the sting

Worst Best Picture: Is Tom Jones Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com

image source: betterlivingthroughbeowulf.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 1963 winner Tom Jones. Is it better than Crash?

It’s possible that Tom Jones is the strangest movie to win Best Picture, and that’s really saying something.

The story is pretty classic: a bastard son of two servants wants to marry a noblewoman but she has been promised against her will to a man of deserving status but undeserving character. Variants on that abound, and if that’s all this was it would be unremarkable. It’s partially remarkable because Tom Jones is about finding the comedy in a classic setup, but it’s mostly remarkable because it’s bonkers.

I watched Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers movie, a few years ago for the first time. It’s amazing how comedy evolves over nearly a century, both in what is still funny and what no longer is. Comedy isn’t timeless, not even good comedy. I’ve talked here before about how some references even in classic films don’t make sense in a modern content even when you can identify that they were intended to be biting commentary at the time. For all of Duck Soup that doesn’t work now, the beats are there to help you understand that that’s where the joke goes.

Tom Jones doesn’t care if you don’t live in 1963, it’s just gonna be nuts.

Watching Tom Jones feels like watching the strangest parts of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Tom Jones the character is sleazy and suave (to a point) and sleeps with four or five different women over the course of his hero’s journey. He is cast out of his castle by the evil man who intends to wed his beloved, sure, that’s a bummer for Tom, but he doesn’t seem all that broken up as he sleeps with women and narrates it into the camera.

If there’s another Best Picture winner that breaks the fourth wall this often, I can’t remember it right now. Once or twice is an interesting wink, but Tom narrates a lot of his journey, to the degree that it starts to feel like a “man, I’m awesome” speech towards the end. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, but it’s something else entirely.

Your enjoyment of Tom Jones will depend on your ability to forget that you’re watching something on a list with Casablanca. It’s a funny movie, at times, but it’s what a better publication would call “ribald” or “raunchy.” The joke consistently is that Tom Jones is in love, but he’ll just sleep with this woman in this patch of tall grass anyway. Comedy is in doing something so many times that it’s funny, then not funny, then hilarious, but I was pretty damn tired of Tom Jones the guy and Tom Jones the movie by the end of it.

The Best Part: The best part of Tom Jones is the strangeness. They break the fourth wall, there are huge action sequences that just die out into nothingness, characters run off screen without warning, people are motivated by nothing, it’s full-on madness like nothing else on the list. There’s a certain absurd joy to picturing the Oscars in 1963 and all those people in expensive clothes clapping for something that is often a slapstick comedy.

The Worst Part: Some of these movies are hard to find now, and a lot of them have variants of themselves that are either longer or shorter than the original release. Because of all that nonsense I take great care to be sure I’m watching the right version. In this case, I thought I might have the wrong movie entirely. The first 25 minutes of Tom Jones — before you understand that you’re watching a take-no-shit nonsense comedy — is frustrating and irritating. Go in expecting madness and you’ll avoid that.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? What will the iconic scene from Crash be? I’ve been trying to pinpoint the legacy of Crash and I can’t seem to do it. I think it will be the ending, but that’s certainly not the case for Tom Jones.Tom Jones isn’t a part of any canon of great comedies. If it has a legacy, it’s that they spent an absurd amount of money on special effects for a strange British comedy. Beyond that, it’s just one quintessential scene. Tom meets a woman he intends to bed, and they have a hypersexualized meal. Food has been sexualized before, but never like this. Watch three minutes of over-the-top-ness here and get a sense of what Tom Jones is all about:

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

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.

Advertisements

Worst Best Picture: Is The Sting Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: theaceblackblog.com

image source: theaceblackblog.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 1973 winner The Sting. Is it better than Crash?

There really aren’t that many comedies that have won Best Picture. The Apartment was intended as a comedy, but because of the consistent message of suicide it certainly feels much darker to a modern audience. Annie Hall and It Happened One Night are romantic comedies, but that’s really a different beast. You Can’t Take It With You and Tom Jones are funny, but the jokes are mostly dated so badly that they seem more like odd time capsules of what comedy once was rather than actual comedies. That leaves really only one comedy in the way we still use the term: The Sting.

Robert Redford and Paul Newman play incredible con men who want to pull off one last big job to make it rich. They decide to try to con the un-connable Robert Shaw through a complicated series of fake horse bets in a fake OTB. The setup is the first of many complicated elements of The Sting, and it sets the stage for the two hours of twists and turns that comprise the film.

The basic plot is this: Robert Shaw is notorious for being a card cheat and a dangerous man. Robert Redford is a young gun who wants to take on whatever people say can’t be done. Paul Newman has retired from the illicit world, but he sees promise in the kid and agrees to teach him the more complex ropes of grifts and cons. That part is simple. What isn’t simple is goddamned everything else. To get into Shaw’s inner circle, they stage a situation where they convince him that Redford needs to double-cross Newman, when in reality they’re working together to get at Shaw. Everyone’s playing each other — or are they? — and everyone’s doing a damned good job of it.

Robert Shaw deserves special mention here, because Paul Newman and Robert Redford are already names you know. While Shaw’s most celebrated role is definitely Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, his role as the crooked Doyle Lonnegan is what I’ll always love best. A movie with lovable grifters needs someone worth taking down, but Shaw elevates the role beyond sneering rich guy. He’s a figure that you’ll want to see taken down, but he’s also a figure that you’ll fear. That mix is why he’s more interesting than a stand-in for “undeserving richness,” and that’s why this has more to it than some dumb heist movie.

Beyond the acting, which is unparalleled in the world of comedy, this one is all about the ending. As the police figure out the con that’s about to take place and step in to protect Lonnegan, the characters have to pull double- and triple-crosses to try to figure out ways to pull certain strings. They have to mock up entire fake offices in minutes, and a lot of the comedy comes from this scope. It’s exciting — Robert Shaw is going to figure this out and get you — but it’s also hilarious. It’s not hilarious in that “oh, I get it” way, either. It’s a legitimate string of jokes, big performances, and absurd doubling of situations that is still funny four decades later.

The Best Part: This has to be the original poker scene. Paul Newman’s character has to anger Robert Shaw to the point where Shaw will accept Robert Redford into his circle when they meet in the next scene. Shaw’s character tells Newman’s that everyone who plays at their poker table must wear a tie. It’s a respectable game, and Newman insults Shaw deeply by showing up (fake) drunk and tie-less. Watching Paul Newman stumble around fake-drunk and consistently get the notorious Doyle Lonnegan’s name wrong on purpose (Lonniman? Lonnham? Lonnigram?) is priceless, but watching him win

The Worst Part: The movie uses “The Entertainer” to transition between the “acts” and it doesn’t really work for me. Everything’s already so crazy and so layered, this whole structure feels unnecessary. Apparently when The Sting came out the soundtrack was a huge hit, but it adds some extra silliness to it all. It’s not terrible; I just don’t love it.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Both are movies about layered events and how a big cast all ends up crossing paths. The Sting does a better job with it, but it’s certainly “the point” of both of them. I often spend this space discussing the “message” of Crash, but The Sting isn’t interested in being a morality play. There’s a surprise hitman and a series of cons that go mostly unpunished and a crooked cop and a not-so-crooked con-man and it all makes for a set of conflicting messages. What’s really going on in The Sting is an ode to the structure of the con itself. It’s a light look at what isn’t always a light topic, but roguish people doing roguish things for two hours is a better way to spend your Saturday afternoon than finding out that Crash thinks everyone is terrible, forever.

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

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.