6.20.2011

What makes a classic?



I’ve been so mired these past few weeks in 70s exploitation cinema that sitting down with All the President’s Men (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1976) feels a little jarring.  It’s long been on my list of Important Movies I Should Have Seen But Haven’t, and now I can finally cross it off.  It’s a very good film—a remarkably solid political drama—but it’s left me thinking about the canon of “classic” American films.  All the President’s Men has been canonized almost since its release, when it was greeted with Oscar nominations (it won four, including Best Supporting Actor for the fine-as-always Jason Robards).  In 2007 it made the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 American movies.  And yet, as enjoyable as the film is, it’s worth asking: why?  Why reserve a spot for it on the AFI Top 100 over, to take an example at random, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)? 

It seems to me that (at least in the case of All the President’s Men) a classic is sometimes simply the sum of its parts.  The more and greater the parts, the more classic the film.  Let’s break it down.

Stars
.  Everybody knows that a single great performance from a star actor is often enough to make a film’s reputation.  All the President’s Men
has not one but two 70s icons sharing the lead role: blonde WASP dreamboat Robert Redford and serious Jewish intellectual Method Actor Dustin Hoffman, both at the heights of their careers, both doing very good (if not groundbreaking) work as Woodward and Bernstein.  Seeing them onscreen together is like looking at some sort of perfect Hollywood yin-yang symbol.  Plus two.

Relevance.  This film was blessed with the good timing to come out four years after the Watergate break-in and two years after Nixon’s resignation.  A year later and the topic probably would have felt stale; a year earlier would have felt like scrabbling to ride Nixon’s coattails out of the White House.  It became the quintessential political-paranoia movie in a decade of political-paranoia movies.  Plus one. 

A-listers behind the scenes.  Alan J. Pakula directed; William Goldman scripted; Gordon Willis lensed.  The only person missing here is Martin Hamlisch.  Plus three.

An “oh my gosh!  That’s…” supporting cast.  In addition to Robards, the film hands out decent bit parts to people whose careers are now long enough over (Hal Holbrook, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander) that it makes you think you’re rediscovering how great they are/were back in the day.  Plus one.

Ideological staying power.  While the politics of, say, Gone With The Wind now seem a bit squirm-inducing, most audiences can still get behind the story of two “ordinary guys” working in the best interests of the American people by exposing political corruption.  The leftist political bent here is slight enough that it still has bi-partisan appeal.  Plus one.  

Star power + zeitgeist + solid but conservative craftsmanship + ability to age well = classic.

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