Terrence Howard

Worst Best Picture: Is All the King’s Men Better or Worse Than Crash?

all the king's men

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 1949 winner All the King’s Men. Is it better than Crash?

When you look at all of these in a row, you start to see trends. Broderick Crawford, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, was a giant of his time and apparently a huge alcoholic. There may as well be a copy-and-pasted subsection on every Wikipedia page for every Best Actor winner from 1930 to 1980 that explains how they were hard to work with because they were drunk half the time. They’re all eerily consistent from person to person. Since I never met the man, I’ll have to review this movie without those specifics.

The film is a retelling of the Robert Penn Warren classic about a politician based on Huey Long, the legendary Louisiana governor. It focuses on the rise to power of Willie Stark, a self-made lawyer who has good intentions but is consumed by his own ambition once he gains power. In his early days, he is followed by an earnest reporter who is glad to have found an honest man, but that same reporter parallels his downfall as he forgoes his own principles to fall deeper into the inner circle of Willie Stark. The reporter, Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a memorable character, and the parallels help Stark feel like less of a super villain and more like an inevitability of the “power corrupts” idea. Stark still looms through every scene he’s in — he’s still exceptional, which is important — but his motivations seem easier to believe when compared with Burden’s.

It’s fantastically watchable for 1949. It immediately follows 1948’s extremely hard to watch version of Hamlet and though 1950 offers All About Eve, the 50s features a few weird selections before the decades start to even out. At 109 minutes it’s one of the shortest films on the list, and it feels that way. The entire rise-to-power sequence is wonderful. It all feels like you’re watching an already great man be discovered, and the featured speeches help you forget as an audience that this is the villain. That’s the sign of great political drama: you root for the bad guy!

One of the greatest strengths of All the King’s Men is wrapped up in that sentence. Is Willie Stark the bad guy? Things certainly get less complicated as he’s forced to make more and more drastic plays against his enemies, but the people behind this movie certainly want you to wonder about what’s driving all that. Is this the story of one man blinded by ambition or is this the story of ambition itself, and the way it always manifests itself in the powerful?

The Best Part: Mercedes McCambridge might not be a name you know, but she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Sadie Burke, Stark’s fast-talking campaign assistant. The story of great men is often the story of the women behind them, and though her performance is dwarfed by his much larger role, she’s not to be missed. She wields actual power within the Stark regime, but there’s a sadness to her that makes her complicated. Walter Burke is also great as Sugar Boy, Stark’s gun-toting, crazed sidekick.

The Worst Part: As the world starts to fall down around Willie Stark, he is largely undone from the inside. His son is arrested after driving drunk, which sets off a chain of events that includes Stark’s pay off attempts of the victims’ family and his son’s refusal to play football out of disgust with himself and his father. All of it makes sense as it happens, and there’s an argument that it’s disjointed because Stark’s life is becoming disjointed… but really it just feels messy compared to the tightness of the first hour. Add on a love triangle that I won’t even get into and there’s a little too much happening for a 100-minute political drama.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There are weird choices that keep All the King’s Men from being one of the all-time greats on the list, but Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge turn in two performances for the ages. It’s a solid political drama with a point that has new relevance for the modern age, as presumably all political dramas will, forever. While the message of Crash carries as much timelessness as the “power corrupts” message of All the King’s Men, I don’t think Crash has any truly great performances. Everyone who is decent in it is better in something else. Even Terrence Howard, arguably the bright spot in Crash even though he has many of the silliest lines, is better in something else as Djay in Hustle & Flow, which earned him an Oscar nom. I know I’ve beaten this to death at this point, but even in trying to find the greatness in Crash the best I can come up with is “watch the people in it be better elsewhere.”

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

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: Halfway Through the List, Let’s Revisit Crash. Is it Really that Bad?

crash

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… Crash. Again. Damnit.

I just wanted to find an excuse to watch all the Best Picture winners. That’s all this was supposed to be, and now it is breaking me. Crash is winning. How did we get here?

There are 86 movies that have won Best Picture, though technically some of them won before it was called that exactly. The point is that there are 86 movies that The People That Make Such Decisions have said are the best of the best. There are other ways to watch 86 of the supposed greatest movies of all time, but there are no other ways to think about Crash, the 2005 winner, every single week for a year.

It’s an inane project to compare the other 85 to Crash — clearly — but it serves a purpose to me. It forces my hand. It’s much easier to give up on something when you don’t have to represent yourself publicly. For that reason, these are sometimes just for me. No one really cares what I thought about Mrs. Miniver or You Can’t Take It With You, I don’t have any delusions about that. What I do have is a need to see all 86 of these damn movies in 2014, and the way to do that is to have a space to come talk about each one. Hopefully I’m doing so in a way that’s interesting, albeit it Crash-filled. You be the judge of that.

The point is this is the halfway point. At the bottom of the page you’ll see 43 links to 43 articles about 43 movies. Some of them, like It Happened One NightMidnight Cowboy, and Kramer vs. Kramer, will stick with me for the rest of my life. Some of them, like Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love, and The Last Emperor, are already beginning to fade in my mind. As with any list of things, it is not a perfect summary of greatness in film history.

But is that the rub with the entire project? Has anyone ever said “these are the best?” I’d argue that they have, even though some of them have rightfully faded from memory. You have to get real deep in film history for anyone to care about Cavalcade or Grand Hotel, both rightfully so, but on the flip side some modern films on the list, like The Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men, are instant classics. The list must be considered to at least be a summary of what people found great at the time, and thus can be used as a functional canon for what has constituted a “great film” over history.

So why in the hell is Crash on there?

None of the first 42 other movies came close to Crash. I hated The Artist, I was bored by Shakespeare in Love and A Man for All Seasons, and I can’t wrap my mind around the inherent strangeness of You Can’t Take It With You, but none of those came even close. They all have merits, and after watching Crash again last night, I still contend that Crash has none.

The weirdest part is that this is a divisive opinion; not everyone hates Crash. It’s certainly the movie that comes up the most in lists of the worst, but it’s by no means considered a “bad movie” on its own. The hate seems to have come from people putting it on a list with Casablanca and The Godfather.

I originally felt that way. I thought Crash was a little dumb, but not offensively so. It’s only after spending so much of my free time considering what Crash is and what it hopes to be that I feel a real hate for it, like an embittered ex-spouse. We are having a prolonged, public divorce and I never loved you, anyway, movie about racism.

After 43 straight posts about it, I got worried that I was losing touch with the source material. Rewatching it unearthed some new feelings, which I will now share with the class:

  • The very first scene of Crash opens with a car crash, where a white woman asks an Asian woman if she noticed her “blake lights” instead of brake lights. It sets the tone early, in the way that a fire will eventually be a pile of soot. It is completely unnecessary.
  • It’s moments like “blake lights” that make you wonder just how worried the writers of Crash were that people would miss their DEEP AND COMPLICATED MESSAGE about racism. There are films on this list that talk about race better than Crash. Some of them are six decades older than it. That is inexcusable.
  • “Hey Osama, plan a jihad on your own time” is said in scene two of Crash. I’m not going to go scene-by-scene, but you have to understand that these things happen essentially while there are still credits rolling on the screen. It feels like a tonal suckerpunch. You haven’t even had time to understand this world yet, but you already know that everyone is terrible all the time.
  • Ludacris enters the movie with a monologue about not getting offered coffee while eating spaghetti. This may be the best part of the movie, because no one ever addresses that these things are incongruous. When I was 15 I had to find a fancy dish to add some specificity to a short story I was writing and I went with something insane — turkey parm, I think — the point is that any decent editor would fix that, but they left in this insane coffee/spaghetti pairing. No one has ever had coffee with spaghetti.
  • The general direction for the acting in Crash seems to have been “no, even angrier.” Everyone is mad at everyone for every reason. This is supposed to feel “gritty” and “tense” but it feels “forced” and “ridiculous.” People treat the attempted murder of their children with less malice than a door not closing right.
  • Tony Danza. Don’t watch Crash, but if you do, watch it just for the scene where Tony Danza confronts Terrence Howard about someone not sounding “black enough.” Within the narrative of the movie it’s supposed to feel racially uncomfortable, but Tony Danza is a little too silly for how shameful this is supposed to be. It also happens after a much more intense white vs. black racial interaction with Terrence Howard, but this breaks him. Maybe being berated by Tony Danza is the most shameful thing possible. I take this back.
  • Don Cheadle does a good job with a complicated role. They make him say some really stupid things because Crash was written without an editor (“can’t talk mom, I’m having sex with a white lady” is hall-of-fame-bad) but he’s a tragic figure that I actually really connected with this time around. Great job doing more with less than less.
  • Brendan Frasier is married to Sandra Bullock and their storyline is terrible. Sandra Bullock may play the least compelling character in film history in this movie. Every single line she says is supposed to establish that she’s a terrible racist, but everyone is a terrible racist, so she just seems to be some kind of sociopath.

We have 43 movies to go. There are some classics on the remaining list, like The Deer HunterWest Side Story, and The Godfather II. There are also some famous duds, like Around the World in 80 DaysCimarron, and Dances With Wolves. All 43 will be compared to Crash. All must be judged. We came here to find something worse than Crash. So far, the task has been unfinished. I’m going back into the breach.

The Best Part: Don Cheadle.

The Worst Part: Sandra Bullock. Or Brendan Frasier. Or Tony Danza. Or Matt Dillon. Or the writing. Or the editing. You pick.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is Crash. It is terrible.

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 |

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.