Best Picture Academy Award winners don’t fall in too wide an array of categories. There are socially important movies, narratively dramatic films, musicals, inspiring tales, historical epics, and movies that fake all those things yet somehow still prove popular enough to get an award before everyone forgets it ever came out.
The Sting falls into perhaps the most exclusive Best Picture Oscar category of all: It’s a fucking blast. That’s it. While certainly well-made, the film really doesn’t care about being anything but fun and entertaining. There is no deeper message, no social lesson, and no magnificent personal grown among its characters. You can take the massive label “drama” and apply it to everything from a horror film like The Silence of the Lambs to a musical like West Side Story to a police thriller like The French Connection if you’re really willing to stretch it a bit. You cannot apply it to The Sting. The film is too concerned with being cool and fun.
I’m not surprised that a con man movie provides such entertainment. They tend to do that. Few cinematic thrills can match watching a crew of super smart professionals with different specialties do their thing. As far as pure fun goes, long-con films usually have one over on heist movies because the protagonists tend to win more often.
Not only do the protagonists win in The Sting, their plan doesn’t even hit any snags. The film brilliantly generates that sort of second act tension through side-stories in which Robert Redford’s character has to shake off assassins while also dealing with the FBI, leaving the big plan’s mechanism free of all wrinkles or last-minute improvisations. These guys are pros; nothing gets in the way of that. Besides, there’s tension enough already when the guy they’re ripping off is Robert Shaw.
Every con needs a mark, and here is another area at which The Sting makes perfection look easy. Robert Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan provides the film with a villain strong, smart, and threatening enough that he never once looks foolish despite an entire narrative that keeps him clueless and in the dark. Adding another layer of greatness to the film, Redford’s drive to hit Lonnegan is motivated not by greed but vengeance for the murder of his longtime partner. So we don’t have to waste any energy worrying about feeling sorry for the guy. That also means it’s a satisfying revenge movie, too!
Surprisingly, the film actually doesn’t give you the Robert Redford-Paul Newman buddy movie you might expect. Redford plays the rising rookie to Newman’s legendary mentor, but the two don’t really share much camaraderie. Redford has his side stories; Newman deals with his crew. They grow to respect each other, but this really isn’t a bro-down narrative. Fortunately, the film throws too much great stuff at too fast a pace for this to matter. And it’s not like they don’t share some great scenes together. I’m particularly fond of their first meeting - Redford forces Newman into a cold shower after finding him drunk, passed out, and worthless. Newman casually wakes up and without missing a beat retorts, “Glad to meet you kid. You’re a real horse’s ass.”
Like many extraordinary older films, The Sting feels totally modern. The characters will occasionally drop a “Shit!” here and there. Time has no softening effect on Shaw’s menace. And the film’s one real instance of violence is sudden and frank. And yet, the film also feels like a weird nexus point for a number of Hollywood eras. It’s too fun and not hard enough to be a true New Hollywood 1970s film. Shaw feels like he comes from a different world than Newman and Redford. Meanwhile character actors like Charles Durning and Ray Walston give it a late ‘70s, early ‘80s feel, as do the almost Cheers-esque opening credits.
We all have our specific wants and needs when it comes to what movies we enjoy. I’ll watch Jean-Claude Van Damme movies all day long; I don’t really expect anyone to join me, though. Nevertheless, some movies are good enough that overcome our pet preferences. You could show them to pretty much anyone on Earth and get a positive response. The Sting is one of those movies, the kind you should absolutely seek out and enjoy without hesitation. It’s a flat-out entertainment machine. So entertaining that it won a Best Picture Oscar on that level alone. I mean, the film even opens with Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” It’s seriously not fucking around when it comes to delivering a good time.