Worst Best Picture

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is My Fair Lady Better or Worse Than Crash?

my fair lady

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 1964 winner My Fair Lady. Is it better than Crash?

Sometimes you’ve got to get some perspective. When I reviewed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I talked about the tone-deaf strangeness of negative reviews of the movie that seemed to think that Peter Jackson invented Middle-earth. People were writing these damning pieces about how the idea of elves wasn’t “believable” and it made them seem like they didn’t have any idea what they were watching. I’m certainly not the most informed person on musicals, so when I went to watch one of the all-time greats, I had to ask some folks. I didn’t want to come at this with a “psh, boring” attitude and look uncouth, which, when you think about My Fair Lady, is pretty funny.

My Fair Lady is the classic story of Eliza Doolittle (Aubrey Hepburn), a Cockney flower seller and Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a refined elocution educator who can’t stand people who don’t speak proper English. Higgins bumps into Eliza in the street and bets an acquaintance that he can coach her to speak like a high-class member of society and pass her off as a woman above her station. It’s a bet, as they say, and hijinks ensue.

Eliza is charming and absurd as a Cockney character, and Aubrey Hepburn plays her at a 13 out of 10 all the time. She has to live with Higgins for this all to work, apparently, and a scene where she doesn’t understand what taking a bath entails is as silly and broad as anything you’ll see in a Will Ferrell movie. She’s extremely fun through her transformation into “high status” which helps her seem less put-upon and more like someone who doesn’t know why all this fancy stuff matters, but she’ll do it anyway.

Higgins is a little harder to pin down. At times he’s berating the people around him for speaking poorly and at times he’s confused as to why his gruff attitude makes people uncomfortable. Rex Harrison plays him as though Higgins thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room all the time, but he also removes the humanity from him completely. For everything Henry Higgins knows how to do, he’s robotic in some interactions, which makes him more complicated than just a guy in an ivory tower who is a superhero. He can’t read people very well, and while he can make anyone feel dumb, that’s not always the way to “win” an interaction.

The film is gorgeous. It is difficult to pick one shot to express that, but the racetrack that they visit to test out Eliza’s new vocal talents is a good candidate. It’s entirely colored in black and white and touches of gray, except for Higgins himself. He wants to stand out to frustrate the crowd, and he does so in a brown suit. The idea that a brown suit, the simplest of the simple, makes people aghast is ridiculous, and that really sells just how little difference there is between everyone. Higgins knows all this social status bullshit is absurd, and the fact that he has some fun with it makes his character seem less ghastly.

All that said… it’s a little gross, right? I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but the love story in My Fair Lady is predicated on the idea that Higgins is smart and good and Eliza must become better in a specific way to be appealing to him. People slam Gigi for being a sexist musical, but My Fair Lady has to be in that discussion, even though it’s beautiful and pretty fun at the same time. There’s a lot going on with this, and it’s not entirely the story of Higgins demanding that Eliza change, but it’s a complicated series of give-and-take that makes for a compelling narrative but a frustrating set of gender politics. But then again, I mean, when there are elves in the book, there have to be elves in the movie, right? I can’t blame the film version of My Fair Lady for what the story is.

It’s visually appealing and it’s sweet in the right ways, mostly. There’s some complicated emotions tied up in the basic premise with regard to class and gender, but that’s to be expected, I guess. I don’t think it’s really possible to hate My Fair Lady, and while I still say The Sound of Music is the quintessential film musical, My Fair Lady won me over.

The Best Part: He doesn’t fit into the overall plot all the time, but Eliza’s dad is a goddamned hoot. He’s penniless and happy that way at the start of the movie, and his “With a Little Bit of Luck” song about floating through life drunk and lazy is my favorite song in the whole damn thing. “The Lord above made liquor for temptation – but / with a little bit of luck you’ll give right in.” You do you, pops.

The Worst Part: At the racetrack, a high society type falls for Eliza and is equally impressed by how she seems classy and how she “breaks character” to yell at the horse she wants to win. He’s supposed to represent a foppish, uninteresting character that Eliza could potentially end up with if she’s successful in her transformation. They nail the “boring” part, but man, it’s really tough to watch someone be boring. The scene where he unsuccessfully tries to court her in the street (“Show Me,” with lyrics like “If you’re on fire / show me”) is brutal in a good way, but he’s a real dunce.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better. My Fair Lady is complicated through a modern lens, to be sure, but it’s still striking to watch and it’s a load of fun. Maybe that’s a simple descriptor for a masterpiece of musical film, but “fun” really is the word for it. The songs are campy and silly, the acting is all so broad it’s impossible to not smile at, and the pacing moves along quick enough that you can’t be bored by it. Tom Jones shows how “comedy” can be rough when it’s elevated to Best Picture level, but My Fair Lady is a deserving “funny” movie on a list of dramatic epics, and it successfully makes Crash look terrible among the ranks.

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

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 Million Dollar Baby Better or Worse Than Crash?

million dollar baby

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 2004 winner Million Dollar Baby. Is it better than Crash?

Roger Ebert gave a spoiler warning in his review of Million Dollar Baby because the movie isn’t about what it appears to be about. It’s been a full decade, but I’m still really reluctant to talk about the bulk of this one. Every single other movie on the list doesn’t really need this warning (short of possibly Rebecca, but not really) but if you don’t know what happens in Million Dollar Baby and you don’t want to know, I suggest you go watch it before you read this. It’s just not possible to talk about the movie without getting into the best part, which is the big reveal of a second act. I’m not going to actually say how it ends, but it’s important to know that this movie isn’t what it appears to be, and if you don’t know what it is, for real, go watch it first.

They marketed Million Dollar Baby as a boxing movie. They showed it as the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), the traditional old boxing trainer who might be a little washed up but “still got it!” and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), the upstart female boxer who has lots of moxie but needs to learn the ropes. It was called the “female Rocky” and it looked a little obvious. I never understood how a movie that transparent could win, but I also never really looked into it. I put it off until the end, which is why we’re just getting to it now.

That was a mistake, because this is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen that wasn’t about genocide. It’s a movie about the right to live as you want. It’s a movie about legacy and the fear that you’ve misplaced your trust in the wrong beliefs or people. It’s a vital look inward into self, and there just so happens to be some boxing in it. The entire campaign to tell people what this movie was about, to borrow a sports term, was a goddamn head fake.

Maggie wants to box but Dunn “doesn’t train girls.” This is firmly in what can be called the “Gran Torino arc” of Eastwood’s career. He’s still the actor he used to be, but the roles he has to play now are a lot different. Rather than his old “beaten down early in life by hard circumstances” now he’s just a reflection of what time does to a person. He’s made up his mind about what he’s going to do, dammit, and now he just needs all you kids to go to hell. Maggie won’t take no for an answer and demands to be trained. She has innate talent but no training at all, and Dunn is impressed enough by her attitude that he takes her on.

They train and she wins a bunch of fights and it goes how you’d think it would. So far, so good. The first act is a traditional boxing story, and it’s pretty cookie-cutter one. There’s nothing to see until Maggie takes on a dirty fighter in Europe who knocks her out with a sucker punch after a round is over. Maggie lands with her neck on a stool and she is paralyzed for life.

That’s where I have to leave the story, but it becomes a story about difficult topics then. Maggie’s family can’t accept the life she made for herself and they can’t accept the new life of lifetime paralysis that she has been struck with. Dunn had trouble accepting being a trainer for women and has even more trouble with the survivor’s guilt of being able to walk. Maggie wants to believe that her victories mean she realized her dream, but the reality of her life being struck by irreversible tragedy as a result of it makes that difficult. It is one of the saddest movies of all time, period, and you have to watch all five stages of grief play out on screen.

Million Dollar Baby has problematic elements. Jay Baruchel plays a really strangely used “simple” character (it’s not really discussed if he has an actual issue or if he’s just “simple” so I’m not sure how to say it delicately)  and the movie tries to assign other characters morality based on how they treat him. Morgan Freeman plays Dunn’s partner, but he’s largely there to provide narration and someone for Eastwood to grimace at, even though he won an Oscar for the role. Largely, everyone but Eastwood and Swank gets so little to do that they aren’t necessary outside of the fact that you need supporting characters for the main ones to have someone to bounce off. Maggie’s stupid, Southern family is especially depressing, since they represent a tremendous failure to provide something interesting. They’re just dumb and are obsessed with material possessions, the foolsThey don’t know that what matters most is what’s in here, in your heart, you clowns! For real, though, their presence is a huge tonal departure, and while it’s supposed to be it lacks any hint of nuance.

None of the faults ruin the movie, and this is an absolute must-watch. It’s just not perfect, but that’s not enough of a crime to damn it.

The Best Part: Hilary Swank won for Best Actress, and she absolutely earned it. If the sadness of her trying to still play the plucky, hopeful character she is through full-body paralysis doesn’t get to you, then you should check and make sure that your blood is still red.

The Worst Part: I think the nice way to say this is that this movie lacks subtlety. The real way to say it is that Million Dollar Baby swings a club with some of its dumb characters. Maggie’s family has to be established as cold and uncaring “white trash” people who don’t appreciate that she’s following her dreams, okay, cool. But they don’t need to have six fanny packs for five people and speak like they’re SNL parodies of the South. With a little lighter touch they could come off as really mean, but in this case the message isn’t “your family may leave you in dark times” it’s “these cartoon people hate this real woman for having a real struggle.”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is tremendously better than Crash. Even if it was just the first 40 minutes of the movie as some kind of boxing short film where the message was “Clint Eastwood learns that gals can punch, too!” it would be better than Crash. Michael Pena is in both and might be better in Crash, though, and that’s as close to a compliment as I’ll go.

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

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 Unforgiven Better or Worse Than Crash?

unforgiven

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 1992 winner Unforgiven. Is it better than Crash?

Only three Westerns have ever won Best Picture: UnforgivenCimarron, 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 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

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 On the Waterfront Better or Worse Than Crash?

on the waterfront

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 1954 winner On the Waterfront. Is it better than Crash?

When I was younger I set out to watch every single Marlon Brando movie. I didn’t make it, but I saw enough that I feel confident that his role in A Streetcar Named Desire is his best. He plays the lead Stanley like an animal; he’s constantly hulking around in various states of undress and drunkenness and he’s always sweating. He makes the movie feel hot in the literal sense to the degree that you will sweat just watching it.

He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for Streetcar, but he did for On the Waterfront, and a lot of people consider his washed-up boxer Terry Malloy to be the quintessential Brando role. Those people are wrong, but there’s certainly a case to be made.

Let’s get this out of the way: a lot of people hate On the Waterfront because of the circumstances behind the message of the movie. Elia Kazan, the director who also directed Streetcar and Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement, had recently named names as part of the Hollywood blacklist investigations of the 1950s. The act was hugely controversial, and many people consider On the Waterfront his response to the backlash.

On the Waterfront is the story of a group on longshoremen who exist under the brutal regime of the local mob. The union boss at the docks controls who works, and he doles out fewer hours (and far worse punishments) to people who threaten to report any illegal activity to the cops. It’s a bad scene for everyone involved (except the mob, of course) but things get really dark when the union resorts to killing anyone to stop them from talking.

Brando’s character was forced to throw a boxing match as a result of some mob dealings and he spends most of the movie depressed about work and his wasted life. There’s a love story — sorta, not really — but he’s mostly just working and regretting. The most introspective moment features the line you know: “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

It’s certainly iconic for a reason. There aren’t many movies where all you know is one line, and this might be the best example of them all. In the context of the story it really hits home, and you feel for Terry when he delivers it. However, the fame of it does a disservice to the incredible work of the supporting cast. Father Berry (Karl Malden) constantly encourages the men at the docks to stand up for themselves and bring the mob to justice in court, and most of his “sermons” are every bit as riveting and intense as the famous line.

Is it just a defense of “talking to the cops” as something you have to do to stay alive? No, it’s a lot more than that. It’s a look at how difficult it is to stand up for what is right and how sometimes, it doesn’t really make sense to do that right away. It’s a complex look at what initially seems to be a simple situation, and while it’s remembered in history for Brando’s amazing line read in one scene, it’s so much grittier and tougher than that 30 seconds alone.

The Best Part: At one point the priest needs to convince the dockworkers that he’ll be there for them, and he delivers a speech that will go down in history. I couldn’t love Malden’s performance in this more. The performance is so powerful that the Vatican actually included the movie on it’s list of “best values films,” along with Best Picture winners Chariots of FireSchindler’s List, and Gandhi in 1995. Weird!

The Worst Part: Eva Marie Saint won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and while she is perfectly wonderful in the role, it’s not really a big part of the movie. It feels like her character gets washed out a little bit, and the love story itself is extremely forgettable.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I didn’t consider, when I wrote this template almost a year ago, that I would have to answer this for On the Waterfront. I would argue that there is no part of this movie that is worse than Crash. The closest I can come to a compliment is that Crash has more literal color in it, because it was released during an era where films were made in color. Congratulations on this technical achievement.

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

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 Sound of Music Better or Worse Than Crash?

the sound of music

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 1965 winner The Sound of Music. Is it better than Crash?

What’s the most commonly viewed Best Picture winner? What’s the one of these that you can be sure everyone has seen? Is it a timeless classic like The Godfather or Gone with the Wind? Is it an inescapable modern movie like Titanic or Forrest Gump? I’m not sure I know, but my guess is that it’s the one from everyone’s childhood: The Sound of Music.

For better or worse, The Sound of Music is “our” musical. You can get by with a passing knowledge of My Fair Lady and West Side Story, but not so with Julie Andrews. You know Julie Andrews. If I start one of these songs around you, you will be compelled to finish it. You can’t going to leave “Doe, a deer, a female deer…” hanging out there. You’re going to have to sing about a drop of golden sun, no matter how much of a heartless bastard you are.

That’s the charm of The Sound of Music. It’s totally inescapable. For starters, the bad guys are Nazis. In most musicals the bad guys are “people who don’t appreciate someone leaving their station in life” and in The Sound of Music they are racist murderers. That’s a leg up on most stories, right there. The plot centers on Maria (Julie Andrews) as she serves as the governess for the von Trapp family, seven children and their strict father (Christopher Plummer). I feel a little ridiculous explaining the plot of The Sound of Music, since my premise here requires that this be unnecessary for anyone. Short and sweet: Maria falls in love with their father, the children fall in love with Maria, their father falls in love with Maria, everyone watching the movie falls in love with Maria, and the Nazis come to ruin everything.

I watched this movie a number of times when I was very young. I rewatched it for this review and I couldn’t believe how little I picked up as a kid. I basically remembered that Julie Andrews was really great and that there was a lot of singing, and I somehow glossed over the darkness of the film. The oldest daughter (who sings “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” which is much sadder than I remember it) experiences some troubles with her boyfriend that definitely exceed your typical romance. The main love story is almost derailed in a particularly cruel way. The entire nature of religion in the movie deserves a much longer look. There’s a lot going on in The Sound of Music beyond Julie Andrews cheering everyone up with a guitar and a positive attitude.

I typically respond poorly to “feel good” movies, but I think what works about The Sound of Music for me is that background darkness. Julie Andrews floats through the movie and consistently demands everyone just try a little bit harder to have a smile in a tough time, but she’s carrying a lot while she does that. It’s a tough sell to say that this is a “complex” movie, especially because it gets exposed to so many people when they’re 10. Most people who see The Sound of Music don’t dwell on poor 16-year-old Liesl von Trapp singing about agency between men and women or the sadness of her boyfriend’s decisions in the end, but that’s okay. Even if all you know about The Sound of Music is the actual music, that should be enough to carry it for you. If it’s too saccharine for you, I get that, but have you really listened to “My Favorite Things” lately? C’mon, grumpo.

The Best Part: Despite my campaigning for a deeper reading of “Julie Andrews Saves the Family the Movie” I’m just going to go with the sweetness of Julie Andrews. We’ve talked about a lot of snubs in this space, but it’s totally crazy that she didn’t win Best Actress for this, right? Go watch her lead a puppet show through “The Lonely Goatherd” and try not to be charmed. YOU. CAN’T.

The Worst Part: A lot of people take issue with the portrayal of the Nazis in The Sound of Music. Most of the brutality is suggested rather than directly stated, and until the end they are played mostly as an idea rather than a real threat. As a legitimate history of the von Trapp family or of Austria it surely doesn’t work, but then again, I wouldn’t show this in a history class.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Sound of Music is an iconic part of film history, but I have to admit that I get why some people hate it. Julie Andrews is probably insanely annoying for a certain kind of viewer. There’s probably too much positive energy here for some people. It’s definitely believable that the fifth song about having a good attitude every day is the breaking point for some folks. What I can’t believe is that there’s someone who thinks The Sound of Music is obnoxiously sunny, but that the tone of Crash nails it. The dourness and the ability to destroy the one good man in the world of Crash may not be the exact opposite of Julie Andrews telling everyone she has confidence in sunshine, but it’s definitely close. The “more positive” movie isn’t always better, of course, but even with Julie Andrews being a living angel The Sound of Music feels more real 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

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 Broadway Melody Better or Worse Than Crash?

broadway melody

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 1928/1929 winner The Broadway Melody. Is it better than Crash?

If we’re being totally realistic, the first 10 Best Picture winners just don’t hold up. There are excuses to be made — Grand Hotel is charming in its strangeness, All Quiet on the Western Front and Cavalcade are chilling in their portrayals of war, and Mutiny on the Bounty has a truly great performance — but the only one of the first ten that’s worth your two hours now is It Happened One Night.

It shouldn’t be surprising that films from a century ago don’t hold up. For the most part it’s the pacing, because most of them are insanely long and nearly unedited. Cavalcade tells a half dozen stories, many of which are so tangential to the plot that it’s tough to determine why you should care about them. Cimarron and The Great Ziegfield sprawl like epics but have so little to say that they feel terribly padded. It’s important to look at this time as a whole before we get into The Broadway Melody, the second Best Picture winner ever and, arguably, the first “true” musical as we know the form today.

In comparison to the full list, The Broadway Melody fares pretty rough. The songs aren’t memorable, which is pretty damning. I know you’d think there would be some song that I could clip out here and you’d at least have an “oh, so that’s where that comes from” moment, but no dice. The characters are paper-thin. There’s Hank (actually Harriet, a woman, and the nickname is largely not explained), the street-smart, tough sister and Queenie, the beautiful, but only beautiful, younger sister. They’re trying to break into show business with a duo act, but producers only want to hire Queenie, on account of all the beautiful stuff.

There’s a love triangle, because by Hollywood law everyone in love with one person must be in love with someone else at all times, and if I’m honest it works better here than in most movies. The struggle of the smart-but-not-beautiful Hank is heartfelt, especially as she realizes she’s losing her sister to the wrong parts of show business. It is weird that they attempt to sell that actress who plays Hank as not beautiful, though, but that’s a problem in a lot of films. Whenever we are told as the audience that a woman is “not beautiful” that can be a challenging part of the narrative if she’s, y’know, beautiful. Marty is exceptionally bad about this, and it remains the gold standard for “look how ugly this beautiful woman is or something.”

All-in-all, The Broadway Melody is more important as a historical marker for musicals. It came first, so if you love musicals you can get something out of it akin to going to a museum. It’s a little more fun than most of the early ones, too. I can’t recommend it on its own, but it’s certainly more fun than Cavalcade.

The Best Part: Hank (Bessie Love) was nominated for Best Actress, and she definitely gives the best performance in the movie. She plays the role permanently flustered, which is fun to watch at times, and it’s really as close as anyone gets in the movie to “acting” as we know it now.

The Worst Part: It’s real, real dated, y’all. The sexual politics of the love triangle (and fourth member, who gets added late in the film) will anger modern viewers, and there just isn’t all that much going on outside of that. There’s some relevancy left in the “it’s difficult to follow your dreams and hold on to who you really are” message, but there’s not in any of the rest of it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? 50 years from now, The Broadway Melody will still be one of the first filmed musicals of all time and Crash will be a movie that people can’t really explain. I’m extremely interested in how Crash will be rethought, and if the timeline for Dances With Wolves is any indicator, it’s coming up real soon. The only comparison between these two is in their memory, because neither really feels like it could come out right now. I guess they both offer a look into a strange, forgotten time, but one of those times is the mid 2000s, so let’s leave that one where it is.

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

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 Titanic Better or Worse Than Crash?

titanic

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 1997 winner Titanic. Is it better than Crash?

I don’t think enough time has passed yet for us to really know how to talk about Titanic yet, but at the same time, can you believe it was 17 years ago?

Titanic might be the most polarizing movie on the list. People who liked it saw it multiple times in the theater and people who didn’t like it hated it. I expected this to be a difficult trip to sea, but honestly, it’s somewhere in between those extremes. It’s sappy and silly, but it’s also got genuine moments. I suppose you can say that about most love stories, but I was most interested in attempting to judge Titanic without what I already knew about it.

I was a young teenager when Titanic came out, and the young teenager response was mostly poorly defined snark. You just had to remind whatever much-nicer-than-you person you were berating that it was a movie about a boat sinking. After three hours and a lot of Leo, I can confirm, the boat does sink, but there’s more to talk about. There’s just not… a lot more to talk about.

It’s pretty thin. Leo DiCaprio plays Jack Dawson, a plucky street urchin who just wants to find his fortune on the high seas! Kate Winslet plays Rose, who loves him because her monstrous husband-to-be (played by Billy Zane) is cartoonishly evil. There’s a bunch of other people, but calling them “characters” might be a stretch. Rose and Jack fall in love and Billy Zane tries to stop them/rob them/arrest them/kill them/etc. By the end it’s high comedy, and it really feels like James Cameron was worried that we wouldn’t understand who the bad guy was. The line between good and bad isn’t as obvious as it is in Avatar, but it’s just as likely to induce eye-rolling.

While this love triangle plays out, Rose has to show Jack she knows how to drink and dance and whatever and Jack has to yuk his way through a high-class dinner with her friends and family. Your patience for Titanic will depend on how much you like this kind of thing. If the “rich girl just wants to fall in love with someone outside her station” story is your deal, then you’re in luck. That’s 100% of what this is, right down to the famous nude scene.  I like a good love story, and I can’t say I hate this one, but it’s certainly a bit much at times.

As for the whole ship sinking part, it still looks pretty spectacular now. A lot of the effects for a movie like this will date themselves quickly, but Titanic still looks solid. That’s a good thing, too, because the characters don’t have enough in them to prop this all up. Hopefully you’ll like the love story and be wowed by the boat sinking, because the connective tissue of Titanic is pretty bad.

The Best Part: The climactic sinking scenes are still worth watching. Even though Titanic is a love story before it’s a disaster movie, there’s genuine excitement and sadness built into the sinking, which is difficult to do considering none of the characters are interesting at all. It’s still visually compelling, which ain’t nothing.

The Worst Part: The dialogue in Titanic is awful. At one point Billy Zane’s character is asked about Picasso and he says “He’ll never amount to a thing, trust me.” Little garbage jokes like that are scattered through this thing, and I just can’t stand them. Add on what passes for “foreshadowing” being people constantly asking about lifeboats and it’s hard to ignore how dumb the dumb parts of this movie are.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Rethinking is rampant among a lot of these movies. People just don’t love Forrest Gump or Titanic like they used to. Some of that is inevitable, because anything everyone loves has to develop a backlash. But some of it, well, some of it is because people take the time to look closer. I didn’t hate Titanic or the hype around it in 1997, but I didn’t have any interest in it. I saw the parts everyone talked about when it came on cable. I figured that Titanic was probably a little exciting and a little boring and that I wasn’t missing anything by not seeing it. The reality is that it has massive problems with pacing and length and that song got played so much that I think it’s a part of my nervous system, now. Titanic isn’t bad, but it’s certainly middle-of-the-road compared to a lot of this list, and while that means it’s certainly better than Crash, it’s a weird piece of movie history that got far more praise than it deserved. It’s also waaaaay better than Avatar, and that comparison probably helps with the rethinking.

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

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 A Beautiful Mind Better or Worse Than Crash?

a beautiful mind

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 2001 winner A Beautiful Mind. Is it better than Crash?

I didn’t see A Beautiful Mind when it first came out in 2001, and I somehow also missed every single thing about it. My understanding was basically “brilliant math professor is also a strange guy” which is pretty clearly reductive, but it’s also astounding to me that I was OK leaving it at that. I just had no interest in finding out if this one had anything for me.

It’s the highly fictionalized “true” story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), the “brilliant math professor” (close, OK?) who is, for sure, “a strange guy.” I wasn’t that far off. Nash believes himself to be a code specialist who is working undercover to break Soviet codes, but in actuality he’s a paranoid schizophrenic who has created an important life for himself. I hate to tip that right at the top, because the reveal of “none of this is real” is one of the better parts of the movie, but you can’t really talk about A Beautiful Mind without it.

Nash creates three figures in his life: a literature student roommate named Charles Herman during his time at Princeton, a young girl named Marcee, and his contact in the military named William Parcher. All of them are played extremely real, and we don’t find out that they don’t exist until Nash’s wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly, who won Best Supporting Actress for the role) has to visit him in the hospital. It’s not supposed to be a mystery or anything, but it does shift the movie from the espionage thriller that Nash thinks his life is to the much sadder reality of a mental illness drama.

A movie like Rain Man couldn’t show you the other perspective, but seeing the world through Nash’s eyes really helps. It’s much easier to understand him as a tragic figure when we can see how real the hallucinations seem to him. He develops coping mechanisms and slowly begins to accept that these three people have never existed, but the sadness of not just losing a lifelong friend, but finding out he never existed… that’s real sadness. That loss is powerful, but it’s also skillfully diluted with the reveal that Nash was never a codebreaker. He has to accept that, despite a superior intellect, he’s living an ordinary, not-all-that-exciting life.

The real John Nash is different than Russell Crowe’s John Nash, and most of the criticism of the film centers around inaccuracy. I’m not all that bothered by it in this case, but that’s probably because I don’t know all that much about the real John Nash. It’s not like they messed up something I already have a working knowledge of, so it’s hard for me to judge. As a film, it’s an interesting, sad look at one part of the world of mental illness. It shows how delusions, even ones you can’t help but have, can ruin your life and the lives of the people you love. It’s heartbreaking, and if that’s what you want, it’s one of the better ways to get there.

The Best Part: Poor Jennifer Connelly! One of the great strengths of A Beautiful Mind is the ability to constantly remind you that both Nash and his wife are in their own prisons. Nash can’t fight his delusions without medicine but he can’t “be a genius” with them. Connelly can’t live a safe, happy life with her husband and her child without her husband taking his medicine. It’s a debate that comes up a lot with regard to medication and mental health, and it’s covered pretty well in A Beautiful Mind.

The Worst Part: A lot of the “John Nash is a genius” scenes are really damn pretentious. Towards the end he goes back to Princeton to haunt the library and be around smart people, and a scene between him and a young student drives right up to the cliff before stopping. It’s not quite terrible, but man, it’s rough.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? This will never be one of my favorite movies, but it’s a well-told story and a surprisingly nuanced piece of art. There are good discussions to be had about the “stand by your man” problem of Connelly’s character and the selfishness of Crowe’s, and I just don’t think there’s anything like that worth discussing in Crash. I walked away from A Beautiful Mind hating John Nash (or at least this John Nash) but I understood him, to some degree. Most of the characters I hated after watching Crash I hated because they behaved nonsensically. A Beautiful Mind has a lot of problems, and I wouldn’t blame you if the problems were too much for you, but Crash is irredeemable. Neither should be your favorite on the list, but Crash is absolutely worse.

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

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 Rebecca Better or Worse Than Crash?

rebecca

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 1940 winner Rebecca. Is it better than Crash?

Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcok’s sole win for Best Picture, is mostly about what you don’t see. The story starts with a young woman (Joan Fontaine, who is not Rebecca, but we’ll get to that) who falls in love with a rich aristocrat named Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Maxim has recently lost his wife Rebecca and is deeply intrigued by the naive woman. They’re an unlikely pair, and the whole thing feels just a bit odd. There is virtually no courtship and they decide to marry right away. If that troubles you, well, that’s probably for the best.

Upon returning to Maxim’s absurd estate of Manderley, it becomes clear that Maxim’s life is not quite ready for a new wife. The house staff still feels a kind of deep bond with Maxim’s late wife, and even the moments of kindness they show his new one are more awkward than they are anything else. It’s difficult to write about this because “Rebecca” is dead at the start and Joan Fontaine’s character is never named. She’s the most prominent character, but she’s never named in a nod to how much Rebecca, a dead woman, controls her new life. She can’t even be “Mrs. de Winter,” as she soon learns, because Rebecca is that, forever.

It would be enough if the movie were about the struggles to replace a ghost, but it wouldn’t be Hitchcock. The first act of Rebecca touches on that topic, though, and it’s fascinating to watch the young woman walk around an enormous mansion and try to figure out how to be someone she’s never met. She’s too young to be married, even for the time period, and she’s certainly too young in “ways of the world.” It’s heavily suggested that she doesn’t know what to do, in more ways than one, and Maxim clearly got remarried to try to fix his public image as much as he did to try to get over his first wife.

The film gets complicated as some truths about Rebecca start to come out, and I won’t spoil all that. You’ve either read the source material of Daphne du Maurier’s novel or you want to keep this one exciting for yourself, either way there’s no reason to reveal the surprise. It’s genuinely not what you’re expecting, though. For as certain as I was about what the central struggle of Rebecca would be… nope. That much is worth your time, alone.

The strangest thing about Rebecca might be that it’s Hitchcock’s only win. Four of his films were nominated for Best Picture and he was nominated for Best Director five times, but none of those nine instances earned him a win. Rebecca is the sole Academy Award to Hitchcock’s name, and at that time they still gave Best Picture Oscars to the producer. Realizations like that make the Best Picture list problematic as a great history of film, because it is possible to complete the list to date and see only one Hitchcock movie. No list is ever going to be perfect, but my nomination for best Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train, would have competed with the airy musical An American in Paris. What may be worse, An American in Paris also beat A Streetcar Named Desire that year, and that’s a travesty.

So maybe the current list of 86 Best Picture winners isn’t meant to be a complete history of film. That’s fine. You should still see most of them, and this is one of the better ones. It’s dramatic — almost scary, though it’s not a horror movie — and it’s shocking, even 70 years later. It was Hitchcock’s first American film, and though the Academy likely had no idea how important he would become to American film, they got one right when they crowned it “best.”

The Best Part: The supporting cast! George Sanders, who you will recognize from All About Eve, attempts to blackmail a major character. Even with limited screen time, Sanders is remarkable. He plays the “snotty, sneaky aristocrat” type better than anyone, to the degree that you could make a case that he’s a reincarnation of his All About Eve role. Don’t write than fanfic. Judith Anderson also deserves note for her role as Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper that will never accept a new Mrs. de Winter.

The Worst Part: It’s honestly difficult to find something for this spot, sometimes. For Rebecca the closest I can come is that some of the staff at Manderley are a little absurd. Other than the terrifying Mrs. Danvers, no one really matters. Not a huge complaint, but a missed chance for some better characters, perhaps.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? If for no other reason than one is a powerful entrance to American cinema for one of the greatest directors of all time and one is a movie where Ludacris talks about wanting coffee with spaghetti, I am going to have to tip this ever-so-slightly in favor of Rebecca.

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

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.