shirley maclaine

Worst Best Picture: Is Around the World in 80 Days Better or Worse Than Crash?

around the world in 80 days

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 1956 winner Around the World in 80 Days. Is it better than Crash?

I’ve become fascinated by the disconnect between how a movie was seen at the time and how it looks now, and there may not be a better contender to break that down than this one. The 1956 Best Picture Oscar winner Around the World in 80 Days was produced by Michael Todd, and the poster for it claims “Michael Todd’s show makes this a better world.”

That’s a bold damn statement, on the one hand. If you’re considering seeing a movie or not, the fact that it has been declared a net positive for humanity is as good a reason as any. On the other hand, all that sentence really means is that someone considered if Around the World in 80 Days made the world a worse place to live and said “no, I wouldn’t go that far.”

I might. This is a tremendously bad movie. It’s tough to even decide where to begin. Let’s break this down.

The movie starts with a 10-minute fake newsreel about the history of travel from Edward R. Murrow. To some degree, that’s a novelty. It’s so strange to see a time when people would go see a fanciful “road movie” and then be delighted to see the leading newsman of the day explain travel as an idea to them. It really sets the tone for next three hours.

The rest of the movie falls into place, and I mean that term in the worst sense. You get the sensation that the creators cast a ton of big names and secured some exotic locations and then picked moments from Jules Verne’s book that fit those. There is no larger narrative beyond “go around the world.” David Niven bets a bunch of stuffy British people that he can go around the world in 80 days. There you go. You can skip it now.

If you do see it, you’ll see some absurdities. Chief among these might be the legendary Mexican actor Cantinflas fighting some bulls for half an hour, which, again, they just heard they could get Cantinflas and filmed around it. He’s charming and funny in it, but it’s just such a strange performance. It has nothing on Shirley MacLaine as the exceedingly white Indian bride that they save from being burned alive in ritual practice. The less said about the view of 1956 India — or the very, very white woman they meet there — the better. Yikes.

The prevailing emotion after watching this epic is one of wonder, but more wonder at a time that does not exist now. This is a terrible movie. It’s far too long and feels even longer, and it’s chock-full of easy, obvious things to cut. An entire trip to the Wild West does nothing for the story at all. India introduces the terrible love story, and that’s it. The setup itself takes half an hour, and if the idea was “show all these great locations” you may as well start out with the champagne in the hot air balloon.

It would be difficult to imagine the kind of person that would like this movie in 2014. From it’s time, though, it does represent a monumental achievement in scope, though one that throws out narrative and any hope of meaning to do so.

The Best Part: The saving grace here, such as it is, is that some of the performances are great. Cantinflas is funny and David Niven is crafty, and both of those are good, because they’re both on screen for almost three solid hours.

The Worst Part: This has to be the unexplained Shirley MacLaine role. She’s excellent in The Apartment and Terms of Endearment, but there is no excuse for this disaster. The movie’s length is what it’s remembered for, and don’t get me wrong, it’s absurdly long. But MacLaine in India is just one long wince in 2014.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? One of the debates in this space has been if “nothing” is better than “bad something.” I think here the racial stereotypes and the cringe factor are as high as they are in Crash, so I have to default to a standard decision maker for CrashAround the World in 80 Days is five decades older. Crash is certainly less boring, but all Around the World in 80 Days will do is waste your time and leave a taste in your mouth. Crash feels like an earnest attempt to make something, which is worse.

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

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 Apartment Better or Worse Than Crash?

theapt

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 1960 winner The Apartment. Is it better than Crash?

Comedies don’t win Best Picture. Seriously, look at the list. Scroll through the last 30 or so. The Hurt Locker. Schindler’s List. No Country for Old Men. I mean, Gladiator definitely is funny at times, but I wouldn’t say the people behind it were making a comedy.

That’s what makes The Apartment so strange. It’s a Jack Lemmon movie and it is very clearly just a “vehicle” for his comedy. He plays sick and stuffs Kleenex in every pocket he has. He frantically flips a Rolodex and uses the 1960s version of a phone tree. He does everything but full-on pratfall to sell how funny he is in the first half hour and it works, it works, it works.

You first recognize that there’s something special about this movie through Jack Lemmon himself. He’s playing C.C. Baxter, the put-upon drone at Company X. Baxter wants to get promoted on his merits, but he’s figured out that middle management would rather screw secretaries in his isolated apartment than look at his figures. Thus, the game is on.

Baxter doesn’t condone anyone’s illicit activities — the movie has a couple of obvious, untouched asides where he openly condemns adultery — but he wants this job and it’s hard to say no. He’s only rewarded once their boss catches wind and decides to use the company retreat for himself. The trouble (well, rest of the trouble)? The head honcho’s girl is the one Baxter is in love with. The boss won’t leave his wife for her and she won’t love Baxter because she’s torn up over the boss. What’s a guy to do?

There have only been two black-and-white movies to win Best Picture since The Apartment. There are only two in those more than five decades: Schindler’s List and The Artist. As the last true black-and-white Best Picture from the days where it wasn’t an aesthetic choice, you’d expect the movie to be dated. The comedy suffers more than the universal theme.

The tricky part about comedy is always that it becomes dated. That’s just the reality of the genre. At one point a character says, angrily, “Live now, pay later! Diners Club!” It’s pretty clearly a slogan of the time, but it solidifies The Apartment in 1960. One of the main characters is an elevator operator, but what locks the movie in another era is that weird Diners Club line and a handful of others like it.

Does that matter? No, not as much as it could. It’s easy to see how that line works in context. It’s easy to guess at what a shrieking woman ordering a Rum Collins in a terrible bar is supposed to represent. It’s simple enough to forgive these little steps away from what we know to enjoy the line “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”

It’s a comedy, but it’s weirdly dour. Baxter takes it hard when he realizes that the cost of getting the promotion means he can’t be taken seriously at work, but no one takes anything harder than the poor elevator operator. After just about an hour of mostly comedy and setup, she downs some sleeping pills and tries to kill herself in Baxter’s apartment. It has to happen to drive the plot and the movie eventually does a good job of supporting this as a choice her love-muddled mind makes, but it’s such a sharp tonal shift.

Later in the movie Baxter tells the story of when he tried to kill himself with a gun because he was torn up about love, but he says he shot himself in the knee. He’s nursing someone who recently attempted suicide back to some semblance of health and he doesn’t know what to say. It’s the kind of real, sad gesture that we all hope we would make to try to help in some way. It’s not perfect, but it’s human.

The movie slowly works backwards from the suicide attempt to explain what makes the character tick, but it never really gets there. It’s easy to blame the 1960 release date on why Shirley MacLaine’s character doesn’t get any agency or reason to live outside of the powerful married man she loves, but a movie willing to deal with the reality of suicide this directly should be able to sustain a more rational and powerful female lead. The role earned MacLaine a Best Actress nomination and she absolutely plays it well, but it is hard to watch the movie in 2014 and not want to pull her into the future, where women in movies are allowed to matter. This movie needs the Bechdel test badly.

There are modern complaints to lob at the 1960 winner for Best Picture, but it’s a phenomenal movie. Jack Lemmon gives what I’d normally call a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but most people don’t get to have Jack Lemmon’s lifetime.

I really tried to find a way to compare this to Crash, but I just don’t see anything they have in common. The 1960 Best Picture The Apartment is about as respectful of women as the 2005 Best Picture Crash, I suppose. It’s just that one of them is a sad reminder of a “simpler” time and the other is from the 1960s.

The Best Part: Sick Jack Lemmon, clearly. Through the first 20 minutes of the film Jack Lemmon’s character is sick, designed to show the physical toll that not having his own apartment is having on him. His sick antics are the same as watching an experienced actor play a convincing drunk — but sick is harder. You feel pity for him and it sets up the entire movie. Bonus: It clearly draws the line of good and evil. Only good guys get colds.

The Worst Part: Tone, tone, tone! Of course Shirley MacLaine has to take the sleeping pills because otherwise this is the story of how bad things all work out for bad people. That’s no story, so she’s gotta try to go into that good night. The suicide attempt isn’t the problem, it’s how wacky the movie treats it.  Honorable mention to MacLaine’s brother-in-law’s character, who seems like he was a “Greedo-shot-first” level of afterthought. He may as well be screaming “Why I oughta!” instead of delivering lines.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Apartment is about if it is more important to care about work or about love, at the most basic level. The two are often difficult to balance (see: Mad Men, all culture forever, etc) but rarely are they so at odds. This is a movie about an age-old theme that manages to put an interesting spin on it. It’s relatable and unique. It feels real, even in the most slapsticky parts. Crash offers no one of any substance and is more needlessly morbid than a movie with a 45-minute suicide comedy arc. It would be tough, even if that were the assignment, to do that.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve |

 Image credit: IMDB