Oscar Blogathon 2012-Gladiator
As a part of an Oscar Blogathon series on movies that have won one or more of the Big 5 Oscars-Actor,Director,Actress,Picture,Screenplay, I am starting this with a piece on Ridley Scott’s Oscar winning sword and sandal epic, Gladiator, was submitted to be my William Johnson . In his own words he moonlights as a writer for his website ‘Secure Immaturity’ which he likes to pretend he gets paid for (technically he does because sometimes he’ll work on it at work when no one is looking). An excellent piece on Gladiator, and by Will here,giving his personal perspective.
Gladiator-Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, Best Sound
I won’t lie: sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you utter the phrase ‘genius’ or ‘the greatest film ever’ when you’ve witnessed something of, well, true genius or saw ‘the greatest film ever’. But do these phrases really ever live up to those unexpected, emotionally driven utterances? In most, if not all, cases, no. When I was a freshman in high school my top two films of all time were Face/Off and The Fifth Element. . .in that order. At some point in my life I literally, with a straight face, said Face/Off was the greatest film of all time. No, really, I did.
So, when I was a junior in high school, I rented Gladiator, watched it, got off my couch and proudly proclaimed, ‘genius’. I may have even thrown about the words ‘greatest film of all time’ somewhere in there as well. No matter my mental state or level of insanity I (wisely) said, after viewing the film, ‘that movies blows Face/Off out of the water’! When your artistic heights are so low I’m sure Elmo in Grouchland blows Face/Off out of the water. But at that time, to see something better then Face/Off was quite the ballyhoo.
Gladiator followed me throughout the years. Since it was such a task to watch (depressing, violent and long) I only watched it a handful of times for the next nine years which, in ways, preserved the feel of the production and prevented over saturation. Gladiator, sometimes years in between viewings, was still ‘genius’ and one of the ‘greatest films of all time’.
But now, you see, I am a jaded, joyless soul and things that filled me with wonder have failed to do that much these days. It’s no wonder the ‘genius’ films of yesteryear were so wonderfully ridiculous and pure escapist fare for me: because there was still a young man yearning to live the unbelievable and aspire to the face-taking-offing future! The fifth element was love, man! But if anything hasn’t changed in the nearly ten years since Gladiator graced our cultural zeitgeist, it’s that Gladiator is a ‘genius’ piece of film history and worthy of the sentence ‘greatest film of all time’ (or at least on a severely biased, ridiculous Greatest Film of Mankind List).
I’m not going to say Gladiator is god’s gift to writing (though it ain’t too shabby) nor should history teachers quit their day jobs but Gladiator succeeds in two areas: being engaging and being fun. In a way, while Gladiator did a lot for the epic film (really, where did these kind of films go) it also kind of ushered in the end of its line. Though that sounds contradictory, it makes sense. Gladiator was the film that, really, shouldn’t have won Best Picture at the Oscars. . .but did. Gladiator was not taking itself too seriously. It let its images speak for themselves and let the exuberant awesomeness of itself into the hearts of the audience. That’s why the very simple film (you have to dig pretty deep for layers) ended up with the big prize: it didn’t TRY to be epic. . .it just was. And, in the end, it showed that epic is fun and fun is good.
Since then, films have TRIED to be what Gladiator is and failed. Have films like it been close to it. . .sure. But with them was a packaged ’seriousness’ to it that weighed the film down. Troy, though an awful movie, TRIED to be the next Gladiator. There is this self important vibe to it that screams: ‘look at me. . .I am a historical epic and serious about it. ENJOY ME!’ Movies like Troy almost made Russell Crowe’s Maximus, in the film Gladiator, fictionally prophetic: ‘are you not entertained. Is this what you want?’ It was as if Gladiator begged studios to cry for more blood. . .and we got it. But could it ever really be as good as before?
Gladiator is probably the easiest plot synopsis I will ever have to write: Maximus (Russell Crowe in an Oscar winning performance (deserved)) has successfully led Marcus Aurelius’ Rome to worldwide success. When Aurelius wants Maximus to become emperor, pretty boy and mentally unstable Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix in an Oscar nominated performance (should have won)) doesn’t really like the idea and kills pops before the official word can get through. Commodus tries to kill Maximus too but Maximus is a savvy mofo and escapes assassination. Commodus, the little bitch, kills Maximus’ wife and kid and Maximus, near death, is forced into slavery. As a gladiator in Africa Maximus rises through the ranks and eventually gets to Rome where he, you guessed it, reveals his name and intentions to now-Emperor (and creepy guy) Commodus. It all, naturally, leads to a final confrontation. Two sworded dudes enter, one incestuous weirdo falls, one HERO leaves.
This plot line, I’m sure, has been done a billion times before. But what makes the film tick and feel ‘new’ is the nuanced production. To start the acting is some of the finest in cinema. When typical, two dimensional characters can be given the breath of a three dimensional being that goes full credit to the actors. Russell Crowe got some flack for winning the Oscar here but. . .the dude pulled it off. Maximus could have been played by The Rock in a bad production. But Crowe, with his meticulous studying techniques and raucous script writing demands, made the role both believable, lovable (though the guy never smiles) and equally bad ass. Maximus is the ultimate hero. If real, you’d follow. Over time his ‘template’ has been given the 300-yelling-guy treatment. . .but Maximus is cold and calculated. He doesn’t scream, he just stares. It’s more effective then given credit for (well, besides the Oscar and all. . .).
Joaquin Phoenix got the Oscar shaft here. Instead of being diabolical, Commodus is both logical to his time and his batshit crazy head. If we weren’t rooting for Maximus we might, maybe, see where Commodus is coming from (in historical terms). But Phoenix is so creepy and just off that you can’t help but be simultaneously repulsed and attracted to his twisted charisma. Add a super sexy Connie Nielsen as Lucilla, the sister of Commodus and ‘did she/didn’t she’ lover of Maximus and Oliver Fucking Reed as Proximo, Maximus’ owner and later-friend, and you have a solid core of characters. Reed, especially, is delicious as a ball-grabbing but honorable former gladiator. Too bad he died during production. He is a gem in this film (for those not familiar with him and his hilarious/tragic career).
But even the side characters get the cream of the crop here: Djimon Hounsou plays the noble gladiator who steadies Maximus’ ship throughout the film; Derek Jacobi plays an altruistic senator; Richard Harris plays the ailing but truly living Marcus Aurelius; finally German Ralf Moeller plays a quite buff but likable, uh, German. . .I guess. The cast is first rate. And it all couldn’t be put together without the marvelous directing skills of one Ridley Scott who never seems to just crap a film out from time to time. Almost every film he makes is magical, artistic but real and addicting to watch.
The production values are also superior to most. Unlike today’s special effects world in which a sign is placed on the side of the screen that says, ‘look at me, I’m CGI god damn it!’, Gladiator blends its visuals into the background where they belong. Gladiator is about the Gladiator in a specific world. . .not a world that just happens to have a Gladiator in it. In many ways, the visual effects feel like documented pieces of the puzzle as opposed to computer 1s and 0s trying to make us go wow. Of all the many glorious ’set pieces’ and ‘visual’ moments, a scene involving Maximus fighting a gladiatorial veteran all while avoiding Tigers has to rank up there as one of the greatest ‘action’ scenes ever filmed.
Hans Zimmer’s score, which I am listening to as I type this, is breathtaking as well. I used to lift weights to the score of this film. It, like the film, is simple in bringing about simple themes. When the film is full of energy and excitement, the music fits appropriately: you want to get up and slice open a German’s gizzard! When the film turns dire, the music wants you to grip your seat in fear. And when the heartstrings get plucked, so do the appropriate strings on the instruments. Gladiator can have you going from cheering to crying in a few seconds flat. Who can’t have a happy tear in their eye when Juba says, ‘but not yet. Not yet’ with a smile on his face?
I really could go on and on about the film. It’s that amazing. I can’t quite place it on the top of the all-time list but it definitely fits there in the top 10. Gladiator is effortlessly genius, a word I am not afraid to keep uttering. On Blu-Ray, the film holds up astoundingly. The lush impressionistic colors make for a living painting on your flat screen. The extended edition of the film does require a bit of patience as Ridley Scott tries to flesh out the universe a bit. Some secret meetings with senators slows down the proceedings but over 10 minutes of tiny character moments (mostly in the first 40 minutes of the film), make you root for or hate certain characters a lot more. If Crowe won an Oscar for what you got in the theatrical edition he should earn it all over again for the bonuses they added in the extended cut: he actually smiles twice and you get to see more spit come out of his mouth when he finds his family crucified (as some small, tongue in cheek, examples).
So do me a favor. Put all your expectations aside (whether they are the ‘Gladiator sucks’ or the ‘genius/greatest film ever’ kind) and re watch Gladiator. For one, I can at least guarantee you a good time. I woke up this morning (I watched the film last night) and kept thinking about how great the film felt. Good movies bring good memories but great (or, ahem, ‘genius’) films bring about great feelings. It’s been a long time since I felt something good about the idea of a film, let alone when I was watching it. It may be nine years old but Gladiator will stand the test of time as something worth watching in any time period.