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COUNTERPUNCH

'Gladiator' Fully Deserves Its Oscar Glory

April 02, 2001|MARY PLATT | Mary Platt is the news and arts producer for Cox Interactive Media's OCNow.com in Orange County. She lives in Costa Mesa and can be reached at rowana@aol.com

Enough with the "Gladiator" bashing. I'll take up my sword in defense of the year's deservedly awarded best picture, and I'll go one further: I'll put "Gladiator" up against any best picture of any year.

I listened (post-Oscars on KABC-TV) to Ebert and Roeper maunder on about how bad they thought "Gladiator" was. And then there was The Times' own Patrick Goldstein, who groused ("Small Attitudes, Big Money Point to the Need for Reform," March 27) that "when Entertainment Weekly . . . does its annual ranking of the best Oscar winners of all time, 'Gladiator' will no doubt be near the bottom, rubbing elbows with 'Oliver!' and 'Around the World in 80 Days.' "

Where did this nastiness come from, directed toward a movie that's already reaped scores of glowing reviews worldwide and has done nothing but restore some old-time glamour and glory to Hollywood? Here's what I thought of these last-minute stabs in the back:

1. How tacky. Give the army of talented folks who made "Gladiator" their evening in the spotlight, and let them celebrate. Save the armchair quarterbacking for later.

2. How very wrong! Like "Braveheart" before it, "Gladiator" has its own legions of smart, devoted and discerning admirers who have taken this movie to heart. It will be talked about for decades to come. It may have been a big, fierce action picture, and it may have been a huge historical epic. But is that any reason to deride it? Why are critics, by and large, so prejudiced against costume epics?

I'm an unabashed admirer of "Gladiator," for several excellent reasons:

* The big screen is the perfect canvas upon which to paint worlds of the past, and to show us that human follies and foibles are nothing new at all. Ridley Scott was able to do what Mel Gibson ("Braveheart") and James Cameron ("Titanic") did before him: Blow the dust off history and fill it with real people who have hopes, dreams, families and painful choices. It's a glimpse through time and space: In all the ways that matter, they were just like us.

* "Gladiator" was probably the year's sliest and most telling commentary on modern culture. The Super Bowl. The NCAA Final Four. NASCAR. WWF Smackdown. What are these, if not today's equivalent of the "bread and circuses" of Emperor Commodus' time? We go to huge stadiums and watch men and women struggle in mock combat. We buy their T-shirts and action figures. (Vendors of ancient Rome sold toy figurines of the top gladiators--so how different are we?) Ask any high school student to name his favorite athletes or "Survivor" competitor. Then ask him who the vice president of the United States is, or where Egypt is, or who fought in World War II. Be prepared to cry.

* "Gladiator" really did feature the year's finest acting performance. Not to take anything away from the amazing performances of Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, et al, but Russell Crowe's measured, mesmerizing, internalized smolder as Maximus was more than worthy of Hollywood's highest honor. He was the vital, living, breathing center of the picture, in a part that could easily have become a cardboard figure. The force of his presence filled the screen and carried the film. We feel for Maximus--a man in ancient armor whose emotions are as real as our own. His tragedy is played out on a stage of operatic magnitude, but his tale is human-sized and heart-wrenching, thanks to Crowe's charisma.

* It's about loyalty and personal honor. Strange, outdated notions, you might think. But why do they still seem to resonate with millions of people?

* It broke new ground in visual effects. The camera pans over the giant maw of the Colosseum, filled with hundreds of cheering, milling people. A flock of birds flies across a morning view of Rome, a Claude Lorrain vision of classical buildings and sunrise-streaked sky. Flaming arrows fly through the snowy trees of a Teutonic forest as thousands of men prepare for bloody battle. These are shots from another world, an ancient world we never would have had the chance to visit--until Scott and his gifted team of artists and technicians gave us a round-trip ticket.

* There's never a dry eye in the house. When Maximus falls in the arena and is finally reunited with his wife and child, look around you. There's very real emotion from audience members, caught up in the moment. At every showing I've attended, tears streak the faces of many people around me (OK--me too).

"Are you not entertained?" Maximus cries to the crowd. Yes, we are--millions of us, all around the world. "Gladiator" is what great movies are all about: wonder, emotion and awe, a bold and dazzling vision of another world, a dynamic story anchored by an outstanding actor and a marvelous cast. It will be remembered--and admired--as long as movies are loved. And if that isn't movie magic, what is?

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Counterpunch is a weekly feature designed to let readers respond to reviews or stories about entertainment and the arts. Please send proposals to: Counterpunch, Calendar, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. Or fax: (213) 237-7630. Or e-mail: Counterpunch@latimes.com. Important: Include full name, address and phone number. Please do not exceed 600 words. We appreciate all proposals and regret that we cannot respond to each.

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