dustin hoffman

Worst Best Picture: Is Kramer vs. Kramer Better or Worse Than Crash?

kramer vs. kramer

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 1979 winner Kramer vs. Kramer. Is it better than Crash?

My parents saw Kramer vs. Kramer on one of their first dates. My parents, both relatively recently divorced at the time, weren’t really in the right place to watch it. It’s also not really a great “date movie” on account of it being a movie about a divorce and a custody battle.

It’s been a long-running joke in my family that Kramer vs. Kramer was the last movie my mom got to pick out while they dated. It’s easy to see why: this is a damn brutal movie. I have no children and I haven’t been divorced and it hit me like a truck carrying another truck. If you’ve got some deeper connections to the themes, well, prepare yourself.

Within the first ten minutes, Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves Ted (Dustin Hoffman). We aren’t given a lot of insight into exactly what’s wrong, but it’s clear that Joanna is unhappy, and she’s apparently unhappy enough to leave their son Billy (Justin Henry) behind, as well. Ted has to learn to balance a demanding job and a single parent household, and Billy has to learn to forgive his dad without really having any explanation for why his mom left. It’s hard stuff, but mom left completely, so everyone involved has to learn to start over.

Meryl Streep is out of the movie for a solid hour. It’s entirely about Ted and Billy bonding, and the mix of heartfelt moments and tough moments is effective. Billy wants his mom back, sure, but if all he has is dad then he’s going to make the best of it. Ted’s worn out and frustrated — one scene involves him making a drink and staring at a wall for a brief moment — but he’s proud of himself for being able to take over parenthood alone.

That makes it all the more difficult when Joanna comes back and wants to be in Billy’s life again. The custody battle is the bulk of the movie’s conflict, and it deserves not being spoiled at all. It’s emotional and powerful, and it’s amazing to see Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both give (possibly) their best performances in the same movie. If I’m wrong there, then perhaps you can downgrade them both to “excellent” here.

What stands out the most is the difficult line that the story walks about who the “hero” is. We spend a full hour with Ted, but Joanna tells the court the story of the Ted we never got to see: married Ted. The real answer isn’t that Ted is a good father or that Joanna is a bad wife or that Ted is a bad husband or that Joanna is a good mother, it’s much more complicated than that. I think there’s a lot of interpretation to be done and Kramer vs. Kramer will hit different people different ways, but I really am struck by the complexity of everyone involved. Terms of Endearment has a similarly complicated view of how we interact with the people we love, but this is a much more difficult topic. Everything in Kramer vs. Kramer is a little difficult, but it manages to be emotional without being manipulative.

The Best Part: The courtroom scene is fantastic, of course. Both leads give outstanding performances and earn their respective acting Oscars many times over, but it’s Ted’s lawyer that stuck with me. Played by Howard Duff, he’s tasked with destroying Joanna on the stand. He’s brutal, and it speaks to the fact that even though Ted and Joanna are trying to make this as positive as they can, no one escapes these situations that way.

The Worst Part: Many Oscar winners go through some revision after the fact. Kramer vs. Kramer‘s version of that is a disagreement with my notion that both sides are played equally in the custody battle. Since the movie is from Ted’s perspective, mostly, it can be easy to side with him against Joanna or to paint her as flighty or “crazy.” I can definitely see the argument that it’s a proto version of “men’s rights” nonsense, but I disagree with that take.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I’ve said this a million times at this point, but it all goes back to realism. I feel for Ted and Joanna. Ted wants to make enough money to provide for his family and Joanna wants to hold her family together. No one is “bad” in Kramer vs. Kramer, they just make bad choices because they don’t have time to consider if they’re even making a specific choice or not. Ted works too much and Joanna keeps her problems inside. Neither of them works on their marriage with the other one and thus it fails them and Billy suffers. The message of Kramer vs. Kramer is that you have to be well-rounded in your life and take care of every aspect of your humanity. Crash would tell you that it doesn’t matter, because all people are villains at their core and all people are waiting to literally kill each other at the slightest provocation. When the “divorce-and-custody-battle” movie is the happier, more hopeful movie then you’ve really taken a wrong turn.

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 Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer

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

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Worst Best Picture: Is Midnight Cowboy Better or Worse Than Crash?

midnight

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 1969 winner Midnight Cowboy. Is it better than Crash?

Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only movie rated X to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. The story of the rating system in American film history is a little absurd. I talked about that a little bit with regards to Terms of Endearment, a really brutal movie with frequent sex scenes and more frequent “adult situations,” getting a PG rating in the early 80s. Still, “X” jumps right off the page. It makes you wonder just how raw Midnight Cowboy could be.

We’re definitely in a different world in 2014. This isn’t an “X” movie, but damn it’s a tough one. Midnight Cowboy is the tale of Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) plan to leave Texas and be a male prostitute in New York City. He’s a hayseed of the highest order, but his character really shines because he has the depressing trait of “assumed street smarts.” Joe thinks he’s figured out all the angles in every situation, and that’s the worst thing to think when you haven’t at all.

He hooks up with Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, who is excellent), a conman who lives in a condemned building. Joe tries to convince people to have sex with him for money and Ratso tries to convince Joe that he’s more than he seems. Joe is immediately unsuccessful and “moves in” to Ratso’s hole-in-the-wall.

It’s a story about hope and image. Both men think they have the tools to make it in the world, they just need the shot. Ratso needs a guy like Joe that he can “manage” and Joe just needs “customers.” Ratso won’t stoop to shining shoes like his old man and Joe won’t go back to washing dishes like he did in Texas. They want more for themselves, reality be damned.

We all want a little more for ourselves, and you’ll be missing the forest if you pay too much attention to the sex in Midnight Cowboy. It’s certainly a movie about sex, but the sex doesn’t matter. The main thing going on in Midnight Cowboy happens when two people shiver and get sick in an old tenement house because they can’t swallow their pride. The main thing is that we all know that guy who could get it together “if he could just make it to Florida.”

You don’t need to go to Florida. You need something else.

The Best Part: The sadness of the lead characters is extremely hard to handle. In one scene during the “hopeful” part of the movie, Jon Voight’s character has to ask a woman for crackers that he can put ketchup on to not starve to death. It takes a dip towards the depressing after that, but it’s still on the upswing, then! I list this in the “best” because the movie isn’t a direct arc, which is interesting. It’s a risky way to tell a story, but it’s like an actual life with highs and lows rather than one constant line up or down.

The Worst Part: As much as I want to make this about a downright stupid Andy Warhol storyline (sigh), it has to be the entire handling of homosexuality. This movie is from 1969, and that’s a definitive year in gay history in America. Midnight Cowboy came out a month before Stonewall, and it’s a movie about a guy from Texas being scared of being gay. It’s tough to discuss without spoiling it, but Joe frequently finds that he can make a living in NYC as a prostitute, but he’ll have to sleep with men. He’s not willing to – which is not the problem – but the anger and the weirdness of the way they deal with it in the most explosive year in gay history in America is very strange. I can’t fully condemn a movie from more than four decades ago for not handling gay issues head-on. I can be weirded out by hearing Dustin Hoffman say a gay slur about twelve times in a row.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? We’re across the country in Midnight Cowboy, but we’ve got the same kind of “gritty city” story. The NYC of Midnight Cowboy is a sad, angry, lonely place. It’s not dissimilar to the LA that Crash wants to talk about, but this is 1969 New York City. It’s the city before they took all the porn out of Times Square. It’s the bad old days, the days talked about in really good and really bad literature. It’s a piece locked in a time that doesn’t exist anymore, and the grit is there to explain what “1969” is to the audience. Crash, as I’ve said before, exists in a mythical 2005. Racism is extremely real, but as the story of anywhere real in 2005, Crash is a bad destination movie.

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

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 Rain Man Better or Worse Than Crash?

1989_iconic_rainman1

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. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1988 winner Rain Man. Is it better than Crash?

Rain Man is complicated.

Even if you haven’t seen it,  you’re no doubt aware of Dustin Hoffman’s character on a basic level. He plays Raymond “Rain Man” Babbitt, the autistic brother of Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt. It’s an iconic performance that locked up 1988’s Oscar in a way that few individual efforts before or since have.

Rain Man is terrific, but Hoffman’s performance is what really sticks with you when you watch it 25 years later. He sells the distress and the panic and the wonder of the condition so totally. It’s a full figure of a person just as much as “Rain Man” is a shorthand for the condition of autism itself. It’s a delicate topic — many Oscar-winners are about delicate topics, but few are about something like mental illness — and it’s handled in a way that holds up a quarter century later. This is an accomplishment all by itself, and it struck me as similar to the high points of the much-earlier Gentleman’s Agreement‘s handling of race.

In Rain Man, Tom Cruise’s character is forced to reunite with a brother he doesn’t know he has. It combines the classic “road movie” tropes with the “long-lost person” ones as Cruise drives Dustin Hoffman across the country to LA. Along the way he learns a little bit about autism and even more about himself. That sentence feels sappy and reductive, but it’s the high school book report summation of the “feelings” in Rain Man.

Most of the supporting roles have suffered with the passing of time — it’s especially strange to see some scenes where people appear to have never acted in their life just delivering bland line readings — but Cruise and Hoffman play the two sides of human experience so perfectly. Cruise is an interesting choice for a villain here and honestly, a mostly-evil protagonist is an interesting choice overall. It works because there are so many sad pieces to connect in Rain Man. “Meet your brother and try to earn back the three million bucks from Dad’s will” is a pretty fantastical plot,  but “learn to live with your family and your place in it” is something much simpler to understand and believe.

The Best Part: The reverse arcs of Tom Cruise becoming less worldly and Dustin Hoffman becoming a bigger part of the outside world are excellent. It’s the exact kind of obvious development that feels terrible when it’s over-messaged. There aren’t moments where people look into the camera and explain the pain and the difficulty, so they feel less like plot points and more like actual, impactful parts of a life. I always think of the worst version of this: In Man on the Moon, Danny DeVito is forced to say “You’re insane… but you might also be brilliant.” Rain Man is never that insulting.

The Worst Part: Surprisingly, it’s the iconic casino scene. It may be the only one you’re sure to know if you haven’t seen it. Tom Cruise takes his brother to Vegas and exploits his autism to count cards at blackjack. The scene starts with them testing it out on the back of a car. As soon as Cruise is satisfied it will work, they loudly peel out with the cards fluttering in the wind and the dust. The next scene opens with a full montage of both of them getting suits and haircuts. It’s full 80s in the worst way, and it’s ridiculous out of time. It’s bonkers and it immediately dates what is otherwise a really powerful, timeless story. Seriously, watch it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is better. I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s wrong with Crash as a Best Picture winner. Crash is an awkward, meandering few hours of cinema by itself, but it’s when you compare it to the great accomplishments of the artform that it really looks bad. Tom Cruise in Rain Man and Matt Dillon in Crash have similar character arcs. Both men have lives where they can choose to either become better parts of society or continue on in their own ways. Both choose a form of redemption after decidedly not choosing redemption, but Dillon comes off much worse. Rain Man is about bettering yourself for your family, Crash is about needing a miracle just to care about the world 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 |

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 source: Oscars.org