Sting, The (1973): Semi-Witty, Semi-Funny, All-Artifice Best Picture Winner, Starring Newman and Redford

After the British period comedy “Tom Jones” won the Best Picture, in 1963, it took a whole decade for another comedy to win the top Oscar, though by choosing George Roy Hill’s “The Sting,” an utterly commercial mainstream movie, the Academy found itself under severe attack from its more serious critics.

Cashing in on the previous success of his comedy Western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” director Hill reteamed stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a 1930s comedy set in Chicago about the conceits of two con men against a big-time racketeer (Robert Shaw).

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, “The Sting” won 7, including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Scoring (see complete list below). Among other achievements, “The Sting” is the first Oscar winner to have a female producer, Julia Phillips (along with her then husband Michael Phillips and Tony Bill).

Considered to be one of the best produced con artist-heist movies, “The Sting” also features a good ensemble of supporting actors, including Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston. Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, and Dana Elcar.

The clever but shallow picture is available on a two-disc DVD, with new bonus material that include: The Art of The Sting, a Retrospective on the Making of the Movie with comments by Newman, Redford, and other cats members, The Legacy, Director George Roy Hill and the Hollywood of Yesteryears Remembered, and others.

The plot is rather simple, sort of a string of vignettes and adventures, an excuse to structure a whole movie around its stars and set design and music. The Sting should serve as prime example for viewers interested in artifice, self-conscious, self-reflexive movies, whose only purpose is to entertain its viewers; there is a big emotional void at its center.

When the mentor of budding con artist Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford at its most handsome) is killed by coldhearted mob boss Doyle Lonigan (a terrific Robert Shaw, just a year or so before his other great performance, in “Jaws”), Hooker turns for help to Henry Gondof (Paul Newman at its most charming and handsome), a one-time master conman, who has recently fallen on hard times. Together they seek revenge of Lonigan with the elaborate sting, which stands as one of the greatest double-crosses in movie history, complete with an amazing surprise finish.

Set in 1936, The Sting captures both the ragtime and the gangster pictures of the 1930s, a synthetic period compounded of Scott Joplin’s rags. The movie is full of crooks but they are of the sweet and soft not the menacing kind. The film is directed in a rather impersonal by George Roy Hill. Too diffuse, David S. Wards disjointed script feels like a pastiche of Damon Runyon tales.

Released to mostly good reviews, “The Sting” grossed an immense amount of money, ranking high on Variety’s List of All-Time Film Champions. Admittedly, the film has some charm, and its music, Scott Joplin’s piano rags, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch, became immensely popular throughout the country. Still, many felt that such commercial blockbusters should not have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in the first place, let alone win.

Both Redford and Newman were at their prime and sexiest in the 1970s, and both look younger than their biological ages. However, given mostly banal dialogue, Newman and Redford almost let their period hats do their work for them.

The Sting joyously strings together chapters in the manner of a Saturday-afternoon serial, each with its own cliffhanger. The narrative is divided into chapters, each with a jokey or literal title. The audiences were invited to wait around to see what the happy couple of Newman and Redford do next. The stars show strong chemistry that almost camouflages the fact that there are no women in their lives

The critic Pauline Kael noted that the absence of women was really felt as a lack in this movie. The device of giving the heroes unimportant women characters for romance or bedmates, such as Eileen Brennan, reflect one of the worst sexiest eras in Hollywood’s history.

“The Sting” is a roguishly charming entertainment about big-time cardsharps and swindlers. But visually the movie is mechanical and impersonal, and you feel as if the music is meant to do the job of the story. The overlong movie (130 minutes) drags on, section after section.

The choice of a “frivolous” and “shallow” comedy as the Oscar winner caused many controversies. Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) found itself under severe attack from its more serious critics. Eyebrows were raised and questions asked: Is “The Sting” Oscar-caliber Is that the kind of film that should be honored with the most prestigious film award in the world?

Time has not been kind to the movie, and by today’s standards “The Sting” is an emotionally hollow comedy that benefits from the charm of its stars and flavorsome decor and costumes of the era. ¬†In many ways, this films suffers from the same weaknesses that defined “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

In general, George Roy Hill is one of the most overrated directors in American film, whose reputation depends on two or three decent movies.

 

Oscar Awards:

The Sting won 7 Oscars out of its 10 nominations:

Picture: Tony Bill, Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips, producers

Director: George Roy Hill

Story and Screenplay (Adapted): David Ward

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Henry Bumstead, James Payne

Scoring (Original or Adapted): Marvyn Hamlisch

Editing: William Reynolds Costume Design: Edith Head

Oscar Context

The film lost in 3 categories:

Actor Robert Redford

Cinematography Robert Surtees

Sound by Ronald K. Pierce and Robert Bertrand

 

 

 

 

 

 

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