In defense of forgotten Oscar-winner 'Sunrise'

Sunrise_lWhy all the haterade poured on Sunrise? The 1927 silent classic was the target of a slur uttered by Cameron Diaz at this year’s Oscars (in patter written by someone else), and now, it’s getting slagged by Tom O’Neil at the Los Angeles TimesGold Derby blog. Oscar expert O’Neil writes that he finally has seen Sunrise, which shared the first Best Picture Oscar with Wings in 1928, and he doesn’t think it’s all that. He slams its two-dimensional characters and thin plot and finds it not nearly as exciting as Wings, which had some thrilling aerial dogfight sequences.

Now, O’Neil is a fine awards-show historian and oddsmaker, but he reveals in this post that he’s no movie critic. Sunrise does indeed have archetypal characters (they don’t even have names) and minimal plotting because it’s a freakin’ parable. Sounds obvious, but it’s a point that apparently eluded O’Neil. Sunrise isn’t about plot and character, it’s about intense human passions (love, betrayal, homicidal frenzy, mercy, redemption, reconciliation). It’s also about the pleasures and terrors of modernity, the tension and uncertainty of an uncomplicated pastoral past giving way to an exciting but chaotic urban future. Mostly, it’s about director F.W. Murnau’s ability to convey complex emotional states through gorgeously realized silent black-and-white images. True, there are no airplane battles, but to dismiss Sunrise for that reason is like saying Monet’s a dull artist because waterlilies and haystacks bore you.

I have nothing against challenging the conventional wisdom, but sometimes, that wisdom is conventional for a good reason. Elsewhere in the post, O’Neil praises The Crowd, another acknowledged masterpiece of 1927 that got robbed at the Oscars. So I know he cares about history, context, and quality filmmaking. I don’t think he’s furthering any of those causes with a gratuitous, uninformed rant about a movie that should be on the must-see-before-you-die list of everyone who cares about film.

addCredit(“Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien: Everett Collection”)

Comments (11 total) Add your comment
  • JRL

    I agree with this post, except for it’s praise for Tom O’Neil as a fine awards historian. Then again, it is hard to take Tom O’Neil seriously when he just now got around to finally watching “Sunrise.” How to these guys get hired to critique movies when they have no background or appreciation for the medium? “Wings” is better than “Sunrise”? Is he kidding or is he writing a late April Fools day post? Of course, he also lists “Titanic” and “Peggy Sue Got Married” as being two of his top 10 favorite films of all time. Good God, where’s a real critic, like Kenneth Turan, when you need him.

  • MNJohn

    Yeah, O’Neil missed the mark. It’s one thing to think that The Crowd deserved the award over Sunrise (a very understandable assessment with some good merit), but slamming Sunrise just proves idiocy-this film is in the Top 10 best Silent Films ever made. O’Neil’s “awards expert” title would be far more smartly conferred on someone who knows both the Oscars and taste, like Robert Osborne.

  • mjryan

    Sunrise is currently saved on my DVR. I can’t wait to watch it.

  • Winona

    I’m just glad that EW’s finally blogging about silent films! ;-)

  • Nix

    O’Neil is not a critic, he’s an Oscars fanatic, and every year around January he rolls out ever more inane “what if this happens” “the buzz is this” etc. and then will go on and on about the latest glorious musical. Oh, look, Susman, I found a job I hate more than movie critic: movie awards pundit.

  • anon

    Apples and oranges. Which do you like best. Pick one.
    What a great job that guy has.

  • Laurie

    To Mr. O’Neil:
    OMG, a movie you don’t like won an Oscar? The HORROR. I wonder if there’s a support group so you could start to heal and move past the pain.
    someone who clearly has no taste and loves Sunrise

  • Hilarious

    Did anyone read Tom O’Neill’s petulant remarks in the comments section after his story? Geez, what a loon. No wonder he doesn’t even understand what Sunrise was trying to accomplish.

  • theREELaddict

    Glad to see someone is sticking up for the gorgeous and phenomenal SUNRISE, and also gets that some films aren’t about stories, but about bigger ideas. To use a contemporary example, it drives me nuts when people complain that THERE WILL BE BLOOD has a cliche story, or a boring story, or simple characters. Not really the point. It’s kind of like people reading James Joyce or Marcel Proust and complaining about the lack of story. Those kinds of works are about bigger ideas, as you so nicely pointed out, Mr. Susman.

  • Redondo

    I’m glad to see others share my low opinion of Tom O’Neil-he’s so f*cking annoying and douchey.

  • Brad

    Tom has a long history of being a moron, which is why his frequently being interviewed and referenced by the media (including EW) astounds me. It’s best to pay no mind to anything Tom has to say.

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