Silver Medal Syndrome

Over at this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, there was much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands when Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad (one of my favorite books of last year) defeated Skippy Dies in the first round. In the comments of the previous day’s bout, a reader noted something called “silver medal syndrome,” in which the gold medal winner was a compromise that people could agree upon, where the silver winner was one that some loved passionately and others argued against. Thus the passion-inspiring runner-up is usually a better bet for greatness. I thought this made a lot of sense, and reminded me of the descriptions from this article on the history of choosing the Booker prize winner. I was reminded again when I read Chris Nashawatny’s piece in Entertainment Weekly on “The Most Overrated Best Picture Winners Ever,” which is not available online.

Here were some of the upsets: High Noon was edged out by The Greatest Show on Earth. (I recently watched High Noon, and can attest to its quality.) Giant was passed by for Around the World in 80 Days. Oliver! won in a year that 2001 and Rosemary’s Baby weren’t even nominated. Ordinary People trumped Raging Bull and Scorcese got burned again when Dances with Wolves won against Goodfellas. Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction. English Patient trounced Fargo. American Beauty won in 1999, a year packed with great films like Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Magnolia, Boys Don’t Cry and Election. Crash beat Brokeback. I’d add that Hurt Locker beat Inglourious Basterds and this year The King’s Speech won out over Inception and The Social Network.

I’m sure Nashawatny’s critiques rubbed some people the wrong way, but there’s not an example here of a winner I’d rather see than any of the “losers”. In several cases, I think the loser has showed its merit by becoming a classic (e.g., High Noon) while the winner has faded into (deserved?) obscurity. What this means, though? So many more books and movies to check out, like Skippy Dies. I’d groan, but it’s a lovely problem to have.

2 Responses to “Silver Medal Syndrome”

  1. Amy Says:

    Can’t disagree at all. I used to seek out the Booker winners, but generally have found I prefer the runners-up. And the movies you’ve listed–absolutely, the best pictures in all those years wasn’t really. I haven’t seen King’s Speech yet, although I will (c’mon, it’s got Colin Firth!), but I’m hard-pressed to believe it was better than some of the others. Including Toy Story 3, which got a pat on its head by being nominated.

    Last year, I kept thinking that if either Hurt Locker or Basterds one, I’d be happy. But when Locker was announced, my first thought was: damn, shoulda been Basterds.

  2. carolyn Says:

    Heh. What a fun exercise. I like it when one loved BOTH the gold and silver instead of the gold being something one absolutely detested (Mel Gibson films, for me personally, are the example that springs to mind — I would rewatch “Rob Roy” a million times over before I will ever sit through “Braveheart” [and I know there were films I loved that were nominated against that piece of crap]).

    I loved the Goon Squad but I think my dad will really love Skippy Dies.