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.

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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.

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.