Friday, May 29, 2015

Audient Auscars: All the King's Men

This is the latest in a monthly series in which I catch up with the best picture winners I haven't seen. 

I had a couple good options for posters for the 1949 best picture winner, but I chose this All the King's Men poster because of its funny usage of the words "very great." When was the last time you heard anyone refer to something as "very great"? Any writing teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that the word "very" is a sin in good writing. (Which isn't to say that most of us don't use it from time to time.)

Well, I guess All the King's Men IS sort of "very great." At least, it's the best movie I've seen so far in this series, just edging out Cimarron for that distinction.

What I like so much about this film is how cynical it is. I can't remember where I saw it, but at some point recently I either heard or read someone describe a movie as "dipped in battery acid." (I'd credit the author, but I just googled it and the search produced nothing.) That's kind of how I felt about this movie -- it was so suspicious of human nature, that the Academy had to cleanse itself by handing out subsequent trophies to trifles like An American in Paris and The Greatest Show on Earth. (Of course, I have to ignore the Oscar given the very next year to All About Eve, which sort of destroys my thesis.)

The story is based loosely, or perhaps not so loosely, on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long. It details the rise to political power of one Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a gifted orator and one-time idealist (or at least, more of an idealist) whose political education becomes dominated by learning the best tricks to get what he wants. After several early defeats, he learns he needs to be more mercenary, and gains the support of an entourage of political allies, who either believe that his earnest policies justify the dirty methods used to secure them, or admire him for the very dirty methods he employs so effectively. Among these are an otherwise clear-eyed reporter (John Ireland), the reporter's girlfriend (Joanne Dru), her uncorruptible brother (Shepperd Strudwick) and judge father (Raymond Greenleaf), not to mention Stark's family members who get caught in the crossfire (a son, played by John Derek -- Bo's future husband -- and his wife, played by Anne Seymour). It's a fairly straightforward story of a politician's political trajectory into venality and, well, total reprehensibility. A lot of tragedies befall various characters along the way, as Stark gets more and more powerful, adding to his list of enemies at the same rate that he adds his name to the public projects he pushes through via a combination of persuasion, will power and back room deals. The question of the whole movie essentially becomes: Do the ends justify the means? Because the ends produced by Willie Stark are, most would agree, objectively good.

Few movies had taken on politics as mercilessly as All the King's Men did. It has had reverberations down through the years, not only inspiring the 2006 remake, but also movies like All the President's Men, and even something like Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, which exists in the same southern political milieu and also details the steady corruption by power of a once-innocent figure. It's a pretty tough watch in the sense that there are few characters who are completely untainted for us to root for, and rarely does anything happen for the purpose of pleasing the audience. It's also unflinching in its presentation of things like Stark's alcoholism and how that affects the people around him (particularly his son). This movie isn't at all naive, and it doesn't offer much hope. The most hopeful thing, I suppose, is that Stark eventually does get his in the end -- which is a pretty sour type of hope.

I don't suppose I have a lot more to say about this film, which is no indication of my feelings toward it. And though I've given it four stars, I'd say it's a movie I admire more than one I love, or am likely to revisit any time soon.

Next month we get to see exactly how much of a trifle The Greatest Show on Earth, the 1952 winner, really is. It'll also be the first movie in this series that I can actually borrow from the library, rather than having to rent it from iTunes.

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