“I want my favorites to get the high ratings — my judgments are being challenged by anonymous forces whom I cannot confront.”
More than any other kind of ratings, listing, or grading, the four-star movie rating system is useless, less for its inconsistencies than for a lack of standards and context. Besides, too many critics use it, thus creating the inconsistency, and their gauge — poor, fair, good, excellent — is too general.
For years I have been tempted to collate the ratings from the occasional no stars (I remember two receiving this distinction: Cat O’ Nine Tails  and Ruby ) to 4 stars — not to mention the ½ stars in between. Necessarily, the impetus to research such a piece comes after witnessing several egregious mis-applications of these stars. First, in a newspaper, I saw 2 ½ stars for Last Tango in Paris (1972). Second, Ebert gave Donnie Darko (2001) 2 ½ stars at a time when he seemed to give 3 stars liberally to special-effect laden excuses for entertainment. Most of all, it never seems as if a truly great film can distance itself enough qualitatively from a three-star effort.
I realize that my response to these injustices merely draws me into the 4-star rating game. I want my favorites to get the high ratings — my judgments are being challenged by anonymous forces whom I cannot confront. And while I believe that 5- and 10-star/points ratings are better, and a 100-point system most preferable, personally, I would abstain from all of them. Just give me the analysis, and from that I can tell whether the critic’s taste and judgment are worth anything.
What finally prompts my indignation to the point of writing now? A chance observation at a newspaper’s television grid a week ago revealed the following about three movies playing on AMC: Mad Max (1979), Easy Rider (1969), and Smokey and the Bandit (1977) were all given ***. Had I known nothing about these films, the ratings would have told me the three movies were worth watching, but not necessarily very good or excellent. I would also have assumed that their relative qualities were equal.
I would not have known that perhaps two of them had greatly significant status in the history of movies. Nor would I have figured out that each movie had widely different audiences at the time of their releases — one thing was true, regardless of the rating, that all of them were very big hits.
What I did know was that a programming intelligence put these three movies together. Road movies in which the protagonists live precariously on society’s fringe, part criminal and part hero, and there they pursue their destiny: vengeance, tweaking the police, playing road games, and courting death.
Mad Max put the Australian film industry on the map and made Mel Gibson an international star (and began his sequence of revenge-themed films from Lethal Weapon and Hamlet to Braveheart and Payback). And I could not object to Easy Rider being associated with Mad Max, both having a rough edge to their productions that one would expect from anti-Hollywood, independent films. As Max launched Gibson’s career, Easy Rider introduced a not-quite-so-new Jack Nicholson, starting him on his regular run for Oscars with a Best-Supporting Actor nomination. Easy Rider was also one of the first independent films to find a large public. More: it defined a generation. According to Tim Dirks at filmsite.org: “Easy Rider, one of the first films of its kind, was a ritualistic experience and viewed (often repeatedly) by youthful audiences in the late 1960s as a reflection of their hopes of liberation and fears of the Establishment.” It validated the independent film as had Mad Max the Australian film.
Unless we are going to call Smokey and the Bandit the “Citizen Kane of C.B. movies,” one cannot put it on equal footing, at any level, with the other two movies. Reviving Burt Reynolds’ career is not enough. Perhaps by comparison to the other Smokey and C.B. movies, Bandit deserves 3 stars. Yet a brief look at Smokey II (1980) and you realize that this franchise was full of its own success. Its creators thought that they could pull off a redneck version of 8½ (Reynolds = Mastroianni: it’s plainly unacceptable) in one of the grossest misreadings of its core audience. Reynolds picked up the slack from the Smokey trilogy in the mid-1980s with the Cannonball Run movies and Stroker Ace, and this legacy alone should relegate Smokey and the Bandit to substantially fewer stars than given to Easy Rider and Mad Max.
And I haven’t even mentioned Smokey himself, Jackie Gleason (right), and the parade of roles that put a humiliating flourish to a comic genius’ career!
Perhaps you can judge the movies by the company they keep. Amidst the decade in which our three movies appeared, many road movies appeared. Deathrace 2000 (1975), with David Carradine and Sly Stallone, comes to mind. Perhaps the best of the bunch were Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point (both 1971). Yet road films by their very nature have limited characterizations and plots, thus garnering insufficient respect and *s over the years.
An anti-authoritarian view is the standard for a road film, but of our original three only Easy Rider appeared at the apex of the revolt against the establishment. In the worlds of Mad Max and Smokey and the Bandit, civil authority was either absent in the anarchic world of post-Apocalypse Australia or just plain laughable in the lawless American South. Whereas Easy Rider contributed to the erosion of authoritarian society. If we play the “star game,” doesn’t this rate at least an extra ½ star?
* * *
Unfortunately, Ebert’s site did not have two of the three films. What can we conclude from them? Perhaps, somewhere you can always find a champion for a film. The data from the IMDb, with some movies getting 140,000 and more votes, a consensus might be reached, although too many films get high ratings driven by the immediate enthusiasm for the films. Films prior to the internet age have a competitive disadvantage — thus, it is impressive when older films crack the top 100.
Mad Max received a 6.9 (out of 10) rating from IMDb; Easy Rider, a 7.3; Smokey and the Bandit, 6.6.
The Apollo Guide gave Mad Max a 69 (out of 100), whereas Smokey and the Bandit received an 84. Easy Rider wasn’t rated. Would Apollo have rated it higher or lower than Smokey? (On a slightly depressing note, I just glanced at the Smokey rating and on the same page Time Bandits was rated 64.)
Rotten Tomatoes comes back and restores apparent critical order by giving Mad Max a 7.6 (out of 10); Easy Rider a 7.9; and Smokey and the Bandit, 6.2.
There appears to be more consistency when TV Guide rates Mad Max 3½ (out of 4); Easy Rider, 4; and Smokey, 1½.
Joe Blow DVD gave Mad Max 4½ (out of 5) and Easy Rider 4 (Smokey was unrated).
But then ecritic reviews blows everything to hell when it rates Smokey 4½ (out of 5), equal to Easy Rider and a quarter fraction above Mad Max.