awful

Worst Best Picture: Is Ben-Hur Better or Worse Than Crash?

ben-hur

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 1959 winner Ben-Hur. Is it better than Crash?

Charlton Heston is complicated. He’s got a reputation for being stern and serious, and he became one of the most famous conservatives in Hollywood. He’s everyone’s dad, but the version of him that’s grounding everyone all the time. This combination makes him a little unsuited for roles that require depth. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s very, very specific.

In the unbelievable bomb The Greatest Show on Earth, he’s a one-track minded character who only wants to see the circus keep moving, even at the cost of his own health and personal relationships. He’s playing against the rest of the movie there, and he’s one of the only interesting characters because everyone else is broad and silly and he’s really, really intense. He brings that same intensity to every role (“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you!”) and you end up getting the sensation that all Charlton Heston knows how to do is act like Charlton Heston. It’s bizarre, considering how massive his success was, and it really stands out in Ben-Hur.

Though he won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, a contemporary of Christ (much more about that later), he was criticized by the press for being mostly physical rather than actually delivering his lines well. He mumbles and spits everything, and he sounds like an impression of his other roles when he gets angry. Even the director of the film went on the record to say he was unhappy with Heston’s performance. The film was the most expensive film ever made, so you have to wonder if at some point they didn’t just decide to make an epic around him and hope it worked.

I guess it does, mostly, though Heston is hard as hell to ignore. He’s Jewish in a part of the world that has abandoned Judaism, and even his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has issues with him now for standing by his faith. When a piece of Ben-Hur’s roof falls off and scares the horse of a Roman dignitary, Messala has him arrested and set adrift to die as a galley slave.

Ben-Hur saves the life of an important Roman leader and is granted his freedom, and he decides to exact revenge on Messala for his imprisonment (among other things). That gives way to the iconic chariot scene, and surely the majority of what makes Ben-Hur necessary now. It’s the original, and though it’s been done a thousand times in various formats, it’s still electric to see. It really does hold up like few action scenes can, and it’s though it’s a little brutal, it’s necessary viewing for anyone.

The pieces of the rest of the movie are a little weird. Even though it clocks in at just under four hours, even characters like Pontius Pilate don’t really get that much screentime. It’s just lots of Ben-Hur struggling with the idea of revenge and how to stay true to what matters (faith and family) and not what doesn’t (Rome, anything but faith and family). The heroes’ journey works, ultimately, and despite the shade I’ll throw at anyone who calls Heston a great actor I have to say he’s suited for the role. It’s a little much (a lot much when he’s saving his family in Part II, when he’s at about 400% Charlton Heston) sometimes, but it’s supposed to be that way. Ben-Hur has a terrible life filled with trials, and it’s all meant to build up to the moment when he’s confronted with a similar character.

Ben-Hur meets Jesus right after he is sold into slavery. Christ gives him water when no man will aid him, which is fairly direct messaging. The Roman in command of the slaves insists that Ben-Hur alone not be allowed to drink, and he stops everyone else from helping him, but he is literally staggered when faced with Jesus Christ. For the most part, the religious message of Ben-Hur is (a little) more subtle than you’d expect, but not with regard to Jesus. He doesn’t come back for about two hours, but when Ben-Hur is present at his death (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say how “The Greatest Story Ever Told” ends, at this point) it is brutal and intense on a level you will rarely see. Your enjoyment of the movie (and the extended, lengthy ending) will be determined by your feelings about Christianity in general, but no matter what you think of the quality of its message, its scale in telling it cannot be denied.

The Best Part: Hugh Griffith won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the sheik that owns the horses Ben-Hur uses for the chariot scene. He’s a bright spot in a relentlessly dark movie. I don’t think the story of a slave who values his religion so highly that he will fight for it needs to be “funny” per se, but Griffith is charming and definitely carries the few scenes they use him in.

The Worst Part: It feels absurd to say that it’s Charlton Heston at this point, but I think I have to. He’s fine as Ben-Hur, but I can’t believe some of the line readings. He’s yelling through clenched teeth and thrashing broadly like he’s in a play. It’s crazy. Everyone’s bad Brando and Walken impressions sound like impressions, but your bad Heston sounds like Heston.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better, and it may be the iconic “epic” on the list, if not Lawrence of Arabia. I didn’t hate Ben-Hur, but it’s certainly not the movie I expected. It’s long but not bloated, but that’s only because it has exactly one thing it wants to say. The message of Ben-Hur is singular, like Crash (I did it!), and though your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your enjoyment of said message, I think it does a better job of getting one specific point across 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 | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-Hur

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.

Advertisements

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

gandhi

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 1982 winner Gandhi. Is it better than Crash?

There’s kinda a lot going on in Gandhi. It’s an extremely detailed look at the man himself, but it’s also a broad morality play about race’s role in war and government. Gandhi has become history’s symbol for peace through resistance, and while the movie about his life is definitely interested in telling that story, it also wants to complicate the character a (very) little bit, which is ambitious.

When we look for a stand-in for evil we find Hitler, and Gandhi has become just as iconic of a symbol for good. It’s challenging to tell the tale of how someone became so good that we use him as a replacement for the very idea of goodness, and it’s even more challenging to do so any not come off a little bit preachy. Most of the modern reviews seem to take issue with how preachy it is, but I don’t see it. You can’t tell the history of “goodness” without being talking about how good the guy was. If it’s preachy to say that Gandhi wanted a better world and worked for it, well, then maybe I don’t mind that kind of preaching so much.

In the first five minutes, Gandhi is shot and killed. It then cuts back to his youth and spends three hours working up to his own death. Gandhi spent his life fighting against British rule of India, and while successful in one regard, his fame and success led him to be the face of many other resistance movements. He was never able to make everyone happy with every decision, and his inability to reconcile the different groups within India cost him his life. It’s a fairly straightforward portrayal, aside from the time jump after his murder.

Your enjoyment of Gandhi will depend on how complicated you want your biopic to be. Patton does a better job of this, for my money, and it’s a superior film because Patton in Patton is complex. He’s dark and misunderstood, but he’s also heroic and powerful. The only real diversions from “Gandhi was the greatest guy in history” are some youthful boasting and some mild run-ins with his wife. Gandhi likes the spotlight, but the movie doesn’t paint that solely as pride. I don’t know how much they really need to show the dark side of Gandhi, but it feels a little slight at times as a result. It’s possible that there’s no badness to show, and I’m taking issue with Mohandas Gandhi for not having enough faults. Jerk!

It’s a little difficult to talk about because there isn’t much to it beyond Ben Kingsley’s Oscar-winning role. He’s exceptional and the movie feels huge with a cast of hundreds of thousands, but nothing really sticks beyond him. Martin Sheen is totally out of place as a journalist covering Gandhi’s early life and a Life magazine reporter towards the end is even sillier. Other than Kingsley, there’s nothing really to talk about with regard to the acting. He’s everywhere, and the Patton comparisons continue because he consumes the screen in every shot. It’s really a lifetime role, and it’s especially strange to see right after Schindler’s List because his two roles are so different.

It’s worth your time, I think, but any review that says “it’s what you think it is” is also true. Gandhi is the story of Gandhi, and it doesn’t really go much deeper than that. They clearly wanted to, and Kingsley brings out just how truly annoying Gandhi must have been, which is worthy of note. Some of the sweeping shots of hundreds of thousands of people are breathtaking, but whether that justifies a three-hour run time or not, I don’t really know.

The Best Part: I touched on it briefly, but I want to restate here: Gandhi is annoying. It’s really a great choice to portray the man most consistently identified with “resistance” as being difficult to deal with. He’s a gifted leader and a man on a mission, but he’s also tough as hell to deal with.

The Worst Part: There is a lot of filler here. The movie opens with a shot that apologizes for leaving out so much of the life of Gandhi, but I can’t imagine what their ideal cut would look like, because it’s already painstakingly detailed. There’s nothing at all that comes from a 10-minute scene with a reporter from Life, but it happened to Gandhi, so it’s left in.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The scene where a line of men all take a beating, one after another, in honor of the spirit of one of history’s greatest men is iconic and will endure in your mind long after you see Gandhi. The only scene like that in Crash is where Ludacris talks about coffee and spaghetti, because you will wonder why he wants coffee with spaghetti for the rest of your life.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s List | Gandhi

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 Schindler’s List Better or Worse Than Crash?

Schindler's List

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 1993 winner Schindler’s List. Is it better than Crash?

When I set out to compare 85 movies to Crash, my goal was to legitimately see if any of them were worse. Some, like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, become difficult to write about because the premise is so ludicrous. Movies like The Sound of MusicThe Deer Hunter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and It Happened One Night are entrenched, iconic pieces of film history, and when writing about them it can be easy to slip into a “duh, it’s Casablanca” mode. There are all of those movies, and then there is Schindler’s List.

I had seen bits and pieces of it through various showings when I was in school, but I’d never sat down and watched all of Schindler’s List. It’s powerful, as you know, but it’s remarkable how powerful it still is if you know everything. The challenge of making a movie like Schindler’s List is that your good guys and bad guys will be immediately and totally clear, and you need to find a way to make it more complicated than that. Who is Oskar Schindler and what is he doing? And how do you tell a story this delicate but still make it a massive, massive hit, like only Spielberg can apparently do?

If you’ve somehow missed it, it’s the true story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a rich German industrialist who fills his factories with Jewish workers to save on wages. It’s a shrewd move, and the film is about the developing humanity inside Schindler as his world becomes more and more about the Jewish plight inside Nazi Germany. He originally hires them because they’re cheap, but through the brutality of the (other, it’s import to note that Schindler is, himself, also a Nazi) Nazis, Schindler becomes deeply sympathetic and hatches a plan.

With the aid of his assistant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) he creates a list of Jewish names to be saved from transportation to Auschwitz. He creates his own fake factory where nothing is created, staffs it with Jewish “workers,” and bribes the guards and higher ups in the Nazi Party to avoid detection. His factory actively does not create weaponry for the Germans, which doubles up the amount of non-aid he’s able to provide. He’s using “workers” and not producing anything.

It’s a heroic story and it’s told in thrilling fashion. The Nazis feel both like people and like monsters, which is a nice touch to keep some humanity about the entire experience. One of the important lessons in an atrocity is to remember that many of the “enemy” forces aren’t deranged or psychopathic, they’re standard, normal people. That’s what makes evil so insidious, and it’s an important component here. Most of the Nazis in the film aren’t cartoonish, snarling, monsters, and just as in life it’s too complicated to just pick out maniacs. You need to fear the good man who will do nothing, one of the great lessons of the Holocaust.

The Best Part: Neeson’s role is incredible, and I’ll go with his portrayal rather than spoil any one scene, if you haven’t seen it. There’s one to mention — that one — but I don’t want to give it away, to preserve the horror.

The Worst Part: I mean what I said above about the humanity of evil, but if there’s a mistake in all this it’s in Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a fine performance, but he’s clearly “crazy” and it takes away from the experience a bit.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s really difficult to talk about this one and it should be. It’ll always be called “powerful” and it should be. Crash never asked to be compared to it, but that’s why Crash shouldn’t be a Best Picture winner. That’s one of many reasons, there’s also dozens, dozens more.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of Africa | Schindler’s List

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 Out of Africa Better or Worse Than Crash?

out of africa

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1985 winner Out of Africa. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Part: Meryl Streep.

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

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

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

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

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

the great ziegfeld

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1936 winner The Great Ziegfeld. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all quiet on the western front

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1929-1930 winner All Quiet on the Western Front. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1975 winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cimarron

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1930/1931 winner Cimarron. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lawrence of arabia

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1962 winner Lawrence of Arabia. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the english patient

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1996 winner The English Patient. Is it better than Crash?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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