Judaism

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.

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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 The Life of Emile Zola Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: allmovie.com

image source: allmovie.com

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 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 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

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 Gentleman’s Agreement Better or Worse Than Crash?

gentlemans

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 1947 winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Is it better than Crash?

The year was 1948. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won an Oscar for Best Original Song. Doris Day performed at the ceremony. It was only four years after Casablanca‘s win. It was the year that Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish for a magazine article, won Best Motion Picture.

It was another time, to be sure. That’s the entire point: Gentleman’s Agreement is about Philip Green (Gregory Peck) becoming “Phil Greenberg” to experience what it’s like to be a Jew in the 40s. He’s new in town, his wife is dead, and he wants to make a big impression at work by taking on a tough assignment. He’s had success in the past by “becoming” the subject of his work, and he figures that writing about being Jewish can only be achieved by, well, “being” Jewish.

After the game is on, his Jewish secretary (who thinks he’s also Jewish) starts a conversation with him about how much she doesn’t like “the wrong type” of Jews. Peck takes her to task for what she expects to be an easy conversation full of slurs and stereotypes. He straight up lectures her on how he can’t stand even internalized racism (she says she even says those things about herself!) or racism against other members of the same group. Gregory Peck being Gregory Peck, this scene works even though it’s pretty broad when he starts listing the slurs he can’t tolerate.

Crash does the same thing, but Crash doesn’t have Gregory Peck. It’s too simple to say that one of the greatest actors in American history is the only difference, but he absolutely is one of them. The rest of it is the proving ground for this whole damn argument: Crash is already a travesty of a Best Picture winner because it already feels like it handled a sensitive subject poorly and it hasn’t even been a decade yet.

Gentleman’s Agreement is nearly 70 years old. The film centers on the idea that it’s difficult to be an “other,” even if you’re just perceived as one. Crash is about nothing but others, but much in the way that a little salt makes beef taste more like beef and a lot of salt makes beef taste like salty garbage, Crash is about ten tons too much.

Gentleman’s Agreement was a controversial film in the 40s. America was still in the business of yelling at people for standing up for minorities of all types (well, we still are, but now we’re at least a little more guarded about it, since there’s no specific government-sanctioned committee for it anymore) and there was a lot of fear of a movie willing to put a spotlight on that.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place when Gregory Peck tries to secure a reservation at a hotel rumored to be “restricted.” He causes a scene in the lobby (insofar as Gregory Peck can “cause a scene” – you really have to see it) and ends up leaving angry with the tacit bigotry of the world.

The movie’s greatest success is that it doesn’t have a lot of people screaming about Nazis or throwing rocks at people in the street. It deals with the quiet racism in people, even supposedly good people. It exists to show that it’s easy to label people in white hoods racists, but it’s hard to face up to smaller, more insidious racism. Peck takes issue with his fiance’s “smaller” bigoted moments, and delivers the should-be Oscar-winning speech:

“But I’ve come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That’s the biggest discovery I’ve made. The good people. The nice people.”

Crash is worried that if someone doesn’t very literally try to murder someone of another race, the audience won’t understand the racial tensions between them. Sandra Bullock’s poor character yells slurs constantly, to the point where she is essentially a See ‘N Say of racial epithets. Crash is like trying to do surgery with a sledgehammer. It doesn’t work, but it certainly does make a mess.

Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t exactly using modern tools for that same surgery, but it isn’t trying to deliberately kill the patient. There are scenes that are a little obvious – a man in an extremely classy restaurant at one point starts a fight with Gregory Peck’s friend just because he’s Jewish – but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly reasonable critique of a difficult topic.

It must have been that much more difficult seven decades ago (just a few years after Hitler’s death) and the fact that Gentleman’s Agreement is still a solid look at de facto segregation as opposed to de jure segregation all these years later is astounding. Crash doesn’t understand the basic difference between the two in the first place, so the idea that it could have any nuance is a bridge too far, entirely.

The Best Part: In looking up how people remember Gentleman’s Agreement I’ve found that people take issue with the fact that it came out just after World War II but never really addresses Hitler. It makes the film timeless, because outside of a few of the slurs being completely out of fashion now, this could happen 10 or 20 or 30 years later and be mostly unchanged. It handles tacit racism well.

The Worst Part: That said, it doesn’t go very far beyond that. Blackness comes up twice in the movie (in the form of unacceptable slurs to use) but only in reference. No one ever discusses race beyond Jewishness as present or absent. When Gregory Peck comes out as “not really Jewish” he’s immediately Christian. When his son asks him about different religions he names… three. Baby steps, 1947, but it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashBoth movies supposedly aim to do the same thing. Crash is a failure as a movie, but it only comes across as a failure as a lesson about racism when compared to something that does it well. The ultimate lesson of Crash is that race defines all interactions, at all times, and must always be considered as divisive. The lesson of Gentleman’s Agreement is the most important thing to remember about evil in general: You need to be equally afraid of the person who does nothing to stop it as the person that perpetrates it.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men |

 Image credit: The Telegraph