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Sometimes a collective groupthink—fueled by critics, Twitter, and critics on Twitter—brings forth an Official Position about a movie, book, television show, or album. But beneath that layer of loud voices vying for RT glory, there exists a population of rational thinkers who quietly disagree. These are dispatches from that population. Sorry, haters.
Earlier this week, Ridley Scott’s 2000 Best Picture-winning sword-and-sandal spectacular, Gladiator, celebrated its 20th anniversary. But it turns out there wasn’t a whole lot of celebrating. That two-headed assassin of the 20th century—hindsight and Twitter—wouldn’t allow it.
One of the more depressing (and disposable) trends in pop-culture journalism on the internet recently is how big, round-number anniversaries of beloved TV shows, once-zeitgeisty albums, and movies that resonated at the box office have become occasions for knee-jerk, contrarian, scorched-earth hot takes that no one asked for but everyone feels compelled to click on.
The format is pretty predictable. The writer will gas on with lip-smacking revisionist cynicism about why that thing that you once loved—and perhaps still do—was never worth its place in your heart to begin with. In fact, you were a fool and a philistine for liking said show, album, or movie in the first place because it’s obviously now a flawed relic. A flawed relic that the SEO gods insist that it’s time to dogpile on and crap all over. Two decades, it turns out, is a remarkably easy perch for a sniper to shoot from. Which brings me to Gladiator.
Earlier this week, the contrarians assembled to answer the dinner bell ringing for Scott’s still-great (that’s right!) film. Gladiator, we were told, hadn’t aged well during the past two decades (nonsense) and was nothing more than a solid summer blockbuster (baloney). It was as if Russell Crowe’s Maximus roared his catchphrase, “Are you not entertained?”, and was met with a curmudgeonly, “No, no we’re not.” One article even ventured that Gladiator was a “weak” Best Picture winner. To which, all I can say is, have you seen some of the films that have won Best Picture over the past 20 years?!
Twenty years ago, I was assigned to write a long-lead cover story about Scott’s film for another publication. I flew out to Los Angeles to get an early look at the film the day before I was scheduled to interview a slightly surly Crowe at a touristy Tex-Mex saloon on the Sunset Strip with a mechanical bull next to the bar. I was the only person sitting in the cavernous screening room on DreamWorks’ Glendale lot and I’m not ashamed to admit that my expectations were decidedly low.
It had been a while since Scott had made a film that approached the visionary greatness of Alien and Blade Runner. Not to mention that gladiator films were so far out of fashion that you couldn’t think of them without wincing at the oiled-up beefcake memories of Victor Mature and Steve Reeves sucking in their guts in loincloths. But as the lights went down, I was swept up in the movie’s spell. A hair under three hours later, I had to scoop my jaw up from lap. I was transported by every single second of it: Scott’s slick, art-directed world building; the bread-and-circus coliseum action set pieces; Crowe’s tragic and sentimental macho heroism; and Joaquin Phoenix’s sniveling, pasty villainy. Even the slow-motion hand-trailing-through-fields-of-wheat ending felt note-perfect despite the fact that it left no room for the possibility of a sequel.
When it came out, Gladiator got pretty decent reviews (Variety, Time, and Entertainment Weekly all raved), but it seemed to resonate on a primal tentpole level with moviegoers who turned it into a $460-million hit at the worldwide box-office. So, coming just three years after Titanic, it wasn’t a huge shock when it was eventually nominated for 12 Oscars, including Best Picture.
Those who weren’t around at the time may not remember this, but Gladiator was the front-runner for the top award all season long. It wasn’t some sort of surprise, pearl-clutching win. Back then, there were only five films in the Best Picture category and each of the movies it was up against were seen as flawed in one way or another: Chocolat was so schmaltzy even Harvey Weinstein couldn’t bully the votes for it; Erin Brockovich and Traffic had the “misfortune” of both being directed by Steven Soderbergh and would thus likely split its votes; and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, although breathtaking, was too ahead of its time—it would take another 19 years for a foreign film (Parasite) to get the Academy’s ultimate benediction. In other words, no one was surprised when Gladiator won. Or disappointed. Because of the nominees, it really was the Best Picture.
As for whether or not Gladiator was a “weak” Best Picture winner, that’s where I really have to draw a line. The Oscars are fun to second guess, especially after the fact. It’s whatever the movie-nerd version of Monday Morning Quarterbacking is, I suppose. Through our current cultural lens, maybe what hasn’t aged so well about the film—and this would be a hot take that I’d actually be interested in reading—is its glorification of a classic white male hero. That seems like a very 2020 idea to slap onto a 2000 film. Would we say the same thing about other past Best Picture winners such as Casablanca, On the Waterfront, or Lawrence of Arabia? Arguing that Gladiator is somehow a “weak” Best Picture winner goes beyond subjectivity and into the realm of objective absurdity.
Of the 19 movies that have won Best Picture since Gladiator, I’d have to really stretch to find more than three that were better (No Country for Old Men, Moonlight, maybe Parasite? Maybe.) Compared to most of the others—an actually weak bunch that includes such flyweights as A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Green Book—Scott’s film feels like one of the most solid selections the Academy has made in the past two decades.
You may disagree about some of these movies. In fact, I’m sure you do. They all won, so they must have their partisans. But singling out Gladiator to dogpile on strikes me as the most craven form of clickbait mongering. Actually, I’d argue that it’s one of the rare popular blockbusters of the past 20 years that also happens to be capital-A Art. Then again, I may be biased. Since that first lonely viewing of the movie in that DreamWorks screening room two decades ago, I’ve probably rewatched Gladiator a dozen times. And while I now kind of find the whole slo-mo hand-through-the-wheat thing a bit hokey, yes, I am still very much entertained.
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