Monday, June 27, 2011

Understanding "Overrated"

“That’s so overrated!” “He’s/She’s so overrated!” “They’re overrated!”

If I had a penny for every time I read or heard the word “overrated” as it relates to classic film, I’d be the world’s wealthiest--and therefore best--blogger.

Overrated: To overestimate the merits of; rate too highly.

I don’t know how this term came to such heavy usage. I associate it with people under thirty who happen to see a classic film and come away from it less than impressed. “Yeah, I saw [classic movie title here] and it was okay, but it’s so overrated. Cary Grant is so overrated. John Wayne is overrated. Katharine Hepburn is overrated. Audrey Hepburn is overrated. Bette Davis is overrated.”

This scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan illustrates so much that is wrong with the term “Overrated”:

Yale: “LeWitt is overrated. In fact,
he may be a candidate for the academy.”

Mary: “Right!”

Yale: “Mary and I have invented the Academy
of the Overrated for such notables as

- Gustav Mahler,
- Isak Dinesen and Carl Jung.”

Yale: “ Scott Fitzgerald.”
Mary: “ Lenny Bruce. Can't forget him, can we?”

Yale: “How about Norman Mailer?”
Isaac: “I think those people are all terrific.”

Isaac: “Gee, what about Mozart?
You guys don't wanna leave out Mozart.”

Isaac: “Get her away from me. I don't think
I can take too much more of her.”

What exactly does this “Overrated” stuff actually mean? “That it’s unworthy of its praise”, said a workmate of mine one day last year. He’s a Twentysomething, so you knew that was coming.

There are several reasons why people—mostly young people, but also older people who are unfamiliar with something but when they finally see it they don’t think much of it anyway. Let’s see if I can nail down some of the reasons why something earns the Overrated tag:

1. The Arrogance of Youth. “Unworthy of its praise”, as my colleague said. That’s a hugely arrogant viewpoint, one I take to mean: “My opinion negates all that has come before it! I have spoken!” It’s perhaps an unfair criticism, but it’s natural for the next generation to knock what came before it. However, it’s largely a knee jerk reaction to something but it’s a viewpoint that mellows with time and experience.

2. Overexposure. Take for example Star Wars. A movie which was once considered a towering achievement. It was a box office smash and ushered in new special effects technology, revitalized the Golden Age-style film score, and otherwise entered the popular vernacular. Star Wars profoundly influenced the marketing of movies (for better or worse) and has become a folk tale to people who weren’t born when the movie was released in 1977. However, endless regurgitations of how great it is, with the dialogue endlessly plastered all over pop culture, and its influence over subsequent (lesser) cinematic efforts have made Star Wars into something we take for granted because its presence is so pervasive. The media culture devours and spits out everything new and popular, so all films get this treatment. By the way, I’m of the age group (I’m shoving forty) that grew up worshipping Star Wars, but now I can’t stand it. LOL

Most kids despise their elders’ stories. Imagine having to sit through one’s grandfather reminisce over the Great Depression and how he walked uphill both ways to school every morning, or how about some Baby Boomer’s drug-addled ramblings over how great Woodstock was: “There’s nothing worse than a Baby Boomer reminiscing”, I always say. Isn’t this the same group who said “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.” Those Boomers sure remember a lot about something they’re supposed to forget. However, there is something to be said about the reputation of a film diminishing its impact, but that’s more the fault of media overexposure than anything wrong with the movie itself. I can sympathize with a young person’s point of view.

3. People Only Relate to Their Own Time. People tend to ridicule anything that came before their birth, so the entirety of the world as it once was is closed off to them. Many of them don’t have the ability to view something in the context in which it was made. Any movie, no matter how “timeless” it’s supposed to be, is of the era in which it’s made. Most young people today won’t notice the importance of the scene in Casablanca when the Nazis are drowned out by the French singing La Marseillaise. They merely see it as some silly singing contest. A little research into World War II may help one understand the scene’s original context and imagine what it would’ve meant to the audiences of 1943 (besides being a propaganda tool, of course). I often tell young skeptics to wait a few years until their beloved and revered pop movies and music get skewered by the generation after theirs; it’ll happen, just you wait…

4. Special Effects. According to that same workmate, the shark in Jaws “looked so fake.” I asked him if he thought that CGI effects looked more realistic. He said yes. I then asked if he failed to notice how “fake” and unrealistic the movement was of a CGI animal that was supposed to be running. The thing looked huge, but leapt around as though it had no weight to it. It moved like an object much lighter and smaller than it was supposed to be. It also resembled a video game graphic rather than a living, furry beast. His beloved CGI was already dated and horrendously phony looking and it wasn’t even five years old.

My first reaction to people proclaiming something as overrated is to believe that not much thought has gone into that statement and that they’re dismissing all that was before them because they have the notion that something old is already out of date and useless, like a three-month-old gallon of milk. It’s just not so. We tend to believe that anything of the here and now is somehow superior to what came before it. It’s the assumption that newer automatically means better, when in fact there are things from the now and the then that are worth keeping, while both eras also have elements that can be jettisoned.


  1. I always think of how much people are missing who refuse to watch anything older than when they were born.

    My husband enjoys a lot of the old movies we watch together, he never watched them before we met. (I'm 31, he's 35).

    The best was when I caught him re-watching my DVD of "Arsenic and Old Lace" by himself one morning.

  2. I agree, although I much prefer the past to the present (movie wise at least). We don't seem to have the writers that we had in the past. Everything is special effects and shock value. The art of conversation that was at it's peak in the thirties and forties seems to have passed us by.

    By the way.......I am a baby boomer and I do remember the sixties...AND... I was there. LOL

  3. Fantastic! Although um, you can't stand Star Wars? Say it's not so!

    Oh I'm stealing this because it's awesome:
    “My opinion negates all that has come before it! I have spoken!”

    Sometimes it's just ignorance and people making assumptions about movies/actors without ever seeing them.

  4. I thought I'd try out the show that recently won the podcast award for the LAMMYs. One of the speakers referred to most films made before 1970 as 'so called classics' and considered watching them 'work.' I gave it another minute or two then turned it off.

    I wrote an academic paper a few years ago about the notion of a thing being overrated, and the circumstances that have to be in place for people to feel that way. I won't vomit is back up here, but I think your post is right on the money.

  5. I've got the feeling, "overrated" is very often an expression of jealousy. Above all fans of actresses are jealous of other actresses' success. They feel, their one and only idol is the best, the smartest, the most beautiful &ct./&ct. of all. Sometimes there's even downright hate going on. And of course, it's a question of different philosophies of life. I said it several times before, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur were two different moral universes, and there are countless other examples....

    So very often, if people feel, a film, an actor, or actress is overrated, they actually mean: "My favorite film, actor, actress is UNDERRATED and that annoys me!"

    There are two films, which are rather anti-Jean-Arthur: GONE WITH THE WIND* and CASABLANCA. Indeed, I don't like the first one (because Vivian Leigh is like an awfully arrogant, affected, spoiled princess); the second one I find very-very good, and really Oscar worthy (ALTHOUGH Casablanca took the Oscar chances away from Jean Arthur's and Cary Grant's THE TALK OF THE TOWN).

    I don't think, I ever used the term "overrated". This expression unveils a jealous, impatient, intolerant, and maybe even hating character. It's more honest to say, the film, actor, actress I prefer is underrated.

    But there's another point: If a film has been shown too often, and the majority considers it "good", quite some people find it neat, to call it "overrated". Because they feel like cultural avant-garde, kind of important then. So this is actually nothing but vanity of actually stupid people. Often they can't even tell the difference between a good and a bad films -- they just babble.

    * Jean was definitely Scarlett, untill Leigh appeared.

  6. Mooshkin: I know people who classify anything older than three years ago as "old"! It's insane!

    Debbie: Being there and remembering it certainly merits a lengthy post/explanation, don't you think? ;)

    Trixie: I wrote this on the spur of the hour early this morning, so I apologize for any and all errors. I'm terrified of reading stuff I post the day I post it.

    There are people our age who know nothing of anything pre-Star Wars. BTW, I like Star Wars, but there are times when I just need to step away...

    Mark: I'm glad you agree with me. Coming from you, that means a lot. I'm mystified over the abundance of message board topics and blog lists that routinely knock legitimately great films or artists, which is why I put the Manhattan dialogue in the post; that overrated stuff went on then, too.

  7. "I don't think I ever used the term "overrated". This expression unveils a jealous, impatient, intolerant, and maybe even hating character. It's more honest to say, the film, actor, actress I prefer is underrated."

    The simple thing that the "it's overrated" crowd fails to remember is that it's possible to not like something but at the same time be able to understand why others do. There's no way in this old brown world that I'm gonna sit through Gone With the Wind again, but that doesn't mean my opinion of the movie should eradicate all the love that millions of fans have for it.

    It seems to me that having a differing opinion has become a sort of tyranny for some people. Or, as I (apparently) so well put it: "My opinion negates all that has come before it! I have spoken!" :D

    I also find that people who label with the overrated tag often fail to explain why they don't like a movie. Labeling something overrated becomes an excuse to not think.

  8. Exactly. I absolutely agree with you. If I for example am absolutely frank about the way I see Dietrich and Monroe, I have to admit it's fear. It would probably be easier for me, to hate those women. But in fact I feel sorry for Monroe. It's just that I don't want to live and end up that way. Dietrich has human feelings and dignity as well. And if she gets an Oscar, I have to accept that.

    I do understand if other people like Dietrich and Monroe. Although those same people often tend to say, "Clarissa is awfully old-fashioned and conservative", I expect myself to understand. Because not wanting to understand different people leads to not understanding them indeed -- and this finally leads to stupidity. Intolerance is stupid, and this is what I would fear most -- degenerating my own brain....

    I have GONE WITH THE WIND (got it cheaply) -- still have to see it completely. If a film is sooo long, I feel sick and tired after all. But oh well, there must be a certain quality in this, I still have to discover....

    Let's not forget this: In our days, text gets more and more unpopular and people prefer images. On my WordPress blog I can see very well, how many people click just the screen shots. Many of them probably don't read the article -- they want nothing but pics. It's been said, many people leave school, and aren't able to understand any text. So, if those people judge a film, it can't be sophisticated at all. And how should they be able to understand the very sophisticated ideas behind films like "Holiday" or "You Can't Take It With You"? It seems, something got lost in human brains, which actually is necessary to get those old films.

  9. I also hate the term overrated. Basically it's just another way to say you don't like something.

    There are a lot of well regarded films/actors/actresses I don't personally care for but this doesn't mean they are overrated. It just so happens that I might personally dislike something a lot of other people might like. However I don't think my opinion is superior to everyone else. I feel when people are saying something is overrated they are saying the majority is wrong & only their opinion is worthy.

    The only time I will say something is overrated is when something just comes out and people are already claiming it's the best thing ever....let it stand the test of time first.

  10. Clarissa:

    I get more hits from that Ginger Rogers dress picture than almost anything else, though my "infamous" Liz Taylor post has far and away the most views, by some ten thousand hits!

    I tried commenting on your blogger version of Sweet and Hot but there's a screw up with blogger. Try switching to comments in a separate window; that's what i did here. :)

  11. Some excellent observations. You always have to view a work of art, whether it be a film, a recording or whatever, in the context of its own time -- a reason why movie remakes, from "My Man Godfrey" to "Arthur," begin their at-bat with an 0-2 count. It's difficult to recapture the magic of something brilliant when the landscape has changed.

  12. Lots of interesting comments. I'm trying hard to avoid working through all the different ways postmodernism is creeping into this.

    At any rate, let's not completely dismiss the notion of "overrated." Admittedly, it's much less onerous to say a film or performer is underrated: "Geraldine Page is incredibly underrated!" That was easy, and harmless.

    But it can be a lot of fun — and quite educational — to see what happens when we call a thing overrated. You just went through this exercise with the Oscar Travesties series, pointing out films and performers that had been "overrated" by the Academy. I wouldn't have missed that series for the world!

    What's incumbent upon people is to try to get away from their association of "like" = "good," and "don't like" = "bad." This is the thing that takes the most time to work through with new college art students. In critiques students are generally not permitted to use like and don't like — they are encouraged to use instead: strong, weak, successful, unsuccessful, appropriate, inappropriate, and so forth. These more impersonal words force students to think more critically, to move away from personal opinion and towards something…far more reasoned.

  13. I've avoided using terms like overrated mainly because i try never to give the impression that i feel my opinion is the only correct one. I think people sometimes forget film is a subjective medium.

    I mean, 2001 is a movie that is regarded as a masterpiece that didn't move me very much. But i avoided calling it overrated in my review of it.

    I think some people just forget that a opinion is a opinion, and not fact

  14. If you look up "Overrated" in the dictionary I have, there is a photo of Greta Garbo.

    It's the best dictionary of all time.

  15. In an addendum to your points (all of which I agree with), I think part of it has to do with Kids These Days growing up with a more-than-healthy suspicion of authority. (And I'm allowed to say this because I'm in my 20s.) Claiming that something is overrated is a way of expressing that--sure, all those critics said Citizen Kane was great, but what gives those critics a right to dictate what's great to the rest of us, etc etc? Sure, it's a young and immature reaction, but calling something overrated is, for many people, a way of asserting their independence.

    Personally I find it kind of silly that "overrated" necessarily has to have negative connotation at all. I love plenty of overrated movies--Gone with the Wind and Casablanca both among them--and certainly wouldn't argue that that detracts from their charm. In some ways it adds to it, because you can find a fellow fan wherever you go. (That's something that was a major part of the appeal with the "overrated" yet enjoyable Harry Potter franchise, in my opinion--the series itself wasn't particularly brilliant or groundbreaking, but the fact that reading the books and waiting around for them and discussing them was something you could do with all of your closest friends offers an experience that most of us will only get a few times in a lifetime.)

    On a side note, I completely agree on that CGI! I watched a few movies in the much-acclaimed Lord of the Rings series recently, and was shocked at how dated the CGI appeared already. It was hard for me to get past. As something of the reverse of the example in your post, though, I can always look past rear projection in classic films, no matter how terribly done . . . but that slightly dated CGI was throwing me for a loop!

  16. If I can suggest a No. 5 -- the inability to watch a truly innovative film and respect that it was the first to achieve what it did, before everyone else stole from it, making it seem stale. People need to watch Orson Welles' and Alfred Hitchcock's movies in this way. Also, from TV, watch any number of episodes of The Twilight Zone and realize how many filmmakers since have been ripping off Rod Serling.

    Star Wars is entertaining but hardly innovative. George Lucas took a lot from World War II action movies and set it in space. It embarrasses me to think there are kids out there who'll see a Nazi soldier and think his helmet looks like Vader's, not the other way around.

    How many younger folks are simply missing out because they won't watch a B&W or a silent film?

  17. "Star Wars is entertaining but hardly innovative. George Lucas took a lot from World War II action movies and set it in space."

    I agree with your point, but I was thinking more in the way of the summer blockbuster concept, the marketing of crossover merchandise, and its ushering in effects-driven "epics."

    I also believe that Star Wars takes a lot from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. After all, everybody steals from everybody.

  18. I'm actually not interested in modern film, but it's interesting to hear that World War II films influenced Star Wars.

    "Stealing" is pretty normal in human creativity. It is a wrong idea, that things should have to be created just out of nothing. The quality wouldn't be right then. Today we believe in individualism, so we expect each creative mind to be absolutely unique. No, we humans are depending on each other, as we depend on what generations did before us. We are social beings, that cannot exist without fellow humans. Without them I couldn't type this here right now -- I just had to write it into the sand, or on an animal hide or something.

    If you just listen to Bach and Handel, not being interested in the composers they've 'stolen' from, you probably think, they would be one of those assumed unique geniuses -- but they're not. ;o)

  19. Excellent post and, sadly, so true. "Overrated" often just means "misunderstood".

  20. Did you see this?

  21. Robert: Yes, I did! I'd love to go. That Blu-ray 40th anniversary dvd set looks like a "real" reason for me to upgrade.

  22. To be honest I do find Casablanca as dull as dishwater and therefore overrated. And I love Bogart - he is one of my all time fave actors.

  23. And the most overrated film of all time - Star Wars

  24. I think it's funny how you spent so much of your little blog on overrated bashing everyone who isn't from YOUR generation for bashing things that aren't from THEIR generation. Pure irony.

    Furthermore, you have some balls claiming that young people can't appreciate a scene in Casablanca because they don't understand world war II. Are you saying that because I am 27 and you are 40 that you understand WWII, or conflict in general, better than I do because I am younger? I would beg to differ. I am willing to bet I've had far more personal experience with war than you have.

    And, I don't see how it's so ridiculous for people of a younger generation, who have first hand experience with superior knowledge, technology, and advancement in talent of the very new artform of acting and directing, to notice the shortcomings of those who came before. I also don't see what's so horrible about hearing older people reminisce about what it was like when they grew up. Both are good lessons on understanding from where we come in order to get where we are going.

    I think your article is stupid gibberish. I would call you overrated, but I doubt you're even rated at all in the first place.

  25. Dexter is NOT overrated, my friend -- he presents one of the very rare classic movie blogs, which are really intelligent. We have blah-blah enough!!

    You're coming in here like a snappy dog, which just had to bite somebody -- well that's how it sounds to me. Very aggressive and rude. Dexter didn't attack anybody personally, like you're doing now.

    I have friends who are even under twenty, and yet MORE conservative than Dexter seems to be. And I like that, because I'm just the same.

    By the way, is Dexter really 40 -- I thought he was much younger. ;o)

  26. Clarissa: Thanks for your stout support. Though technically I won't be 40 until August 22. In the meantime, I'm a Jack Bennyesque 39. :)

    Dubulous: For something you call "stupid gibberish", the post certainly moved you enough to open a blogger profile and type out a long, passionate response. Thanks for commenting.

  27. Hi CK, my name is Martin Turnbull and I'm a BIG fan of your blog. I am also about to publish a novel set in Hollywood in the late 1920s and thought I'd drop you a line to let you know that (a) my novel will be coming out later this year, and (b) I have added a link to your wonderful blog on my "BLOG AND LINKS" page.

    All the best,
    Martin Turnbull

  28. Good post and comments. I think overrated is just another way of saying you don't like a film and can't understand why it is well regarded by others.
    I think the word underrated is used even more to express annoyance that a film or star we like is not so highly thought of by others.
    I think both words are a waste of time and are used far too often.



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