Just because a movie is a box-office smash and wins a stack of Oscars doesn’t mean it’s good. From Gone With the Wind to Titanic, and from Spellbound to Forrest Gump, movie history is littered with popular successes that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Nearly four centuries after the Bard’s death and the best biopic about his life is this giddy rom-com? Shakespeare (or whoever wrote his plays) probably turned in his grave. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay was contrived and convoluted for a writer of his brilliance. Joseph Fiennes gave a tepid performance in the title role. Gwyneth Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar, but her role demanded a fiercer actress, such as Kate Winslet or Rachel Weisz. Rupert Everett admittedly made an entertaining “Kit” Marlowe. The biggest mystery is why the movie didn’t milk the sexy hauteur that had made Colin Firth a modern matinee idol in Pride and Prejudice (1995). Couldn’t he have played Sir Walter Raleigh instead of the disagreeable Lord Wessex?
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
With his blow-dried hair, SoCal accent, and marketing director’s charm, Kevin Costner lacked credibility as a Saxon brigand who, if he’d existed, probably would have had no teeth and washed annually. The Holy Land dungeon escape sequence isn’t bad, but the gathering of the Merry Men—a staple of Robin Hood films—is unusually weak, while the devil worshipping sequence is as laughable as its equivalent in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Alan Rickman’s scenery-chewing performance as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham is legendary. J.K. Rowling based Severus Snape on one of her former teachers, but there’s a hint of the Sheriff in that snide, tormented wizard.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Tom Hanks’s Alabama simpleton—accidental athlete, war hero, conscience of the boomer generation—is not so much irksome as insufferable. Anyone who skipped the hippie counterculture movement (symbolized by Forrest’s troubled true love Jenny) couldn’t have been much fun. With his Hallmark card sayings and earnest belief in small-town virtues, Forrest is a throwback to the right-wing cracker-barrel philosopher Will Rogers. Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) is a much better film about a mercurial man who turns up during historical flash points.
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
What collective insanity persuaded us that Roberto Benigni’s comedy was a tactful entertainment—let alone a film worth three Oscars? The idea that a funny man could stave off his child’s fears by clowning around in a Nazi death camp may have sprung from the best intentions, but it insulted every victim of the Holocaust.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s weakest films, Spellbound shows how rudimentary was mid-century Hollywood’s grasp of Freudian psychoanalysis. Ingrid Bergman plays a shrink and Gregory Peck is her new boss at a Vermont mental hospital. Also an amnesiac and possibly a murderer, he lands on her couch (en route, of course, to their marital bed). The dream sequences designed for the film by Salvador Dalí are famous but ridiculous: most people dream naturalistic scenes not surrealistic movie montages with exaggerated perspectives.
Pretty Woman (1990)
Handsome corporate raiders of the world rejoice: you too can snap your fingers and get a Penthouse-perfect hooker as scrumptious as 22-year-old Julia Roberts to give you an enthusiastic blow job. She will then fall in love with you and morph into a marriageable princess. As alpha male wish-fulfilment fairytales go, only 1993’s Indecent Proposal is as offensive as Pretty Woman.
Top Gun (1986)
This aerial action film, directed by Tony Scott, was a Reagan-era showcase for American military prowess. It was also the film that set in stone Tom Cruise’s infallible hero persona: it scarcely matters if he’s wielding an F14 Tomcat fighter aircraft, a cocktail shaker, or a pool cue. There’ve been signs—in Magnolia (1999), for example—that Cruise would have had a richer acting career playing neurotics and weirdos. But a boy must have his guns, mustn’t he?
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
This was the leering sex comedy that required Marilyn Monroe to stand over a Manhattan grating and feign ecstasy when a gust blows her skimpy white dress northwards. The most famous upskirt shot in cinema typifies the crassness of Billy Wilder’s film about a nerdy married executive (Tom Ewell) tempted to start an affair with the toothpaste model (Monroe) who’s renting an apartment upstairs. The cynical Wilder similarly plied Monroe as a potency-restorer to Tony Curtis’s pretend playboy in Some Like It Hot (1959), but her kind, wounded Sugar Kane in that gender-bending gem is genuinely touching.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Lolita and Dr. Strangelove aside, director Stanley Kubrick laboured over weighty films from which poetry and humor were bled by his cold, meticulous eye. His reach for profundity made him pretentious; no other “great” director has been so overpraised. “Barry ‘Leaden’” would have been a better title for Kubrick’s ponderous adaptation of William Thackeray’s novel about an 18th-century Irish fortune-hunter who enlists in the British army and has a series of adventures on the continent. Ryan O’Neal was badly cast in a role that needed a roguish or rascally actor like John Hurt or Terence Stamp. Surely Kubrick had seen Tony Richardson’s irreverent film of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1963) and recognised how it caught the dawn of the swinging sixties?
Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are gorgeous (despite his boy band mop and despite her Page Three girl ‘do), and her performance, at least, is moving. The special effects were impressive at the time. Yet is there one moment in James Cameron’s film that replicates real life, or one image that doesn’t look like it was filmed in a studio or a tank? Cameron’s idea of the class war meanwhile feels like it was inspired by a Bertie Wooster novel or an episode of Upstairs Downstairs. All extant copies of Titanic should be dropped overboard, along with….
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Arguably the most boring tent-pole franchise of the century has made a mockery of the sinister theme park ride originally launched at Disneyland in 1967. Though Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom brought some mild girl-power and elf-power to the first instalment, their efforts were overshadowed by Johnny Depp’s torpid Keith Richards impersonation, which was horribly indulged by director Gore Verbinski. These movies needed the menace and muscularity of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth’s pirate illustrations, and a star, such as Viggo Mortensen or Michael Fassbender, who doesn’t need to posture. You want a movie buccaneer? Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) is the real deal.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
David O. Selznick’s film of Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller isn’t as repellently racist as The Birth of a Nation (1915), but it’s still shameful. The Tara plantation’s black domestics, played by Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniels, Butterfly McQueen, Oscar Polk, and Everett Brown, are typically patronizing Hollywood stereotypes designed to amuse white audiences rather than make them empathise with the characters. GWTW is also deeply misogynistic. Scarlett O’Hara is initially played by Vivien Leigh as a spoiled coquette decadently in love with slavery apologist Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and courted by Charleston “black sheep” Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Though she evolves into Tara’s resilient saviour and marries Rhett, he ravishes her into accepting that her world of “magnolia and moonlight” has, indeed, gone with the wind. Her smiles of satiety the next morning problematically endorse his sexual violence. Selznick reprised this glorified rape scenario in the even more lurid Duel in the Sun (1946), which starred his wife Jennifer Jones as the sex-craving half-breed Pearl Chavez.