WHEN FILM CRITICS LOSE A BET, PART 1: The Oscar!
As you may recall, earlier this month I lost a bet with my esteemed colleague Julia Rhodes. The wager was simple: Whoever correctly predicted the most winners at this year’s Academy Awards would assign four articles to the loser. These articles would be non-negotiable, and as cruel as the winner desired. I myself spent many a day prior to the Academy Awards telecast huddled in the corner, lasciviously tapping my fingertips together and laughing a hearty supervillain’s laugh over my cunning plan to force Julia to sit through Garry Marshall’s The Other Sister… a harrowing experience from which I genuinely expected she would never recover. So when Julia thoroughly trounced me it was disconcerting (to say the least) and I dreaded my inevitably arduous fate.
True to form, the vile woman pulled out all the stops for her first assignment: I would have to track down a copy of, and subsequently review, Russel Rouse’s legendarily awful Hollywood melodrama The Oscar, starring Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer and Tony Bennett (yes, that Tony Bennett). To those of you who are unfamiliar with the film – which is as it should be, incidentally – the movie is an abominably melodramatic rags-to-riches story about the rise of fictitious actor Frankie Fane, who treats everyone like crap as he rises to Hollywood stardom. Just when it looks like his lifetime of cruelty is about to catch up with him he is unexpectedly nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, so he pulls out all the bastardly stops in order to win the award and save his career, even if it means destroying everyone else around him.
The film has a reputation as one of the biggest turkeys in Hollywood history, in large part due to its inclusion in The Golden Turkey Awards, a book dedicated to cataloguing the worst films ever made. To film critics, The Golden Turkey Awards are rather like The Necronomicon, except that both the book and the horrors that it calls forth are terrifyingly real. Having grown up reading The Golden Turkey Awards as if they were gospel, I had long been aware of The Oscar but had never had the opportunity to watch it. (My mother actually saw it in theaters upon its release, but those were dark times of which she speaks infrequently, if at all.) So Julia’s challenge felt not unlike a culmination of a life’s work, like the opening of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, except I was never as handsome as River Phoenix when I was a teenager. (That is to say, I was more handsome. But I digress…)
To put you in my mindset as I begin the review, I would like to quote a few passages from The Golden Turkey Awards, in which The Oscar’s Tony Bennett “won” for Worst Performance by a Popular Singer: “In terms of his dramatic approach, Mr. Bennett manages to sink to the occasion. He delivers his lines like a grade schooler reading Shakespeare aloud for the first time […] As far as genuine emotion is concerned, he left his heart in San Francisco.” The Oscar also managed a nomination for The Worst Lines of Romantic Dialogue in Hollywood History (we’ll get to some of those later), and placed 12th in the Reader’s Poll of the Worst Films Ever Made (although the book was published only 14 years after The Oscar’s release, so it was still relatively fresh in audiences’ minds).
The film opens at the Academy Awards. The year is clearly obscured – a feat which is possible, apparently – in an obvious attempt to keep the film from aging prematurely. (They failed, of course. The Oscar is a product of the 1960s if ever there was one.) Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) sits in the audience awaiting his Best Actor award as the camera instead finds Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett; that’s right, the archetypal Italian-American Tony Bennett stars as an Irish Jew… somehow he feels miscast…), who narrates the story of their lives together. The film then goes back in time a few years to find Fane performing standup comedy at a strip club (or as much of a strip club as could exist in a 1966 Hollywood production).
In the first of many bad signs that The Oscar is going to smell of elderberries, Bennett’s voice-over tells us how great Fane was at entertaining and manipulating a crowd, but he never shuts up long enough for the film to show us. It’s a cheap trick that screenwriters often use when a character is supposed to be a brilliant orator or writer, but the writers themselves aren’t actually up to the task. (I’m looking at you, Finding Forrester…) Making the issue even more bizarre is the fact that The Oscar was actually written by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison, who genuinely is a great writer. Maybe he was still working up to it.
Frankie and Hymie live with Frankie’s girlfriend and Hymie’s ex-girlfriend (ouch) Laurel Scott (Jill St. John). They’re down on their luck, out of dough, and even get arrested for prostitution. And not just any prostitution: Child prostitution. Ordinarily child prostitution is no laughing matter but we’ll make an exception for The Oscar since, unless Laurel has the most immaculate fake I.D. in history, no one with 20/20 vision would ever imagine that she was a day under 40. (EDIT: I just checked, and actually Jill St. John was in her mid-twenties at the time of filming. She just looks like she’s 40.)
After an unconvincing dustup with Laurel, Frankie and Hymie wind up in a swinging New York party (there’s even a black guy, and he’s not serving drinks, either… he looks like a guest! Ah, the Sixties…) where Frankie officially loses our sympathy for the first time. (Not that he ever regains it, mind you. It just only gets worse from here.) At the party he meets Kay Bergdahl (Elke Sommer), with whom he immediately engages in the most awkwardly written pickup routine ever.
Frankie: “You a tourist or a native?”
Kay: “Take one from Column A and one from Column B. You get an egg roll either way.”
Frankie: “I have a feeling I’m not going to get anywhere with you.”
Kay: “All depends where you’d like to get.”
Frankie: “Mostly I’d like to get alone with you somewhere.”
If you’re watching the film at home, at this point in the dialogue you have probably paused the movie to rewind a bit and review that “egg roll” line again. Don’t bother. It doesn’t make any more sense the second time. Or the fifth. I tried. This is probably as good a point as any to list some of the lines of dialogue in The Oscar that make you question the sanity of the people who wrote it, the director and producers who decided that they were worth filming, and the actors who somehow managed to vomit up the words with a straight face. Some favorites:
“Let’s get out of here before we grow webbed feet.” (Presumably this used to happen when people got old, but it’s news to me. Maybe it had something to do with Red Dye #5?)
“You’ve got a glass head and I can see right through it. It’s how I know you’re stupid.”
“You’re 42. There are plenty of good minutes left for you.”
“This is starting to smell, Yale. Put a little chlorophyll in the conversation!” (Your guess is as good as mine.)
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“But we’re running out of tomorrows!” (Somebody was probably very proud of that one.)
Back in the movie, Frankie dumps Laurel to inadequately woo Kay, who is a struggling costume designer. Frankie pulls a Bullets Over Broadway at the dress rehearsal of a play Kay is working on, and in an effort to illustrate that the theatrical knife fight looks less than realistic he challenges the actors to a knife fight on stage. Naturally, this captures the attention of talent agent Sophie Cantaro (Eleanor Parker), who thinks he’s some kind of method actor. Frankie goes to Hollywood (which I can only assume is where the band got its name from) and signs a contract with studio head Kenneth H. Regan (Joseph Cotton, in the first many genuinely depressing cameos in The Oscar). Frankie quickly trades up his representation, switching from Sophie to Alfred “Kappy” Kapstetter (Milton Berle, the second of the aforementioned depressing cameos) and begins an acting career which we rather pointedly never see.
Frankie gets a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy (Hedda Hopper appears as herself… but then how could Hedda Hopper resist?) and invites Hymie to his swank new digs – Shag carpeting! – in order to… actually, that’s never terribly clear. Frankie already has a (surprisingly entitled) house boy Sam, played by Jack Yoo as a hilarious Japanese-American Robert Mitchum-type, so all Hymie ever seems to need to do is hang around the house and work on his moping. Meanwhile, Frankie’s busy acting off-screen and trying to seduce Kay on-screen, who appears to be interning under Edith Head (also appearing as herself, but tragically without a single line of dialogue to her credit).
Kay says she doesn’t want anything to do with Frankie but keeps letting him to hang around anyway, proving to Frankie that she actually loves being treated like dirt and, of course, she really does. This isn’t subtext, either. It’s explicitly stated shortly before they get married in Mexico where they meet private detective Barney Yale (Ernest Borgnine, yet another depressing cameo) and his soon-to-be ex-wife Trina (Edie Adams). That’s not important for a while, but don’t go forgetting about it. Incidentally, Mexico is full of Mexicans who will marry you one minute and try to sell you a stolen watch the next. Ah, the Sixties…
Naturally, the minute Frank and Kay get married she becomes a nagging housewife and he loses all interest (which I’d comment on, but anything I said would probably cause Julia to smack me). Frankie gets a wake-up call in the form of maître d’ Sam Marks (Peter Lawford, yet another depressing cameo), who used to be a big star himself but now barely makes ends meet working in the food service industry. Frankie suspects he’s looking into the future, and he’s right. He’s overplayed his hand at the studio and Kenneth Regan has decided not to renew his contract. Frankie’s flat broke, and he might even have to – Gasp! – star in a television pilot! (Nothing could be worse!) But just when all seems lost Hymie calls him to announce that Frankie’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor… and the plot finally kicks in.
Yes, that’s right. The plot finally kicks in over an hour into the film. The rags to riches tale we’ve been watching thus far isn’t so much a story as it is a sequence of events. Frankie’s a jerk and gets rewarded for it throughout most of The Oscar’s running time, and now that he might finally pay for being such a jerk (Remember Laurel? She died off-screen by the way… Frankie didn’t really notice and frankly neither did we), director Russell Rouse tries to eke suspense out of whether or not he’ll be able to manipulate the Oscar votes in his favor and save his career. Of course, by now the audience doesn’t want Frankie to save his career. He’s a complete a-hole, and not even a charismatic one.
Frankie’s machinations to win the Academy Award include leaking tragic sob stories about his life to the press via Ernest Borgnine’s private detective in an effort to cull sympathy from his peers (told you that would be important later), but then the P.I. tries to blackmail Frankie and… Well, that’s about it. That’s the whole plot. His marriage to Kay devolves into one of the dumbest powder keg dinner table arguments ever filmed, in which Kay and Hymie take turns ripping Frankie a well-deserved new one. (“Bye, Frankie! And I hope the Oscar keeps you warm on cold nights!” “Yeah, go on and run! You’re too stupid to understand!”) Sam the Houseboy is there too, but the film disappointingly moves on before he can sneak in a few licks of his own in those distinctive, dulcet tones…
The Oscar finally ends in a wonderful display of pointlessness as we finally catch up to the opening scene and watch the Academy Awards as Frankie… loses the Oscar to Frank Sinatra. Frankie even thinks they’re calling his name and gets up, only to accidentally start a standing ovation for the Chairman of the Board. What was the point of this, exactly? All the Machiavellian machinations Frankie undergoes had no effect on the outcome of the awards. Is the message then that the Oscars are incorruptible, or just that they are incomprehensible? One of the tragedies of the film is that we never see Frankie actually act in any of his films, or any of the other nominees for that matter, so we have no idea if the better actor actually won. The fact that the film cast Frank Sinatra as the winner appears to indicate that the filmmakers thought it would be satisfying if a popular entertainer won the award instead, but doesn’t that turn The Oscars right back into a popularity contest in a plot point that was apparently designed to prove otherwise?
The Oscar is a stupid, stupid, stupid movie, but it’s not actually as bad as you might think. I doubt it’s playing on too many cable stations in Hell, not when there are plenty of Manos: The Hands of Fates and Homeroom: Heart of Americas to go around. It’s just an embarrassment for everyone involved. Tony Bennett more than earns his Golden Turkey Award in a hapless hangdog performance that fails to evoke any sympathy, and Elke Sommer – an otherwise rather talented actress – has nothing to work with in her stereotypical and sexist female lead.
But perhaps most pitiable is Stephen Boyd, who despite prominent appearances in Hollywood epics like Ben-Hur and Fantastic Voyage probably saw The Oscar as something of a breakout role. Sadly his performance is easily the worst in the film: He’s horribly wooden the whole time except for sporadic bursts of frantic gesticulation in which he inexplicably shouts in a Cuban accent. (He was born in Ireland, too, so there are no easy answers to that one.) He also has a distracting tendency to swat at invisible bees for some reason. Depending on the camera angle, just looking at Boyd conjurs bizarre images of Jean-Claude Van Damme in his prime… or of Chris Pine in a very unkind future.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone thought The Oscar was a good idea for a film: “Let’s make a movie about the Academy Awards that shows how the nominees are lowlifes who stab each other in the back just to get their hands on the Oscar! The Academy will love it!” The results are epically campy, and as enormous a melodramatic mess as has ever been captured on film. And somehow… it’s not even available on DVD. Shocking, no?
There. I nailed it. Is that all you got, Julia? Huh?! Bring it on, b…
What was that for…?!