Oscars 2020: Revisiting Best Picture winners that have aged like old popcorn, from The Greatest Show on Earth to Gladiator

Clémence Michallon

Casablanca, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List... Some of the OscarsBest Picture winners are movies that have earned a spot in the pantheon of iconic films.

Other winners, however, have aged like stale popcorn and are about as pleasant to savour.

From The Greatest Show On Earth to Gladiator, some Best Picture picks are question marks etched on the Film Academy's record.

We revisited a number of the movies crowned by the Oscars which are, in retrospect, questionable choices.

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

Decades before Hollywood was strip-mining nostalgia and merging entertainment superpowers as part of the box office norm, the world powers of Cecile B De Mille and Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey partnered in 1952 for an overstuffed, melodramatic circus farce that stuffs each frame with unearned affection for a bygone era.

The Greatest Show on Earth — director De Mille’s second-to-last feature film, released before his more likely Best Picture nominee The Ten Commandments — is among the more head-scratching recipients of the Best Picture prize.

Also among the nominees for that year’s award: High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man. De Mille lost the Best Director award to John Ford for the latter film.

Though it captures some of the now-forgotten stars of the prime big top era and features some atypical performances from Charlton Heston and James Stewart, The Greatest Show on Earth mistakes visual noise for down-home American atmosphere, all stuffed into a two-and-a-half-hour clown car.

It loudly cuts together a technicolour parade of clowns, elephants, trapeze artists, racist topes, and seemingly more extras than in his later film to make an undeserving epic love letter to one of the foundations of American entertainment.

Alex Woodward

The Departed (2006)

There are many things that make Martin Scorcese’s The Departed a curious choice for Best Picture. Not least the fact that it isn’t even one of the 10 best pictures by Martin Scorcese. It’s overly long. The plot is riddled with holes. The Boston accents are all over the place.

But what makes the decision to award this film the Oscar one of the great travesties in the history of modern cinema is an infamous eight-second cameo in the movie’s final scene. We’re talking about the rat.

With the final shot of a 151-minute epic about informants – or rats – in the Boston police department, Scorcese elects to drive home the central theme by showing an actual rat running across the screen. If he had literally hammered the audience on the head it might have been less painful. Which is why, more than a decade after its release, the symbolic rodent continues to rankle.

When a Kickstarter launched last year to digitally remove the rat from the final shot, film fans donated nearly $3,000 before Warner Bros shut the campaign down.

Katie Davies

Crash (2004)

I gave mawkish modern fairytale Crash, which people hate as much for its stereotyping and shallow storytelling as they do for the fact that it beat the more deserving Brokeback Mountain, a re-watch.

In 2004, I was 14 years old, and I thought Crash was the most profound thing I had ever seen. This time round… well, I still felt my heartstrings being tugged at, but I saw why everyone hated it a lot more clearly.

Racist, misogynist cop Matt Dillon is gifted a handy redemption arc by Thandie Newton’s car going up in flames; a little girl, played by Ashlyn Sanchez, is almost shot dead in a totally uncharacteristic move by the previously sympathetic Shaun Toub.

There are so many moments where the music rises up and women clutch men while screaming and sobbing to the heavens. To post-pubescent eyes, it can get a bit silly. Having said that, I still admire the film for taking on a tough subject at a time when it was much less trendy.

It reckons with social justice and race relations in a way which is often clumsy but still sometimes powerful. It has a diverse cast and it sets out to remind us that sometimes, good people are capable of bad things — bad things often driven by the unconscious biases they would deny — and bad people can be capable of good.

While its execution is often melodramatic, Crash still attempts to communicate a message we’d be wise to bear in mind in 2020.

Holly Baxter

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

The drama routinely appears on worst Oscar winners lists, where it is often criticised for its sincerity, blandness and lack of subtly. With 74 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 72 per cent on Metacritic, it has a somewhat 'good but meh' reputation.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book of the same name, in turn based on the life of Nobel-winning economist John Nash, A Beautiful Mind is a story of genius, paranoia and love. Russell Crowe stars as Nash, giving a strong – albeit cheesy – performance.

Watching the film today, the unnecessary exposition in the first hour is fairly grating, but you can't help but go along with what is a genuinely fascinating story. It's worth noting what A Beautiful Mind was up against in 2002 – Gosford Park, Lord of The Rings, In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge! – so hardly the most dazzling lineup.

With plenty of clunky moments, and an abundance of bland, underdeveloped characters, this film perhaps doesn't deserve to be a Best Film Oscar winner, but it certainly doesn't deserve to be at the top of the worst Oscar winners list.

Lucy Gray

Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa, loosely based on Baroness Karen Blixen’s memoir of the same name, hasn’t aged well. Even a promising cast - featuring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep - can’t save it from its profoundly problematic premise. And how could it be any different, given that Out of Africa is basically a picture of colonialism in the 20th century?

The film, directed by Sydney Pollack, begins with Blixen (Streep) arriving to Kenya, where she’s due to marry Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Eventually, she begins a relationship with Denys Finch Hatton (Redford) – but tortured romance isn’t enough to distract from the racist, white saviour-y tropes that animate it.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Out of Africa beat The Color Purple, adapted from Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, in the 1985 Oscars race for Best Picture. The other nominees were Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor and Witness.

It might be tempting to say that Out of Africa wouldn’t score an Oscar nomination nowadays, but given the Academy’s continued failure to make a true effort towards diversity, that's not certain.

Clémence Michallon

Gladiator (2000)

When Gladiator debuted 20 years ago, it was hailed as an epic drama capable of transporting viewers to the Roman Empire, where politics meshed with brute force.

The movie, in short, follows the chaos that ensues when the emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) dies at the hands of his jealous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), after revealing he wants trusted army general Maximus (Russell Crowe) to succeed him.

Rather than allow Maximus to take the throne, Commodus orders him killed. Maximus escapes execution but is captured by slave traders and forced to become a gladiator - which he turns out to be extremely good at.

The film ends with Maximus and Commodus facing off in a battle to the death in the Colosseum.

The acting, the effects, and the overarching message of “good always beats evil” meant not only that the film was a box-office success - grossing $457m worldwide - but the winner of five Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture.

There is no denying the film was ahead of its time when it came to special effects, considering Oliver Reed, who died of a heart attack during filming for the movie, managed to appear in later scenes, thanks to CGI.

Unfortunately, re-watching the film now does not result in the same captivation and praise the movie got when it first came out – rather, it mostly results in boredom.

The first issue with the movie is perhaps its biggest - that the entire first 10 minutes are comprised of a dark (both lighting-wise and in terms of gruesomeness) battle scene.

From there, it is hard to stay interested as the male-dominated cast fights for freedom, revenge, and control of the Roman Empire.

Chelsea Ritschel