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 1937 winner The Life of Emile Zola. Is it better than Crash?
I had to watch The Life of Emile Zola twice to really get it. It’s one of the shorter Oscar winners — almost none of them clock in at under two hours — but it’s still an unbelievable slog to watch in 2014. It’s a courtroom drama that mostly happens outside of the courtroom and it’s an exploration of race that never mentions race at all.
The film is a biography of Emile Zola and a look at his involvement with the Dreyfus affair, a French political scandal where a Jewish man was convicted by the court of public opinion (and, well, real court) and sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The film centers around Zola’s decision to speak out publicly for Dreyfus and to demand that the trial be reopened, but it’s also about the risk of challenging authority. The army has said that Dreyfus was treasonous, and challenging the army is challenging the state itself. It is not done.
The first half hour is all about establishing that Emile Zola doesn’t give a shit about what isn’t done. He writes dozens of books that challenge authority and is met every time by a different fanciful, official, French person that thinks he’s being a real asshole. He builds a life out of rebellion, though, even though his newly gained status and riches cost him his spot among the “battered” artistic class. There’s a quietness to this part of the film that I really like, and it’s a classic problem: how do you reconcile the fact that selling things to bring down the establishment makes you the new establishment?
The trial itself is much louder. Poor Paul Muni who plays Zola screams every word he says in court as he tries to stand up for Dreyfus. I can’t really motivate you to go see a political drama from before World War II, but if you see it you will be struck by the lack of one topic. Dreyfus is Jewish and it’s made very clear that the army believes him to be the traitor because he’s a Jew, but no one in the entire movie ever comes out and says so. The Dreyfus affair in history is 100% about some very ugly stereotypes and beliefs, but The Life of Emile Zola is 116 minutes about the Dreyfus affair without one mention of Judaism.
It’s sometimes necessary to talk about these early Best Picture winners with a caveat sentence. The Lost Weekend, a 1945 look at alcoholism, is pretty goofy in 2014. Gentleman’s Agreement, a 1947 movie where Gregory Peck pretends to be Jewish to write an article, doesn’t really know how to talk about everything it wants to talk about. Even when these films take on the right complicated, challenging subjects they sometimes do so like surgery with a shotgun. You have to watch The Life of Emile Zola knowing they mean Jewish, and that probably won’t be enough for you. It’s great that they wanted to make a movie about the unfair imprisonment of a man because of his faith, it’s just a shame they didn’t want to tell you that’s what they made.
The Best Part: The French officer that “captures” Dreyfus hands him a gun with the implication that he can choose to shoot himself rather than undergo the humiliation of a treason conviction. “I’ve been instructed to offer you the usual alternative.” is a line for the ages, as is “I’m not so stupid… as to provide you with a perfect case!” Awesome.
The Worst Part: After he first appears in the paper denouncing the army, Zola is met in the street by an angry mob. One of the hallmarks of early film like this is a fear that the audience won’t be able to follow motivations, but having a guy in the crowd shout “There’s Zola himself! Let’s kill him!” is a pretty hilarious moment in the middle of a lot of tension.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The obvious connection here is race. Both of these movies are designed to shine a light on tough racial topics but neither of them really does a great job of doing so. Crash because of hamfisted dialogue and extremely poor character development and The Life of Emile Zola because they were terrified to come right out and say “Jew” in 1937. One exists as a relic of a time gone by and the other is from 1937. But seriously, the right way to make both of these movies is somewhere in the middle of the two, and The Life of Emile Zola certainly deserves more forgiveness because it is nearly a century old.
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 Slave | The 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 | 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
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.