Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris and Connie Nielsen
I am not a fan of Gladiator and never have been – there’s no point in burying the lead so there it is, right up front. Ever since I first saw the movie in theaters, after it was already on its way to being a massive box office success, I’ve been nothing but disappointed in it and it shouldn’t surprise anybody I’ve only seen it three total times in my life. The first was in the theater, where my opinion was formed. The second, when it first came out on video, when I watched it again to see if maybe I’d gotten it wrong – I hadn’t. The third was for this project.
Given its popularity, and given that it won Best Picture, I’m sure there are scores amongst my loyal – and casual – readers, who think I’ve lost my mind. They would cite the action scenes, they would cite Russell Crowe’s performance, they would cite the delicious sniveling of Joaquin Phoenix, they would cite the spectacle.
To these people I would merely point out that Crowe’s performance is essentially a physical performance in that, he’s required to look strong and sweat a lot and to give Oscars for sweating and strength would mean Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were both deprived of multiple Oscars. But because acting Oscars are there to award acting, we actually have to judge Crowe’s acting and when he gets down to business for this movie, he’s only moderately successful. Chief among his failures are his accent, which is unconvincing in its British-ness. The weird thing about complaining about his accent is he’s playing a Spaniard, so he shouldn’t have to have a convincing British accent – if anything, he should have a Spanish. But, as the British accent was chosen as the de facto accent of all players within the movie – except for the character of Juba, who speaks with a decidedly African accent – it’s necessary that Crowe get it right and he doesn’t. But accent is just the tip of the iceberg because in most every way the performance is simplistic, almost cartoonish.
I’d like to think Crowe’s win for the Academy Award for Best Actor was an accident, brought about by Academy voters confusing box office success with good performances, and also by the fortunate placement of Benicio Del Toro in the Best Supporting Actor race – remember that at the SAG awards that year, both men were up for lead actor and Del Toro won – but while I’d like to think that, I have a suspicion that many people actually believe he gives a good performance. Looking back with the full benefit of hindsight, any of the other four nominees in the category – Ed Harris, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem and Tom Hanks – would have been a more acceptable winner than Crowe and I’d like to believe that if Crowe didn’t take the prize for Gladiator he’d’ve won the prize the following year, when he really showed his acting chops in A Beautiful Mind. But, since his win for Gladiator cleared the way for Denzel Washington to win for Training Day, we may just have to call it a karmic wash and get over it.
As for the action scenes, I don’t disagree they are fantastic – Ridley Scott has never failed to milk the dramatic tension from an action scene and he certainly doesn’t do so here. Of all the scenes in the film the two most memorable are the scenes in the coliseum with the chariots and the other with the tigers. However, if judging a film’s Oscar pedigree rested on its action scenes, then we might very well be looking at a world in which Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy success in the Best Picture category inspired the Academy to rename the award the Michael Bay’s Transformers Award For Best Picture.
As to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, I’m torn on whether he’s good or bad in the film. Of the two characters – Commodus and Maximus – Phoenix plays the more rounded character, the one who’s got real depth and the one who really carries the drama of the film. After all, while he’s a generally unsavory character, it was the deprivation of his father’s love that helped turn him into what he’s become and it’s his petty jealousy that sets the plot in motion and drives it. But at the same time, his accent, too, is unconvincing, and he has a tendency to play so broad at times it’s like watching a sword and sandals version of The Days Of Our Lives – or whatever your local daytime soap opera is. Whether good or not, though, I find Phoenix’s performance far more watchable than Crowe’s, who is required either to beat people up or to be exceedingly earnest as he goes about achieving his one goal in the movie: revenge.
As for the spectacle, there isn’t much. Where Rome should be bright and full of color, it tends to be a dull gray. Where the buildings should look lived in and authentic, they look terrible and fake – it might’ve been the best CGI they had at the time, but it’s not good by today’s standards, and even then, I thought it unconvincing. If you want spectacle, and opulence, look at a movie like Titanic, which flaunted excess at every turn. Gladiator? Looks more like the poor cousin.
The biggest problem with Gladiator is that it’s just too long, going on and on and on – a bit like this entry. And honestly, it’s boring. And it’s dour as hell. And pretentious. And no amount of editing or CGI work could save the film from what it is – you can’t polish a turd.
But the thing I hate most about Gladiator is it stole the Best Picture Oscar away from the film that truly deserved it – Traffic. If you don’t believe me, consider that aside from Best Picture and Best Actor, Gladiator’s three other wins came in purely technical categories. Traffic’s awards, though, come in the categories that really matter to the overall tone of the film: Direction, Editing, Screenplay and Supporting Actor.
I wouldn’t say it’s the worst Best Picture ever, because there are clearly others out there I’d consider worse, but for me this one is almost at the bottom and I can guarantee that while I’ve seen it three times, there will almost certainly not be a fourth.
Oliver Reed, who plays the gladiator-cum-impresario, died mid-production, leaving some of his scenes unfilmed. Rather than recast and re-film, he found his part finished off with the help of a double and CGI. Perhaps if I didn’t know this’d happened I wouldn’t be able to pick out the scenes in question – they surround Reed’s death in the film – but even so, the scenes have a weird cut and paste look about them and stand out like a sore thumb.
For the other winners and films left to see, click here.