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Gladiator (Best Picture, 2000)

Okay, okay, I have to admit that sometimes a wicked part of me enjoys bringing GLADIATOR up when in conversation with classicists, just to watch them start to froth at the mouth.  Don’t worry – they get their own back by mentioning THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL and watching me turn purple.  Bet you didn’t know historians are so prone to tormenting each other!

I watched GLADIATOR once before, about eight years ago.  It was assigned as part of a peculiar class I took during my freshman year of college.  The class was called “Roman Scandals” and looked at contemporary and modern portrayals of, well, Roman scandals.  We read Juvenal, Petronius, and Cicero, and watched movies like GLADIATOR and Fellini’s SATYRICON (which, as one of my classmates remarked afterwards, is kind of what we imagine an acid trip might be like).  As I recall, the professor spent the better part of an entire class listing in excruciating detail every historical error and anachronism in GLADIATOR.  I was impressed and interested by the scholarly reaction, and I take their point.  I get very annoyed by films that don’t adhere to the seemingly easy details of historical accuracy, like the appropriate attire for a certain class of people or the correct forms of address.  I find I’m more offended by errors in detail than by the larger errors.  The larger the mistake, the more intentional it seems, I think – it’s minor discrepancies in clothing, address, attendants, etc. that offend me because they seem more like inattention.

GLADIATOR, much like gladiatorial sport, is not meant for the intellectual elite of the populace, but rather for the “vulgar masses.”  I’m thinking over the films I’ve watched already in this project, and really, GLADIATOR has to be one of the most violent Best Picture winners yet.  For me, the violence is the turnoff, not the anachronisms.  But I suppose violence is to be expected in a movie about gladiators!

I’d like to end with a few words about Russell Crowe, who plays the lead character, and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the lead villain.  Crowe and Phoenix both have reputations for being rather difficult in person (for different reasons), but both pull off exemplary performances here.  I enjoy watching Russell Crowe.  His Captain Jack Aubrey in MASTER AND COMMANDER is dead-on, Maximus in GLADIATOR is a barely-contained explosion, and Nash in A BEAUTIFUL MIND is driven, obsessive, and terrified.  And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix, who pulls off the ambition-to-the-point-of-insanity of the young Emperor Commodus perfectly.  Sidenote: does anyone else read or hear the name “Commodus” and think of commodes (toilets)?  Wonder if that was intentional.  Anyways, Commodus is a perfect example of why I’m still flummoxed by the survival of imperial Rome.  With all that violence, assassination, insanity, and incest, how the heck did it last for centuries? Though I suppose it does explain why no one imperial family lasted that long.

A Beautiful Mind (Best Picture, 2001)

Odd little story that this is, I like it. I first watched A BEAUTIFUL MIND about a week before I moved into the dorms for my freshman year of college.  That first week at school was New Student Orientation, and the film kept coming back to me as I realized that my new roommate never seemed to show up to orientation events and other students on the floor didn’t seem to know her – for a day or two I worried I hallucinated a roommate!  Turns out she was just shy.  Big relief for me, as I was worrying I had the hallucinations without the genius.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND enhanced the effectiveness of one of my favorite movies, MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD.  A BEAUTIFUL MIND stars Russell Crowe as the troubled genius John Nash and Paul Bettany as Charles Herman, believed by Nash to be his grad school roommate but actually a hallucination, early evidence of his schizophrenia.  Crowe and Bettany also star in MASTER AND COMMANDER, Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey and Bettany as his best friend and ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin.  I never thought about it before, but it’s clear that Crowe and Bettany developed a solid friendship during the creation of A BEAUTIFUL MIND that translated, years later, into the deep friendship between the characters of Aubrey and Maturin.

It’s trendy these days to make jokes about close friendships between male characters like Aubrey and Maturin, Frodo and Sam… because obviously all loving same-sex friendships must necessarily involve a homosexual element.  I am not arguing against homosexuality at all, but rather that we as a society seem so uncomfortable with passionate, loving friendship between two men.  Aubrey and Maturin, like Frodo and Sam, are examples of an earlier sensibility, in which the relationship between men who care deeply for each other can actually be demonstrative.  Aubrey and Maturin call each other “my dear.”  It’s a strange double standard that women can be demonstrative and loving to each other without being assumed lesbians, but men dare not enjoy the same freedom.

Anyways. A BEAUTIFUL MIND is a strange story, well-presented so the audience doesn’t always know what’s real and what’s hallucination or paranoia.  Russell Crowe is no chameleon actor, but he inhabits each role with all of his might, whether it’s the simmering rage of Maximus or the social awkwardness and physical mannerisms of John Nash.  Maximus looks everyone directly in the eye.  Nash is almost incapable of doing so.

This pair of films has been fascinating in the comparison.

Next Up: Chicago (Best Picture, 2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Best Picture, 2003)

What fun!