Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Gladiator" (2000)

Left to right: Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: May 5, 2000
Director: Ridley Scott
Written By: David Franzoni (story), David Franzoni & John Logan & William Nicholson (screenplay)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Genre: Action, Drama
Running Time: 155 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Actor (Russell Crowe)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Visual Effects

Oscar Nominations: 7
-Best Supporting Actor (Joaquin Phoenix)
-Best Director (Ridley Scott)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Film Editing
-Best Original Score (Hans Zimmer)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
-Erin Brockovich

And the winner is...

It was the turn of the millennium and Russell Crowe was at the height of his powers. Following work in the successful films L.A. Confidential and The Insider, this was the moment where he evolved into a superstar. With Gladiator, he not only helped to create an iconic character that has ranked high on many lists, but also helped to usher in the return of swords and sandals epics. It was the moment when director Ridley Scott received his Best Picture and influenced the world of special effects whose dissection of technique is almost as storied as the film's production and accuracy. For what it's worth, Gladiator is a film that feels both groundbreaking for its time and hearkens back to an earlier one in which these films were more revered. It was a time when Spartacus or Cleopatra stood a chance at Best Picture nominations. Nowadays, it's hard to see anything in the way of action-packed drama making the cut. 

The most interesting thing about the film is that it went into production without a finalized script. With weeks to go before it started, Crowe insisted on making his character Maximus more sympathetic. William Nicholson also suggested adding back scenes that John Logan had taken out to flesh out the story. There were other edits made during the film, specifically around the death of major actor Oliver Reed, whose initial demise was that he lived. This was changed with some rewrites and special effects in which Reed's face was placed onto a body double and filmed in shadows. Likewise, the film cut corners with special effects by having an audience of 2000 stand in for a crowd of 35,000 people. The animals depicted in the film were real, but were placed into the scene by special effects company "The Mill." The Mill would do a lot of work on the film. While there's plenty of conversation that could be dedicated to technical effects and historical inaccuracies, I will choose to let you explore these on your own. 

The film was made as part of a three picture deal. When David Franzoni did great work on Amistad, Dreamworks let him pick his next project (the third was King Arthur). Having read a 1970's book on gladiator battles called "Those Who Are About to Die," one of his pitches was essentially the plot of Gladiator. From there, he teamed up with Scott to make a film full of laborious preparation that included scouting locations and making several props. While Crowe was always enthusiastic about the role, he wasn't the only one who auditioned for the role. Among the names who tried out included Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman. Other actors to try out for roles included Jude Law and Jennifer Lopez. Crowe was simultaneously finishing filming The Insider when he was cast and was 40 pounds overweight. He lost it in time. Likewise, Joaquin Phoenix appeared to be fat and when Scott commented on it, the actor replied that as Commodus he felt it was important for his role to  be slovenly. He would go on to lose weight.

When the film came out, it was an immediate success. The film made back its budget within its first two weeks. Hans Zimmer's score became one of the most financially successful compositions. As mentioned, it helped to promote the popularity of the swords and sandals epics, three of which Scott would direct including Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings. While it was in a lot of respects successful, it was also a little divisive among critics. The most noteworthy one was Roger Ebert, whose 2 stars out of 4 rating review suggested that the characters were empathetic yet remained boring. However, its legacy has resulted in some odd achievements. Crowe considers it his favorite American-made movie that he was involved with. His home country of Australia made a stamp that featured his character Maximus. There was a planned sequel that was shopped around, including rewrites by Nick Cave. However, it was eventually scrapped when a clear and shared vision couldn't be made.

Its status as a Best Picture winner is also a little striking considering its somewhat divisive nature. While Scott has long been considered a visually impressive director, many would complain about his lack of sympathetic characters. This may have hurt the film in some respects when it went up for the category. The film became the first Best Picture winner to win the top prize without winning Best Director or a screenwriting award since All the King's Men - the next would be Chicago. The Best Director award went to Stephen Soderbergh for Traffic - who was the third person to have two Best Director nominations (the other being Erin Brockovich) in one year. With his Best Supporting Actor nomination, Joaquin and River Phoenix (for Running on Empty) became the first pair of siblings to both receive acting nominations. There was also controversy in the Best Original Score category, as Zimmer's collaborator Lisa Gerrard was disqualified from sharing the nomination despite having received it for such awards as the Golden Globes. 

The film also benefited from the recent boost of DVD releases. With the medium embracing special features, Scott made it an effort to fill the discs with as much information as he could, including a section dedicated to discussing what the potential sequel ideas were. It ended up being Universal's first double DVD release. This would later become the norm, most notably with director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which released special editions with dozens of hours of extra content. While special features have stopped being as frequently used due to the medium's decline in popularity, it remains an excellent package that reflects just how dedicated to detail, even if they are controversially anachronistic, he actually is.

Crowe would return to the Best Picture winners circle the following year with the wildly different A Beautiful Mind. By comparison, Scott would not despite continuing to make highly successful and technically challenging films. Gladiator's legacy has even bled into the TV landscape with actor Jack Gleeson noting that he based his portrayal of Game of Thrones character Joffrey Baratheon on Phoenix's Commodus. Along with various similar shows like Spartacus and Rome, the influence of Gladiator is hard to ignore, even if there's arguably been growth in both the technical and narrative styles that have happened since the film's release. Even then, it took a genre that has generally looked cheap and managed to make it look rich and complicated in ways that weren't possible in the 60's. For that and more, Gladiator is a film that is striking in how it updated a genre that we didn't know needed updating.

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