all the king’s men

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

all the king's men

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1949 winner All the King’s Men. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read All Of?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read all of?

Rules are simple: how’s your judgement? When did you last dedicate a significant amount of your precious, fleeting life to something you didn’t want to finish in the first place? This week we’re talking dedication for dedication’s sake. Let’s get to it, because wasting time in a thing about wasted time is just too much.

Alex Russell

I once got State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America as a gift. Look at this damned list of some of the contributors: Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Anthony Bourdain, William T. Vollmann, S.E. Hinton, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Rick Moody, and Alexander Payne. Those people can’t make a bad book, can they? They didn’t, but they all certainly wrote some essays that appeared in a bad book. State by State is a series of 50 essays, each written by someone with a connection to that specific state. Some of them are great. Some of them are not. I was going to put in my least favorite one here but it makes me way too angry. The precious, scientific ways people write about their own states in this tome can be the worst. They are the opposite of love letters. That said, “Kansas” by Jim Lewis is fantastic, though if you Google it the first thing that comes up is an article from my college town’s newspaper about how bad it is. No one likes anything.

Gardner Mounce

I generally have a strict 50-page policy. Life is too short to read bad books and if a book can’t impress me in fifty pages then I have no qualms about ditching it. However, I did stick with all of The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. It was awful, but interesting in the awful choices it made.

Mike Hannemann

The easy direction to go is to name something forced upon you in high school, but All the King’s Men takes the cake. The book before I read was Grapes of Wrath and it was followed by Invisible Man. Both of those novels are some of my favorites of all time. Wedged in the middle was a political drama which played out exactly how you’d expect. I compare it to Dances With Wolves. You know exactly where the plot is going the minute you start reading the book. There are a few twists here and there, but it lacks originality. When the most fascinating character is a simple Irish guy who eats sugar cubes, there’s something wrong with your story. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but “noble politician becomes corrupt” isn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling. That said, I do sympathize with the Irish. And sugar cubes.

Jonathan May

There are so many contenders for this question. The worst book I’ve ever read in its entirety must be The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain called “chloroform in print.” Not to anger any Mormons out there, but damn if it isn’t the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Compared to other religious texts, the battles are lame and the language stilted. The Bhagavad-Gita this ain’t. Mostly centered in language borrowed from the Masonic texts and translations of The Bible available at the time, this product of the early American 19th century could really lose a lot of clunky verbiage and focus rather on its chronologically-challenged plot. While religious adherents may find it to be divinely inspired, I find more inspiration from even the most unreadable of Dickens’: The Tale of Two Cities, my close second-place choice. If you disagree (and I assume many will), please do yourself a favor and read The Bible, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Heart Sutra, or almost any other religious text and get back to me.

Andrew Findlay

This is difficult. For most of the past decade, if a book was terrible or even just not what I wanted to read right then and there, I just didn’t finish it. Any truly terrible books that I finished before that time are terrible enough to be supremely forgetful. It was probably one of the ranked masses of Star Wars Expanded Universe books I read in middle school, before I knew enough to be like, “This dialogue is laughable. Han wouldn’t say that. Besides, it’s nerf herder, not nerftender.” You know what, I’m willing to bet $100 that it was The Phantom Menace, released alongside the movie so George Lucas could squeeze even more blood out of his gasping, mangled franchise.

Brent Hopkins

This is assuredly not the worst book I have ever read cover to cover, but I will say it left the most vivid disappointment in me in recent years. George R.R. Martin’s 4th novel in The Song of Ice and Fire series A Feast for Crows takes the prize for me.  As has been mentioned by many other reviewers and general readers alike, this book is the equivalent of a fluff episode. Most of the characters focused on feel like the B-list of the tale, and after the massive cliffhanger at the end of the previous book you will read these pages and feel teased. The concept of splitting the books into regions as opposed to chronological order is cool and all, but it works a lot worse when all the cool kids are in one place and the wallflowers are in another. This also led to a bit of a muddling of the 5th book because many of the references are things the reader already knows, so it isn’t entirely as new as you’d hope. Knowing the answer to characters questions works sometimes, but not constantly.