The Best Picture Winners: Patton (1970)

| December 2, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I don’t have the slightest idea what the real General George S. Patton Jr. was like.  I don’t know how he walked, how he talked, how held himself.  Truth be told, I probably couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup.  I know the red letter facts from the history books, but my mental imagery of Patton comes from the magnificent performance of George C. Scott.  It is he that comes to mind when I hear Patton’s name, not the real thing.

Scott is so magnanimous in his portrayal of Patton that I have to take pauses to find the words to even describe it.  The image of Scott as Patton, standing in front of an enormous American Flag, dressed like a profligated potentate, grouching that “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser” are as much a part of our American cinematic heritage as Rosebud, the ruby slippers, the lightsaber, Rick’s Cafe and HAL 9000.

The performance would define his career and would, in fact, define the movie more than the movie itself.  If you haven’t seen Patton in a long while then you are hard-pressed to remember anything about it outside of Scott’s performance.

Maybe that’s a good thing.  Here was a man so magnanimous, so blustery and so larger-than-life that it is only fitting that he lords over his own movie in a way that leaves everything else in tiny shadows.  Rumor and speculation about the life of Patton made him a legend in his own time and perhaps Scott enhances some of that, but thankfully he leaves us with an extraordinary portrait of one of the most colorful figures of the 20th century.

With that, I am back and forth on whether or not the film should have been rewarded with a Best Picture Oscar.  Since the whole movie is tied up in Scott’s performance, perhaps the Best Actor win was enough.  This Best Picture Oscar could easily have gone to the year’s other war epic MASH, a movie that offers more weight to cinema history because its anti-war sentiments are a fitting  measuring point to show how far Hollywood had come from the union it held with the military during World War II.

And speaking of unity, there lies a terrific irony at the center of this film.  While Patton is defined as Scott greatest acting triumph, it was an award the the actor famously declined on the grounds that actors should not be placed in competition.  He was at home on Oscar night watching the hockey game.

Despite his objections the academy would keep Scott’s Oscar available to him for the rest of his life, just in case he changed his mind (he didn’t).  It hardly matters anyway.  He is left with the legacy of playing perhaps the juiciest role any actor could ever have been given.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.