In this month before the Academy Awards, we always like to offer a few Oscar winners and losers from years past. This one won big 15 years ago - Best Actor, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects and, of course, Best Picture. From 2000, Ridley Scott's Gladiator:
Germania, 180 AD. Rome is at war with the, er, Germaniacs, who stand around in the Black Forest grunting like Brits on the piss who've nutted themselves in one pub fight too many. You need a cool head to take on the Roman Army, and the only one the barbarians have belongs to Caesar's emissary, whom they thoughtfully decapitated before sending back. They wave the old noggin around like a treasured footie ball, grunting, "Ug Eugh Blug" or, translated from the original gibberish, "Over 'ere, mate." It's a scene that rings oddly contemporary in the Age of ISIS, although when I first saw it, a year before 9/11, it gave me the giggles. But then barbarians always seem funny from a distance, don't they? Here they scratch their pelts and grunt some more, seemingly unconcerned by the fact that the Roman legions are lighting up their blazing arrows and fireballs, the smart bombs of the day. The ensuing battle, whose outcome would seem never to be in doubt, is apparently the final bloody act in a 12-year war.
Despite having had 12 years to get there, the Emperor's son nevertheless shows up late. "Did I miss it?" he simpers. "Did I miss the battle?" The son's name is Commodus. No, not Commodus, but Commodus, which sounds like he dates back to a Mel Brooks sketch circa 1962 but in fact goes all the way back to the real Roman Empire. Commodus is that old stand-by of the dynastic drama, the disappointing son. His father, Marcus Aurelius, is a noble philosopher-king, but Commodus is no chip off the old block. We can tell that from the moment we first glimpse Commodus, sprawled in his commodious caravan, but just in case we miss the point Joaquin Phoenix lays on the mincing like a trowel, and the make-up, too. He's weak, vain, decadent, and has the hots for his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Even the Bushes would think twice before running this guy for emperor.
Having spent 25 years waging war for the glory of Rome, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) senses there's not much point leaving it in the hands of an emperor who'd be queen for a day. So he tells Commodus he will not succeed him. Instead, he is going to make his brave general Maximus a "trustee" until Rome is ready to become a republic again. Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a Colin Powell type of general: a nice fellow everyone respects who supposedly has no public ambitions. Commodus, though, has other ideas, and suffocates his father. As the old showbiz saying has it, dying is easy, Commodus is hard. The effete decadent mincer becomes emperor, and promptly orders the death of Maximus and the crucifixion of the general's wife and child back in Spain.
But Maximus escapes, and what follows in Gladiator is the story of how he takes his revenge and becomes the eponymous Gladiator lui-mÃªme. It's payback time, and, under Ridley Scott's lean direction, that means there's no room for sub-plots. Somewhere in pre-production, the archers lobbed their flaming shafts at the script and laid it as bare as those Germanic forests. Not only are there no sub-plots, there's barely any plot for any sub-plot to be sub-. Once the wife and kid are dead, there's nothing very emotional at stake. There's no romantic interest, unless you count Commodus trying to get it on with sis. There's a hint of backstory at the Senate, where the massed ranks of British Equity have gathered for a vast toga party (the Toga Party having a majority in the Senate at that time). But there's no dialogue worth speaking of, except statements of the obvious. When the mob is being fickle, as mobs are wont to be, the Emperor is told: "The mob is fickle, sire." All the lines have been pre-tested in earlier toga romps, and the only one that seems to have been specially written for this picture is Oliver Reed's complaint that some crook dealer has sold him a pair of homosexual giraffes.
But none of that matters because Ridley Scott photographs the film so brilliantly and mesmerically that they could all be speaking Germaniac and it wouldn't impair the storytelling. It helps that almost everyone in the movie is a pre-designated great actor, so you tend to assume there's a lot of great acting going on, even though most of it's just thoughtful reaction shots. The mob bays for blood. Cut to Derek Jacobi looking thoughtful. They bay some more. Cut to Connie Nielsen looking pensive from atop her fabulous neck. They stop baying. Cut to Russell Crowe looking thoughtful. What are they thinking so pensively? "Hmm. I wish I'd got the gay giraffe line."
But what a cast! Not just Oliver Reed, in his last film role, not just Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi, but even David Hemmings. No one's seen him since the Sixties when he was surrounded by dolly birds in mini-skirts. Now he's back, surrounded by hunky guys in mini-skirts, as he presides over the gladiator shows at the Coliseum while wearing an orange fright wig. That's a clue, I think. In 2000, the film was a huge hit with young males who seem to reckon it's an action movie. But it's really The Count of Monte Cristo played as a backstage showbiz fable, with Oliver Reed's Proximo as Mama Rose from Gypsy, the stage mother determined to turn a young, raw unknown into a star. Having bought Russell Crowe in a job lot of Nubians and miscellaneous barbarians, Proximo immediately spots Maximus' maximum potential. But the guy lacks technique: it's not just a question of running your sword through some meathead's torso, it's how you do it. Sure, Proximo's just running a rinky-dink dog-and-pony gladiator show out in the provinces, but once upon a time he had his name up there in lights, or candles, or whatever they used back then. He sees Maximus as his ticket back to the big time.
Of course Maximus, although he likes the action stuff, would really like to have a go at Commodus. And soon he'll have his chance. The new emperor has scheduled 150 days of bread and circuses, which means Proximo and his troupe are getting a second bite of the cherry. "We're finally going back to where we belong," crows Oliver Reed, sounding like Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!. "The Coliseum!" But over at Caesar's Palace, the camp old lounge act is lounging campily and plotting his own diabolical revenge.
Maximus has never played the Coliseum, but he goes out a youngster and comes back a star in what's the most thrilling scene in the picture, as "The Barbarian Horde" (as David Hemmings bills them) find themselves taking on strange chariot teams of breast-plated African women. I always find Russell Crowe more persuasive the less he talks, so I'd rank this as one of his best performances, up there with Les MisÃ©rables. In the final scenes everything comes together for Ridley Scott: the action, the dramatic moment, the crowd, the tension, the computer-generated Coliseum, and, in the climactic showdown between Commodus and Maximus, the oddly topical aspects of a world where politics and entertainment intersect: The Empire Gets Struck Back At, so to speak. Rating: SPQR (Some Parts Quite Riveting).