The Best Picture Project – The Sting (1973)

The Sting (1973)

Directed by George Roy Hill

Screenplay by David S. Ward

Starring Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw and Charles Durning

Forty years ago George Roy Hill, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman teamed up to make a movie about theft and honor, with a little bit of irreverence and comedy thrown in to cover over the serious bits. Not surprisingly, because it starred one of the world’s biggest stars – and one who would soon in the same company – it became a massive hit and such was its draw that its soundtrack became a hit as well, was feted with a mess of Academy Award nominations, managing to win a good few of them, including Oscars for the music, the script, the director, and best picture.

 

Setting forth the description above, most people might be lead to believe that triumphant film – which is now widely hailed as a classic – was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an assumption that couldn’t be more wrong. In 1969 Butch and Sundance were nominated for Best Picture but didn’t win – Midnight Cowboy took the Oscar instead. No, the film described above wasn’t Butch and Sundance, it was 1973’s winner for Best Picture, The Sting, yet another entry into the, “huh?” category of Best Picture winners.

In a very big way The Sting owes much of its success, at least at awards season, to Butch and Sudnance because, without the good-feeling the earlier film helped create, it seems unlikely the latter would have even won Best Picture.  In fact, slight a film is The Sting that it’s arguable that without the recent Butch and Sundance nostalgia it’s doubtful it would have even been nominated for anything at all, a notion validated by the fact that while Butch and Sundance was nominated for 10 BAFTA’s, The Sting received zero. I’d love to say this is because the Brits don’t appreciate a good movie when they see one, but it’s more likely they’re just not as prone to undue sentiment as American’s are.  Instead of bestowing a make-up Award on the overlooked principles of Butch and Sundance, the Brits chose to honor Day For Night, the wonderful film by Francois Truffaut.

Resting on a story of a two-bit conman trying to get revenge on a gangster for killing the con man’s partner, it’s clear that in reteaming Redford and Newman, The Sting hopes to be seen as a quasi-sequel to Butch and Sundance, if not Butch and Sundance: Redux. But in the same way as other sequels – Dawn of the Dead, The Godfather II, The Dark Knight excluded – the sequel suffers in comparison to the original. It gives us more of the same that worked the first time around, but somehow isn’t quite as good.

Newman’s performance is weak, Redford, in spite of his nomination for Best Actor, is pretty well one-note, and Robert Shaw as the villain, just doesn’t nothing for me. At most, Robert Shaw is petulant and excitable, but hardly seems frightening. It’s strange that, in everything I’ve ever seen him in, I’ve never really been impressed by Robert Shaw. Maybe it’s because I’ve only seen him in four films, but of the four I’ve seen, he’s done nothing for me. He’s been the villain in a Bond film, but like The Sting, he was hardly villainous. In The Deep he’s overshadowed by Jacquline Bisset’s wet t-shirt, but in fairness, everybody else was too. The one exception is in Jaws, where he tempers the menace with self-deprecation, mock-humility and an inferiority complex. Perhaps if he’d played a bit of that in The Sting I might’ve thought he was a bit more menacing, but alas.

I think the overarching problem with The Sting is the utter unbelievability of the premise and how a man in the mob, which Shaw clearly is, would put his trust in a stranger like Redford, or play his money in a game that clearly smells dirty. I mean, maybe it’s because I saw this same premise play out in an episode of King of the Hill, but I just could not believe that Shaw’s character would be so stupid, no matter how convincing Newman and Redford were.

It’s obvious that I don’t think The Sting a worthy Best Picture winner, especially with the film widely acknowledged to be the most frightening film ever made, The Exorcist – which I still can’t watch – and the bit of recent nostalgia which has since achieved classic status, American Graffitti, in the race. Both films also were huge hits and both films alos contained memorable music – Graffitti used period hits, Exorcist had that tubular bells thing and either might have made a worthy Best Picture winner. One suspects, though there is no way to know for sure, that because there were three immensely popular films in the race that1973 might be the year where the eventual winner had the smallest proportion ever of the total votes cast for Best Picture.

Trivia:

The Sting has the distinction of being produced by Tony Bill and Michael and Julia Phillips and when it won Best Picture on awards night Julia Phillips became the first woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture.  If I’m not mistaken the current number of women to win the Oscar for Best Picture stands at three with Lili Fini Zanuck for Driving Miss Daisy and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker as the other two.  Later, Julia Phillips would write her famous book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, which effectively ended her Hollywood career. 

In his long and storied career Robert Redford created a number of memorable characters: Sundance, Jeremiah Johnson, and even the creepy millionaire in Indecent Proposal.  But throughout his life in front of the camera his only acting nomination came for his performance in The Sting.

For the 1973 awards Marvin Hamlisch became only the second person to win three Oscars in one night – Billy Wilder was the first, James L. Brooks would join the group in the 80s and James Cameron in the 90s – and one of those awards was for Original Song Score or Adaptation.  I’ve always felt a little uneasy about giving out awards to the writer of the adaptation without recognizing the originator of the work and I was happy to see when reading Francois Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock that Hitchcock had the same sort of uneasiness as I did.

Eileen Brennan played Paul Newman’s love interest in The Sting, and she actually had a fairly good run for a while playing parts of the love interest, or at least the lust interest.  Looking back now it always makes me wonder how amazing a time the 70s must have been because it was the only time in film history when ugly women got to be hot.

For the list of other winners seen and those to go, click here.

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