014. He just up and leaves his entire family once after killing an outlaw and once for tenuous, mostly unexplained reasons. The former I can’t imagine would be a big deal, he walks around with a cartoonishly large pistol on his belt all the time anyway, and the latter is glossed over. He’s just out, bye, good luck, y’all.

No one else in the movie matters. There’s a really, really offensive black child character that rivals any moment of racism in any Best Picture winner and a Jewish shopkeeper that, well, the less said there, the better. Cimarron gets hammered in modern reviews for being offensive, which it definitely, definitely is, but I think the paper-thin structure and absurd acting are even worse. For real, you should look it up on YouTube if for no other reason than to watch some of Richard Dix’s acting.

Of course, a lot of this is just a sign of the times. People loved it in 1930, and most reviewers praised it for being dramatic and exciting. Those words mean different things now, and though a lot of the original Best Picture winners are strange in a kind of quaint, dated way, Cimarron is a bomb. At one point Yancey returns from a long absence to defend a prostitute in court, just… because. He hears that she’s in court and goes to defend her and it’s supposed to be a rousing, exciting moment of a good guy doing the right thing. But this is a guy who abandoned his family and came back basically that afternoon, and his first move is to go to court to defend someone. He’s also not a lawyer, but who cares, I guess? His first line is to say that the even-more-cartoonish-than-him prosecutor “is the only man in the whole Southwest capable of strutting while sitting down” and the entire courtroom including the judge and jury laughs uncontrollably for 10 full seconds. People wave their hats like he’s coming back from war, they love that joke so much. In that moment you have all of Cimarron: something that was probably pretty cool in 1930, but now is absurd at best and stupid and boring at worst.

The Best Part: There is nothing to like about Cimarron. It’s pretty short for a Best Picture winner. So, I guess there’s that. There’s not much of it, that’s the best part.

The Worst Part: The racist portrayals are pretty gross, but that should go without saying. I think the worst part has to be how convoluted it is. It’s possible to watch the entire movie and not really follow why everything happened.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The only reason Cimarron is not worse than Crash is because people loved it when it came out. Everything I can find seems to corroborate this idea that Cimarron is a time capsule of what people wanted to see in the early 30s. It’s the ultimate example of those weird early Best Picture winners that were loved at the time but just don’t hold up now. It’s a mess and should be ignored at best now, but it escapes being the worst Best Picture winner because I can confirm that when Crash came out people did not love it, so compared 1:1 Crash is worse. Judged on overall quality, it’s a much harder discussion, and though there are a few to go, this might just be as close as it gets. The other major difference is that Cimarron is a confusing mess, and the worst bits of it are nonsensical. I know why everything happened in Crash, I just hate that it happened at all.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is Lawrence of Arabia Better or Worse Than Crash?

lawrence of arabia

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 1962 winner Lawrence of Arabia. Is it better than Crash?

The day before watching Lawrence of Arabia, a friend of mine told me that it was her favorite movie of all time. That’s really high praise, and she said it immediately. If you ever want to ask someone a hard question, ask them their favorite movie. For whatever reason, no one has that at the ready, so when she said it just like that, I got my hopes up.

The thing is, Lawrence of Arabia is just shy of four hours long. Excluding director’s cuts, only Gone with the Wind is longer. I went into this with a “long movies can be good, they just have more to say” attitude, but after several three-hour movies from the 80s that were all about mostly nothing, my patience has waned. I need every movie to be 90 minutes long, now.

That’s mostly a joke, but it’s really hard to press play on a four-hour movie, even one with the pedigree that Lawrence of Arabia has. When do you have four uninterrupted hours that you can spend focusing on a masterpiece? But Lawrence of Arabia is an all-timer (shouldn’t they all be, since they’re “Best?”) and I wanted to focus on this one. I wanted to see if Peter O’Toole was really the genius they say he is, because up to this point my Peter O’Toole experience was watching him sleepwalk through The Last Emperor.

It always feels strange to watch a great actor and “evaluate” them for the first time. Peter O’Toole’s legacy does not need me. If I think Charlton Heston is a weird, almost bad actor (and I do) or Clint Eastwood is reasonably good in everything (he is) those things don’t matter. History has decided who we like and who we don’t already in those regards, and Peter O’Toole will be fine. I’ll say it anyway: Peter O’Toole gives one of the all-time great performances here.

He plays T.E. Lawrence, a British lieutenant tasked with organizing forces in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. The film is split into two parts, which is more important here than in most of the longer films. Many of them are split with an intermission between them, but none of them make use of this split better than Lawrence of Arabia. In part one, Lawrence attempts to earn the trust of the men he is organizing, and in part two he has to figure out what to do with the trust he’s earned. It’s the two big pieces of leading men: gathering them and knowing what to do with them once you’ve done so.

Lawrence turns out to be pretty damn good at this whole thing, and he earns his robes from the people after saving a life at the cost of his own. He burns his British uniform and dons the robes in a fairly obvious transformation scene that would feel cheap in another movie, but it works here because the actual transformation is more subtle. It’s not when he dons the robes that he transforms, it’s several scenes later when he’s asked to make a decision between his principles and the mission. Even Lawrence himself is surprised at what he’s capable of — and I mean that in both ways — and he becomes deified among the people.

There are easy Patton comparisons here. Both movies are about men who are superhuman in some respects, but incapable of living with who they are in others. Both have powerful supporting casts, but they’re really one-man shows. Neither film has any women (Lawrence has exactly zero lines for women in the entire movie) and neither film approaches the topic of romantic love at all. They are both stories of being consumed and what we’re willing to give up to become more than man. The real war is how you die to yourself, and though that may sound ridiculous, it’s more terrifying than anything anyone can do to you on the battlefield.

I’m a bigger fan of the first half of Lawrence, because watching the slow build of the man’s humanity seeping away is more interesting to me than the second half’s wandering, lost sensation, but they’re both necessary. They function as halves of a whole, with the second half focused on Lawrence’s identity in question: does he need to wield his tremendous power for his own purposes or does he need to reevaluate the entire notion of wielding power at all? Lawrence raises more questions than it answers, and it will definitely leave you feeling lost in the way that great art can.

The Best Part: This has to be O’Toole’s performance, despite it not ending in an Oscar. He was up against Gregory Peck from To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a shame because you can’t really hope to defeat that. O’Toole’s descent into madness is exceptional, especially the final 20 minutes before the end of part one. There are some tight closeups on him where his entire personality drifts and it’s just the face of a man capable of anything, for any reason.

The Worst Part: Like every “true” story on the list, people are mad as hell about the inaccuracies. I think those discussions are important, but I’m less interested in them than I am in the actual film in this case. It takes a long time to get going, and the choice to open on the motorcycle accident that eventually killed Lawrence isn’t one I necessarily love, though this is really reaching for something to not like.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The sweeping, beautiful shots of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia are beautiful. It’s a movie that’s just as much about scenery and tone as it is about character, which is nearly impossible to accomplish. There are shots where nothing is happening that are better than the highest dramatic moments of Crash. This is a truly unfair comparison, and I don’t see any reason to discuss it further. People might try to discuss race in Lawrence within the lens of Crash, but I think I would rather watch Crash again than do that.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient| Lawrence of Arabia

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is The English Patient Better or Worse Than Crash?

the english patient

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 1996 winner The English Patient. Is it better than Crash?

I briefly considered this entire piece being the following sentence: “The English Patient beat Fargo, which is terrible, but it is not worse than Crash.”

That’s sort of the weirdness of the whole process. Does Casablanca need to be compared with Rocky to determine anything? Maybe not, but at the very least, the Academy has a chance every year to name one movie literally “Best Picture” and if they pick one over another, they are saying it is better. That seems like a simple thing, but there are so many times when you look at two movies nominated in the same year and you just can’t believe it.

There are many famous snubs — Crash beating Brokeback Mountain is the most famous, see I told you people — but none are stranger now than The English Patient over Fargo. That kind of thing is why I started writing these. I had to know if there was some better example of a travesty on this list. I had to search everything. I had to go through every single time someone who was given the power to say so said “Best Picture.” I put The English Patient off because I was worried it might be the one. I didn’t want to run out of steam, so I knew I had to wait on the supposed biggest mistake in Oscar history (aside from Crash).

You’ll have to wait until the end for the official answer re:Crash, but honestly, The English Patient is nautical miles worse than Fargo, and it’s really odd that anyone could watch both movies and not see that. You have to wonder if Fargo perhaps gained more momentum over the years rather than quickly or if the Coen brothers’ success after Fargo has elevated it. Whatever the case, The English Patient can rightfully be considered a snub. I’ll sign that document, bring it to me.

It’s the story of “the English patient” (Ralph Fiennes), a badly burned and wounded man who is tended to by a nurse (Juliette Binoche) who has lost her taste for the war. The patient is dying, the nurse is in love with a bomb defuser (Naveen Andrews) who is constantly in danger, and they’re all joined by Willem Dafoe’s crazy thief character, who has no thumbs. If it sounds convoluted, then good, because it really, really is.

The English Patient drags through these characters with a narration provided by Fiennes as he recounts how he became “the English patient.” Much of his past is lost to him, but other parts are extremely specific and must be told in great detail. The movie correctly guesses that there are only two things anyone cares about in a Best Picture winner — love and war — but it misses a chance to expand some interesting characters. Dafoe pops in and out of the narration in brief moments and always offers the hope that everything will get interesting, but alas, we need more stories of forbidden love and terrible strife.

“Boring and beautiful” is a fair epitaph for The English Patient. It’s not terrible by any means, but the patient’s stories of a wild affair and the nurse’s doting and caring are only so interesting, and they keep rehashing similar moments long after both of them have established who they are. If every line of dialogue must advance the plot, The English Patient could be a short film. After watching it, I feel mostly OK about the whole experience, but in the process it can be frustrating to watch the same thing again and again.

The Best Part: Willem Dafoe is generally the best part of everything he’s in, and this is no exception. His character has no thumbs, which is shown during an early visit when he tries to hand the nurse an egg and can’t hold on to it. The reveal of how he lost them is the best part of the movie, no question.

The Worst Part: The whole Fargo thing, maybe? If I have to pick something actually in the movie, I’m tempted to pick a pretty big spoiler, but I’ll instead go with the nurse’s relationship with the bomb defuser. The entire thing occupies about six minutes of screentime in a three hour movie, but we’re supposed to believe it defines her? The patient’s love story gets somewhere around three hours of the three-hour thing, and the mix makes everyone’s motivations a little tough to believe.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The two great crimes of The English Patient are that it focuses on the wrong things and that it beat Fargo, a much better movie. The year Crash was nominated, everyone was certain that Brokeback Mountain would crush it, but even if the rumor that everyone was too afraid of the subject matter is true, Good Night, and Good Luck was also nominated, and that’s a fantastic movie. The crimes of The English Patient make it pretty unwatchable, but they don’t match up to those of Crash. While they’re both probably the two most obvious snubs, I don’t think The English Patient is even one of the five or ten worst, so there’s no real comparison to be made.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient

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.

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

braveheart

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 1995 winner Braveheart. Is it better than Crash?

There are two kinds of “bad” Oscar winners: there are the Around the World in 80 Days kinds that are genuinely bad and win inexplicably and there are the Driving Miss Daisy and Gladiator kinds that seem fine at the time and almost immediately crumble upon future examination. Braveheart is that second kind. You see it on a list of Best Picture winners and just say, “Really? Okay.”

Braveheart is a common type of movie for Oscar winners, the “kinda, sorta, I guess, true story” movie. The liberties are apparently many (I don’t know a lot about Scottish history, I’ll cop to that), but you get the sense that Mel Gibson could not care less. It’s the story of how cool Mel Gibson thinks William Wallace (and by extension, Mel Gibson) is, and everything else can get edited out.

The English invade Scotland and set up shop. William Wallace (Mel Gibson, of course) doesn’t appreciate that, and he leads a small rebellion that becomes a revolution. It’s stirring and it definitely won the Oscar for being a somewhat uplifting story about what man is capable of doing when backed into a corner. Good men fight, they don’t negotiate! Cover yourself in blood and blue paint and go fight against the American government I mean the English how dare you suggest this is about something else! Mel Gibson’s personal politics color the movie “a bit” the same way water covers the Earth “a bit.”

Mel Gibson is justly hated in 2014 because he’s basically done everything wrong a celebrity can do. He’s a racist and he’s a generally awful person aside from that. I think it’s possible to enjoy a work of art aside from the politics of the person who made it, and I think that’s why Eastwood’s movies deserve attention despite the fact that I think Eastwood himself does not. It’s complicated, and I respect everyone’s opinion on the matter. Just as On the Waterfront is a tough sell to some people because its director named names during the blacklist, Braveheart is difficult to separate from Mel Gibson’s insane, consistent antisemitism.

In this case we will judge it for what it is, not what he is. It’s an epic, sure, and it’s an exciting popcorn flick that has some sweeping battles and some dramatic smaller fights. That is also 100% of what it is. The message — FREEEEEEEDOM — is delivered via shotgun. The “love story” is ridiculous, especially the physical scenes, which clearly exist so Mel Gibson can be a big grosso on camera. The plot is mostly fine, though it starts to falter towards the end. The saving grace is in what you mostly remember from it, and that’s that the fight scenes work well.

While it’s debatable if we need to discuss Mel Gibson’s politics or not, his choice to write the secondary antagonist as a terrible gay stereotype is one we’ve got to talk about. King Edward is a real bastard and probably needs to be played that way for Wallace to seem just in his actions, but his open contempt for his closeted, effeminate son is disgusting. Every time the characters interact the King snarls everything he says at his son, and you can almost taste the homophobia through the scenes. Mel Gibson is The Worst, but even if you leave out his views the scenes are uncomfortable and poorly done.

Braveheart isn’t what you remember it, or, if you were a smarter kid than I was, maybe it is. Either way, whoa.

The Best Part: The first time Wallace rises up he goes apeshit on a group of English soldiers who are terrorizing his beloved. It’s a great scene, and it’s about the only thing Braveheart can do well. The obvious assholes get taken to task by the obvious good guys. Anything more complicated than that? Nope.

The Worst Part: I’ve already discussed Edward II’s character, but his lover is the real dark mark against this movie. The King picks him up and throws him out of a window to kill him in anger. It’s an INSANE scene, and if you need confirmation that it’s meant to suggest that the King is disgusted by his gay son, go check out the YouTube comments on any version of it. Actually, don’t do that, because they are repugnant.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I don’t hate Braveheart, though it may seem that way here. I just think it’s unjustly rewarded for being a mediocre movie in a down year. Like Gladiator, it’s mostly fine for what it is (aside from the two gay characters, of course, that is not at all fine), but it’s not a Best Picture winner. It seems silly on this list, and that’s generous considering how wretched Mel Gibson is. Braveheart doesn’t hold up, but the fight scenes kinda do, and that makes it better than Crash.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is Oliver! Better or Worse Than Crash?

oliver

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 1968 winner Oliver! Is it better than Crash?

This is the next-to-last musical on my list. I put it off because I figured, yeah, yeah, “Food, Glorious Food,” got it, thanks. I saw Oliver! once on a date, and I believe it’s the only musical I’ve ever seen in person. I’m not sure why I picked Oliver!, but I liked it, and I expected this would feel mostly like filler.

That’s not terribly far off. Oliver! is an adaptation of Oliver Twist, of course, and the story is well-known. Oliver lives in squalor and when he asks for more food (you know, “please sir, I want some more”) he’s met with anger. He’s sold into service and lives a terrible life until he escapes and joins up with the Artful Dodger and a bunch of other child criminals. You know, a normal, everyday group of child criminals.

The child acting is better than you’d expect, especially from the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild, who earned an Oscar nomination for the role and had a… let’s go with “troubled” life afterwards). The adults mostly shine as well. Fagin (Ron Moody), the leader of the intrepid children, is especially delightful as a not-so-bad bad guy in comparison with the dark Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) and his sad girl Nancy (Shani Wallis).

Oliver and Dodger get themselves into a dicey situation and Oliver gets nabbed. He’s adopted by a well-to-do family that the film thankfully doesn’t spend much time on. The second act focuses on the conflict of Fagin and Bill being worried that Oliver will reveal their crime ring and Nancy worried that Bill will kill the boy (or her) to keep him quiet.

It’s dark, especially for what amounts to a children’s movie. Bill’s really terrifying, and Oliver Reed deserves a lot of credit for playing him menacing but very quiet. It’s all grimaces and explosions of rage, and it would be easy to do that like a cartoon villain rather than the specific character that Bill Sikes is. Nancy and Fagin even play into the terror of Bill Sikes, since both of them seem content in the end to let Oliver live out his life in adopted splendor rather than trying to apprehend him. It’s a tough life for everyone involved, and Bill won’t let anyone leave.

The poverty of Oliver! is meant to be the star, really, and it is. No matter how much you steal, you have to steal more, and the thefts themselves erode your character in a way you can’t return from. Nancy is Bill’s girl (see: “As Long as He Needs Me,” the saddest “love” song) and Fagin is a career criminal (“Reviewing the Situation,” which is genuinely funny rather than musical-funny) and neither of them have any place to go, even if Bill would let them leave. The cycle contributes to the cycle. Even though songs like Nancy’s “It’s a Fine Life” contribute to a sense that everyone involved knows they’re stuck in this life, no one says they have to be happy about it.

The Best Part: Tough call, but I’d say it’s Fagin’s song with the kids, “Pick a Pocket or Two.” He explains how to steal and why it’s necessary to Oliver through a fun little ditty that Oliver doesn’t seem to understand, because Oliver is a dumb kid. Honorable mention goes to Nancy’s song “Oom-Pah-Pah” which was stuck in my head for a week after I saw this and I don’t care who knows. Get at me.

The Worst Part: I struggled to come up with a worst part because I think Oliver! is pretty cohesive. There’s no one part that’s any worse than any other, really. My answer here tends to be “it’s too long, waaah” too often, but 153 minutes is a bit of a slog for a kid’s movie/musical, even though the journey is worth it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? They’re both about worlds that desperately need change to break a cycle. Crash suggests that the world cannot overcome bigotry and Oliver! suggests that some people can’t escape their baser urges. Oliver! is pretty light on morals beyond that, and it’s mostly just a vehicle for some fun (and real, real sad) songs. It isn’t the best musical of all time, but it’s entertaining and has better acting than your standard musical, so that’s a nice treat. The performances elevate a run-of-the-mill movie, whereas Crash has some weird performances in what would just be a bad movie without them.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver!

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.

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

hamlet

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 1948 winner Hamlet. Is it better than Crash?

It’s Hamlet. It’s Laurence Olivier, one of the greatest actors of all time, as Hamlet, one of the greatest characters of all time, in Hamlet, one of the greatest stories of all time. How is it such a weird mess?

First things first, if you don’t like Hamlet the play, I can’t help you. I read it for the first time in high school thanks to a teacher who loved it deeply, and I loved it immediately. I’ve read a fair amount of Shakespeare and while I’m not going to pretend to be some scholar of the classics, I do like what I’ve read. I think As You Like It is really funny. I think Othello is a brutal story. Shakespeare is good, there, I said it, I’ll state that rare opinion.

Hamlet is considered one of the great stories in English because it’s so adaptable. You can view any story through Hamlet if you try hard enough. There’s politics, there’s trickery, there’s love and sex, there’s family, there’s comedy, there’s drama, there’s everything you need. It’s complicated, but at the most basic level it’s the story of what we do when we have to do something, but can’t decide what that should be. It’s also a thousand other things, and what’s most important about it to you can’t be an incorrect reading. That’s why it endures.

Olivier’s Hamlet (he wrote, directed, and starred in it, so this is entirely on him) is about the indecision of Hamlet after his father’s death. His mother, Queen Gertrude, has married the late king’s brother and Hamlet is filled with a variety of emotions about what is clearly a series of disasters in his life. I’m not going to retell Hamlet here. If you haven’t read it, though, don’t see the movie first.

The problem most people have with this version is that it cuts out major parts of the story. The characters of Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are removed entirely. Olivier defended his choice by saying that it wouldn’t be possible to make a watchable film with their relatively minor scenes intact, but I would argue that at just shy of three hours, he didn’t make one without them, so why bother cutting anything? What different would the extra hour really make?

Whether or not you think the removal of those three characters impacts the story, Olivier’s other change is more severe. He plays up the “love story” of Hamlet and his mother to a degree that’s, frankly, a little hard to watch. There is certainly precedent for this in the text; Hamlet is distraught and doesn’t really understand his relationship with any person in his life after his father’s death, least of all his mother. However, in the movie, it’s drastic. They share scenes that feel overwrought to the point of actual romance rather than the tension of a forbidden love-like feeling. Subtext, this ain’t. It’s direct, and that’s definitely not what The Bard meant. In the scene where he kills Polonius and has to confront Gertrude, he delivers every line into her mouth and they are inches away from kissing for 10 full minutes. It’s crazy.

I know you can’t “be wrong” about an interpretation, but I don’t agree with Olivier’s choice. I also don’t think we need a film version of Hamlet in the first place, but even if we do, we don’t need this one. Hamlet needs to be multifaceted as a story, and Olivier is only interested in one (to me) small piece of the original text, and his movie is not what I want to see when I think of Hamlet.

The Best Part: Hamlet is not the story of a man who wants to have sex with his mother and can’t decide if he should kill his stepfather, or at the very least it is not that in that order, but if it has to be that to Olivier he has certainly succeeded in making what he wanted to make. There’s a perverseness to their scenes that reminds me of the best parts of other strange movies with that theme (like the really, really weird The House of Yes with Parker Posey) and while I don’t like the script’s choice to include them, the scenes themselves are well acted.

The Worst Part: Most people will say it’s all the cuts, but I think it’s the pacing. Plainly stated, this movie is boring as hell. Almost nothing on the list is as boring as Hamlet, and I’m a person that loves the original story and isn’t bored by Shakespeare. It’s gross at times and overdone at others, but the connective bits between those two mistakes are all slow and plodding, so it’s hard to say which part is the worst.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? While it’s a crime to try to change the Mona Lisa, this is still Hamlet. The worst Hamlet is better than the best Crash, though Crash is easier for a modern audience to watch. I can’t recommend you spend three hours of your life watching this version of Hamlet, but it’s more boring than terrible, which I guess makes it better than Crash.

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 | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet

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.