Charlton Heston

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Greatest Show on Earth Better or Worse Than Crash?

greatestshow_2149879i

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 1952 winner The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it better than Crash?

People hate this movie. It constantly makes lists of worst Best Picture winners. I read a lot of the worst lists to inform my own journey through these movies and man people hate the circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it really all that bad?

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not a very good movie. It feels 20 or 30 years older than it actually is, mostly because no one edited it at all. You could cut more than half of the movie out and still be left with a full story. It’s a circus story, but it’s far too in love with the pageantry of the circus itself. “Murder your darlings” they say, but like the worst Tarantino movies (looking at you, 40-minute diner scene in Death Proof) this just goes on and on.

It’s supposed to be a love triangle. Brad (Charlton Heston, before he became a lunatic) doesn’t have time for love. He’s too busy running the business end of the circus to notice that his girl Holly (Betty Hutton) is in love with the new trapeze guy The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, who gives a pretty awful performance). The German elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) — what else could he have been named in 1952, I guess — is also in love with Angel (Gloria Grahame), but Angel has no time for him. Everyone falls in and out of love with each other for various reasons. That’s supposed to be what this is about.

It’s not, though, because director Cecil B. DeMille fucking loves the circus. You know you’re gonna get some circus when you watch a movie called The Greatest Show on Earth, but at one point there’s a ten minute scene of people taking down a circus tent, complete with narration about “the giant’s skin coming down.” It’s a quasi-documentary about circus life, and it’s straight up boring. The love stories aren’t enough to make a great movie, but the documentary elements aren’t really anything at all. They wouldn’t be out of place on a nature show from 40 years ago. They’re goddamned terrible, and they’re shoehorned in between every scene.

Jimmy Stewart is also in this weird damn movie as Buttons the clown. Buttons is a doctor who mercy killed his terminally ill wife, and now he’s hiding out in greasepaint at the circus. It’s really an interesting idea, especially in the non-digital world of 1952, and the movie deals with it far too rarely.

The biggest problem is that it’s just plain boring. It’s far too long and the good parts are few and far between. Most of the performances — outside of Charlton Heston’s cartoonishly “serious” Brad and Cornel Wilde’s “how much are you paying me again” The Great Sebastian — are fine. The problem here is that no one ever asked the question “is 90 minutes of circus footage too much?” It really, really is, but in a world that includes some truly awful movies with Best Picture on their DVD box, you shouldn’t hate The Greatest Show on Earth. You just shouldn’t watch it, either.

The Best Part: Jimmy Stewart gets a lot of love for his portrayal of Buttons. Most of the blurbs about this movie on other lists basically say “it sucks, but Buttons is interesting.” I think that’s a fine summary, but I really enjoyed Gloria Grahame’s character, Angel. She’s almost murdered by an elephant at one point. How do you play “almost murdered by an elephant?” I’d say she’s set the gold standard.

The Worst Part: The ending is outrageously stupid, but this is the spot where we need to talk about this train scene. Steven Spielberg is on the record saying that the climactic train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth (stop it with the *spoilers*, you weren’t going to watch this, were you?) was a huge influence on him. It’s true that it was a technological marvel at the time, but it’s really funny to watch the toy train scene now. If you want a worst part that doesn’t have to do with how the movie has aged, go with that stupid damn ending. Motivations like “I love you because the movie is over” are a sign you’re watching something dumb.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There’s no discussion of race at all in The Greatest Show on Earth. The only black people in the entire movie are in the crew that sets up the circus tent. But there is a comparison between the two that has nothing to do with race. Both movies are full-on hamfisted. They’re both trying to do something (talk about racism and show a love for the circus) and neither one does a great job of anything else. The problem with one movie is the problem with the other; both movies eschew interesting characters and pacing for “message.” Racism bad, circus good. Both movies are failures because their components don’t support the bigger message, they just fall down like a BAD CIRCUS TENT I HATE THAT I MADE THAT JOKE.

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 |

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.

Image: Telegraph