A Tale of Two Movies: A Lousy Winner and a Fabulous Loser
I had the great misfortune last weekend of watching what has got to be among the worst Best Picture Oscar winners ever: Chariots of Fire, 1981’s victor in a field of forgettable movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark notwithstanding). Ask my family to trust me again with a movie selection and you’ll likely start a fist-fight.
I’ve been trying to get the five of us to watch films none of us have seen before, and it seemed reasonable that a PG Oscar winner with a hummable theme might fit the bill. After all, we all saw The King’s Speech at a theater a few months ago with great success (albeit with a bit of restlessness from my son), so I know that my kids are able to handle a movie that doesn’t offer explosions, wizards or fart jokes. And my first attempt to expand our horizons, 1973’s Paper Moon, while not a resounding success, was deemed enjoyable enough to allow me another crack at picking a movie. Unfortunately, not only does Chariots of Fire not have explosions, wizards or fart jokes, it also doesn’t have Tatum O’Neil and lacks what I deem to be essential in filmmaking: a reason to be filmed.
My daughter’s summation of 1981’s Oscar winner: “It wasn’t about anything. Nothing happened. There wasn’t even a main character, really.” Well, there kind of was a main character, but why we should care about him is beyond me. The guy has to overcome anti-Semitism, which you would think might offer just a hint of interest for a Jewish family, but…um…no, actually. And the synthesized music clashes with a period piece that takes place in the 1920s, and not in a cool, ironic “Moulin Rouge” sort of way, but in a “man, this music is just plain awful” sort of way.
Lousy film. If I’m being generous, I give it a two-stars on a four star scale, four on a scale of one to ten.
On the flipside, I had the pleasure of re-watching a film that didn’t even make the Best Picture category in 1989: Do the Right Thing (and no, I didn’t watch this one with the kids). Viewing it for the first time in twenty years, I was amazed at how this movie still cuts to the core of race relations. When the film was originally released, some reviewers were critical of the tumultuous ending and the motives behind it, and at the time I was probably among those who agreed with these criticisms. Viewing it again, however, made me appreciate how deftly Spike Lee illuminated multiple sides of racial divide, exposing prejudices and failings of all people while humanizing the characters with witty and biting dialogue.
The biggest flaw in this film is the same as it ever was: Radio Raheem, whose death incites a riot, isn’t shown to be a fully fleshed out character, but rather a cardboard cutout of a man. We don’t particularly care when he dies because we’re not given a reason TO care about him. But never mind. When Kim Basinger announced at the Oscar ceremony in 1990, “The best film of the year is not even nominated and it's Do the Right Thing.” she was spot-on.
So add Do the Right Thing to the ever-growing list of notorious Oscar snubs. And is Chariots of Fire the worst Best Picture winner ever? Well, I still haven’t seen Gladiator, so it’s hard to say. But I’ve read that Spike Lee likes to refer to 1989’s winner, Driving Miss Daisy, as Driving Miss Motherf***ing Daisy.
So I guess we know what Mr. Lee’s vote is.