The Best Picture Project – Ben Hur (1959)

File:Benh.jpgDirected by William Wyler

Screenplay by Karl Tunberg

Based upon the novel by Lew Wallace

Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd and Hugh Griffith

There were lots of ways to approach my take on Ben-Hur.  I could have dwelt on the fact that it won 11 Academy Awards and was the all-time king of the big winners for nearly four decades, until Titanic, and later The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King joined the club.  I could have posited why it was the Biblical epic, Ben-Hur, that won a Best Picture Oscar and be largely forgotten outside the chariot race while The Ten Commandments could become an Easter staple without being able to manage even a Best Picture nomination.  Or I could have gone ahead and really broke down the movie and talked about how, after the chariot race and vengeance has been achieved for Ben-Hur, the film loses it’s way, dramatically, and tries to foist a Biblical parable on us – Ben-Hur somehow stumbles on the crucifixion of Christ – in order to get to the end of the film.  Maybe, just maybe, we could talk about whether Charlton Heston is the worst Best Actor ever, or if the title should go to Broderick Crawford or Ray Milland – incidentally, my vote would be with Milland who, even his director thought, wasn’t good enough.

Obviously, there are lots of ways to approach Ben-Hur, probably dozens of ways in addition to all those above, but only one way interests me and that is:  Ben-Hur is probably the gayest movie ever to win Best Picture.  And I don’t mean that in a bad way, either.  I support gay rights, and gay marriage and gays in the military and the whole nine yards.  No, I mean it in the way that the movie is so full of homoeroticism between Ben-Hur (Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) that it kind of played like gay porn – minus the penetration – and was more than a little bit distracting as I kept watching and waiting for two of them to just get it on already. 

 It’s not just me that thinks this movie is all about gay subtext, either.   Gore Vidal, an uncredited writer on the pic, said much the same in The Celluloid Closet, where he relayed how he convinced William Wyler to fill the movie with an underlying current of homosexuality which, because of the production code, could not be explicit – it was implied so well, in fact, that Heston apparently didn’t catch onto it.  Still, just because everything is implied doesn’t make it subtle and homosexuality and homoeroticism is everywhere.  You just have to know where to look.

 

The spear throwing scene, with it’s overblown machismo, hand-holding, and penetration of the same sport?  Yep.  The scene of Messala and Ben-Hur drinking the wine and looking longingly in one another’s eyes?  Yep.  The rowing in the galleys, with all those bare-chested, sweaty men?  Yep.  The scene when the sheik goes in to make the bet with Messala and the other Romans and finds them all bare-chested and having oil rubbed on their bodies by slaves, including one very distracting man lovingly oiling the legs of another, center frame, while the scene plays out?  Yep.  And the fact that Messala takes out his revenge on Ben-Hur and his mother and sister just as a spurned lover would?  Yep.

 When Brokeback Mountain came out and was nominated for Best Picture it was hailed as some great accomplishment, as if finally we could have a gay-themed movie win Best Picture.  Looking at Ben-Hur today, it’s clear we already have one and nobody knew about it.

 Gay subtext aside, what’s stunning to me is just how lousy the movie is.  For a movie that won Best Picture and a whole fistful of Oscars you expect something better, but in Ben-Hur, there ain’t better.  The film is pretty statically and unimaginatively directed – save for the chariot sequence – which is sadly true of most every William Wyler film I’ve ever seen.  Needless to say, he is hardly my favorite director.  The acting is mostly laughable, especially Heston, which pains me to say so because I am a big fan of Charlton Heston – I particularly like him in The Big Country and Will Penny.  And the special effects, especially the unconvincing miniatures for the naval battle, are just awful.

Really, the only thing the film has going for it are 1) the chariot race, which is spectacular, and 2) it’s a religious movie in the fifties.  I hate to make the case that Ben-Hur won Best Picture based on a 15 minute scene in a 3 ½ hour film and the fact that it was all Jesus-y, especially at the end, but really, I think that did it.  Under normal circumstances this would really burn my butt, but in this instance I guess if that’s what it took to finally get a gay movie to win Best Picture I say, fine.  After all, I love the irony of a Bible movie being so gay when Bible folk tend to be so anti-gay. 

 That being said, I still wish the Academy saw clear to give Best Picture to the unnominated Some Like It Hot.  In that case, we’d still have the first gay-themed movie to win Best Picture – what with all the cross-dressing and Joe E. Brown’s “Nobody’s perfect” line at the end – and at least we’d actually have one that was good.

 

 

 

Trivia

Yakima Canutt was the stunt coordinator for Ben-Hur and thus was largely responsible for the chariot race that won William Wyler his third Oscar as Best Director – only Frank Capra won as many, and only John Ford more.  Though stunt coordinating is still not recognized as an Academy Award category, despite the lobbying of lots of movie people, Canutt was the first stunt man to take home an Oscar for his work.  Unfortunately, it was an honorary award in 1967.  While that Award might have been given for his body of work, one likes to think it was essentially sealed by the chariot race sequence in Ben-Hur, making it arguable that Ben-Hur took twelve total Oscars, and thus is the king-big-daddy of all Academy Award winners.

 

Some Like It Hot wasn’t the only classic picture to be snubbed for a Best Picture nomination in 1959.  Others included North by Northwest, Wild Strawberries and The 400 Blows

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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