Friday, December 25, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Sting" (1973)

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

The Sting
Release Date: December 25, 1973
Director: George Roy Hill
Written By: David S. Ward
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 129 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actor (Robert Redford)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Sound

Other Best Picture Nominees

-American Graffiti
-Cries and Whispers
-The Exorcist
-A Touch of Class

And the winner is...

There isn't a cooler Best Picture winner than director George Roy Hill's The Sting. Even if there's better films dramatically, nothing about them quite matches the charisma and style of the film's throwback style of the 30's. With help from Scott Joplin's anachronistic ragtime music, the film's story of con men is one that is rich with personality and two great performances between Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It's one of the few films to win that knew how to have fun, even playing around with visual cues that are relevant to the era, including interstitial cards to explain the rules of the long con. It's a film unlike any other winner, mostly because very few manage to pull off something as pure energy as this.

The story begins with someone behind the scenes. While he would later go on to direct The Fast and The Furious, Rob Cohen started out his career reading scripts from the slush pile. Among the ones that caught his eye was what would become The Sting. Intrigued, he went straight to Universal and demanded that they make it, believing it to be an American classic. He bet his career on the script's sale. By sheer luck, he managed to do so within the day. The script in question was written by David S. Ward, who was researching for another 1973 film called Steelyard Blues. Ward become intrigued by the idea of pickpocketing and pitched the script with the catch that investors couldn't know the finale until they bought it. Hill saw the screenplay by accident and pitched it to Newman, of whom he tended to show his work to. They would eventually bring back Robert Redford, of whom the two had worked with on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from a few years prior.

In order to capture the era more appropriately, Hill turned to gangster films of the 1930's, including emphasis on The Public Enemy starring James Cagney. On top of making something that looked and felt like the era, he took notice to Cagney's final scene - where he was shot in an empty street. He made sure to use no extras as a result. The film takes place in Illinois, but was predominantly shot on a sound stage on the Universal Studios back lot. The locations used in the film would later be incorporated into Back to the Future. The film also had few exteriors, including trips to West Virginia and the Santa Monica Pier in California. Usually in public, people would overwhelmingly swoon to Newman (not so much with Redford). Because of the era however, a lot of real locations couldn't be used, as the architecture had changed in the 40 years between the film and the current day.

The film also featured its share of trick photography. Because the film relies on card ticks, it was crucial to include a scene. Paul Newman was unable to learn it quick enough, so the camera used an invisible edit to replace his hands for technical adviser John Scarne. Robert Redford had broken his thumb, which counts for why he is seen holding objects at unnatural angles. Robert Shaw broke his leg ligaments on a handball court in Beverly Hills, California. Instead of quitting, he decided to add the limp as a part of his character. Costume designer Edith Head claimed that she dressed Newman and Redford in blue, because they wanted it to match their eyes. To avoid confusion, she claims that they wore blue in opposing scenes - a fact that can clearly not be seen, but still held as myth.

The film embraced the era with interstitial cards. They did so with help from Jaroslav Gebr, who made the colorful designs based off of the very popular publication of the time: Saturday Evening Post. Add in Head's snappy costumes, and the film looked the part. However, the soundtrack will be seen as both inspired and anachronistic. Composer Marvin Hamlisch was initially reluctant, believing that he should only compose original music. When Hill showed him a cut of the film, Hamlisch was impressed and felt that Scott Joplin's work would definitely be fitting. He went so far as to adore the quiet moments within the film. While not entirely faithful, most of the Joplin adaptations were true to his work - but with more of a produced sound and a variety of instruments other than the ragtime piano. While the music did exist during this time, it was considered anachronistic as Joplin's style had faded from popularity during the time.

If adjusted for inflation, The Sting would be considered the 19th highest grossing movie in history. Its Oscar haul wasn't too bad either, especially with 10 nominations. The film's Best Picture win was itself an achievement, as it marked the first woman (Julia Phillips) to win as producer. Head also won her eighth and final Oscar for the film, at which she joked about how handsome Newman and Redford were. Among other highlights of the evening included co-host David Niven famously insulting a streaker who interrupted the ceremony. It was a moment so popular that it became one of the ceremony history's most remembered moments. This was also the year that Groucho Marx won his Honorary Oscar, Tatum O'Neal became the youngest winner in history (10 years old for Best Supporting Actress in Paper Moon), and Katharine Hepburn showed up to give the Irving G. Thalberg Award to Lawrence Weingarten - a first, considering that she was notoriously absent from every other ceremony. In a moment of irony, The Sting became the first Best Picture winner for Universal Studios since the 1930's (All Quiet on the Western Front).

The Sting was a big film during its time and helped to inspire stylish period pieces to have a brief resurgence. It would go so far to have a sequel called The Sting II, which was considered a flop didn't feature the original cast. A prequel was planned, but quickly scrapped following its failure. However, the biggest success of the film came with the resurgence of Joplin's music. While the film is accredited with being the prime reason for it, various other answers can be linked to releases from The New York Public Library and Joshua Rifkin (the latter of which became a classical album best seller). Hill would continue to work with Newman throughout their careers, including the hockey comedy Slap Shot. The Sting and its music would continue to appear in parodies throughout the years, including on The Simpsons. Even The Sting II's notoriously awful quality has been lampooned. 

No matter what, The Sting remains the coolest film to win Best Picture, because it was such an authentic and stylish experience. It wasn't just a tribute to 30's culture. It updated it for 70's cinema in a way that felt accessible and intriguing. It adapted the techniques and did things that films of the era couldn't. Even if one can look at the film nowadays and see it as a novelty, it is quite a strong one with great characters and designs that are unmistakable for The Sting. If nothing else, it is the con movie that set the precedent for what the genre could be about. Everyone has tried, but none can compare to the success of Hill's masterpiece, thanks to Newman and Redford of course.

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