The origins of The Oscar is murky simply because no one seems to want to touch it – either as a video release, or via an in-depth historical essay on how this cinematic kitsch was born as a novel, and one of the best bad movies ever made.
Author Richard Sale had already written scores of B-level screenplays for TV and film before pooling his experience with Hollywood into a novel about a ruthless actor who will do just about anything to become a star, and ensure his chances of winning a Best Actor Oscar aren’t neutered by the competition.
Introspective, serious examinations of Hollywood by its own writers and directors weren’t new by the sixties. The dual versions of A Star Is Born (1937 and 1954) dealt with jealousy between a rising star and her falling producer husband, as well eyeing the Oscar statue as the crown jewel of career success; The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) was centered around an ebullient, controlling producer; and All About Eve (1950) focused on a feted but noxious aging star whose behaviour established a pattern through which a younger, egocentric actress could emulate and achieve her own Oscar-winning success.
But Sale’s story took things further, perhaps borrowing some zest and amoral zeal from Budd Schulberg’s classic Hollywood 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? which producers had wanted to turn into a feature film for years. Schulberg’s tale of an avaricious youth who rises from the slums and becomes a top studio exec seemed to have been reworked into the otherwise standard tale of a hungry lion who rises to the top by stepping on a few human skulls.
The Oscar was further goosed with sleazy elements, including dark secrets (lead character Frank Fane and buddy Hymie Kelly earned their keep by working with a stripper) that endanger Fane’s chance at Oscar fame, as well as contemporary industry issues which were quite risqué, considering AMPAS – the body behind the Oscars – gave their support to the filmmakers.
There’s a speech that Kenneth Regan (Joseph Cotton) gives to Fane (Stephen Boyd) at a party to celebrate the actor’s nomination that’s delightfully ironic. Regan admits his loathing for the young actor with whom he gambled and now regards as box office poison for a series of loser films, but he’s decided to support Fane’s nomination because a blackmail scheme that threatens to ruin Fane is also an offence to the moral standing of what the Oscars and Hollywood represent: earnest creative brilliance, and a respectful symbiotic relationship between art and commerce.
Sale’s prose in that scene infers Hollywood is steeped in bullshit - something bigwig Regan fails to see outside of Fane being the wrong man to fete because of the actor’s sociopathic habit of mucking up other peoples’ lives, be it his long-suffering wife Sophie (Elke Sommer), his stepinfetchit buddy Hymie (Tony Bennett), or agent Kappy Kapstetter (Milton Berle) who repeated loses slivers of dignity whenever Fane bickers about contracts, whines about money, debt, and having to earn his keep in a thing known as television.
If the volcanic bad dialogue were rendered banal and the actors’ performances were ratcheted down a bit, one could find some very nasty jabs at the reality of egocentric stars who spent their way into financial ruin, and had Hollywood’s establishment turn on them for insubordination and poor profits, as well as scrambling to find some dignified venue to remain stars when reality was making it virtually impossible.
Fane’s gift is being lucky just in the neck of time, but whenever he edges close to ruin, the film’s three screenwriters (director Russell Rouse, Rouse’s occasional collaborator and the film’s producer Clarence Greene, and, er, Harlan Ellison) let the characters engage in some sobering quips about being a has-been star, settling for a B-level horror with aging stars from the prior generation, and gambling on a TV pilot that, if never sold, would be pinned to the star’s chest like a big neon sign reading Failure.
The quest for the bald Oscar statue is just a ruse through which the writers serve up some acerbic dialogue about actors, studios, and a system that itself was going through changes. The studios were losing money from big budget duds (Cleopatra itself almost killed Fox in 1963), selling off their backlots to developers, and reducing their roster of contract actors. More importantly, the glimmer of old line studio stars were being usurped by pop stars, drive-in teen icons, and young actors making waves on TV; none of these factors are actually acknowledged in the film, but it’s in the subtext.
Esthetically, the film is quite ugly. It doesn’t appear to have been shot for proper widescreen exhibition because the actors by and large remain within the square ‘TV safe’ frame; only occasionally are actors close to the edge, but there’s no active panning and scanning in the available TV transfers. The colour scheme, set décor and set designs may have seemed hip for the mid-sixties, but the emphasis on orange, puce, pastel reds, and chunky woody browns is cringe-inducing.
Percy Faith’s score is a weird mix of string-heavy lounge arrangements that often go against the dramatic grain of the actors and serious conflicts at play. The production’s effort to make use of popular music styles and sounds backfired by transforming the film into instant kitsch because it’s set in a world of an aging star system; even Boyd, who may match the vulgarity and virility of Fane, feels a bit too old to play a punk hustler who becomes an industry star.
The Oscar also looks like a compromised production where half of the budget went towards waxing AMPAS to use the Oscar paraphernalia and logos, as well as casting contemporary stars in amusing cameos. Much of the film was shot in large indoor sets. There are few exterior sequences of note, and even a bullfighting sequence in Mexico looks cheap, with glaring lighting continuity between the seated actors in a studio, and second unit footage of what may be the fastest bullfight on film (bull’s already out, is then seen with lances in its shoulders, and keels over dead within a minute).
Executive produced by Joseph E. Levine, the film was part of his own brief wave of rather salacious dramas set in the entertainment world, and big stars tended to be the selling point of each film: Jean Harlow headed the glossy sleazefest Harlow (1965), a Sammy Glick / Eve hybrid in The Oscar; and a gifted jazzman coping with a hard life in A Man Called Adam (1966).
The films in that trilogy are jazzy characters: they’re glamorous, hip for their time, and propelled by rushing energies. That may explain why it was believed smooth jazz crooner Tony Bennett would fit the film, but instead of bringing class, the novice actor was trapped in a clichéd character: Hymie Kelly is a loser who pouts, shuffles away, and often stares with silent wide eyes as he’s berated by his so-called friend.
Bennett gets one or two big scenes at the end when he finally stands up for himself, but they’re late in the drama (although his use of a wooden trash bin and kicking Fane in the kidneys when the actor’s down are magically awful). Bennett had flirted with acting prior to The Oscar, but it obviously pushed him back to singing jazz music, and the crooner stayed away from acting until an appearance in a 1994 episode of Evening Shade.
As Fane’s emotionally and sexually neglected wife, Sommer is pure eye candy, but her character has little other purpose since the writers made no effort to explain why the two remain married, and she eats his bullshit by the ladle; Kay asks Fane plenty of questions, but she gets no answers (and neither do we).
The Oscar is peppered with plenty of industry luminaries and personnel. Small roles are played by Jean Hale, Ed Begley, and Jack Soo, whereas secondary roles include Broderick Crawford playing (what else?) a cop who arrests Fane, Kelly and stripper Laurel Scott (Jill St. John) for their lewd activities; Eleanor Parker is Fane’s one-time supporter and conquest; already waning star Peter Lawford plays a once-popular matinee star serving and restocking wine at a swanky Hollywood lounge; and Edie Adams is the ex-wife of a duplicitous duplicitous private eye (Ernest Borgnine) that Fane meets in Mexico.
People playing themselves include vile gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, costume designer Edith Head, Oscar presenters Merle Oberon and emcee Bob Hope, and unbilled cameos by Hollywood insider Army Archerd and Frank Sinatra.
The Oscar is genuinely the kind of pungent fromage created from an accidental blending of elements that sounded good on paper, ended up being really bad on film, but as a whole, aged into something deliciously inimitable.
Boyd delivers his ridiculous dialogue with a locked animated style (he keeps doing odd finger swirling gestures when trying to win arguments), Jill St. John strips in the first reel when not shouting at Boyd, and Sommer pouts in a black teddy and shows part of her backside before getting slapped in the fannie.
(Sommer also delivers the film's naughtiest innuendo. While dancing with the private detective in a Mexican nightclub, Fane cuts in to drag her away for some potential romance. Relieved to be free from the unwanted stranger, she quips to Fane, “There’s only two places that I’m not bruised.” Really? I wonder where…)
The way Tony Bennett was costumed and photographed, he has no neck, and appears catatonic most of the time (maybe from poor blood circulation); the finale at ‘the Oscars’ is painfully funny for a grandiose moment of humiliation; and Berle delivers the best paragraph on exactly who or what is Frank Fane:
“Have you ever seen a moth smashed against a window? It leaves the dust of its wings. You’re like that, Frankie. You leave a powder of dirt everwhere you touch.”
Good, God, what awesomely awful magic. Surely someone cares enough to restore this film for a brilliant, celebratory 45th anniversary DVD in 2011?
Star Boyd had accomplished a John Wayne career misstep a year before The Oscar by appearing as Jamuga in the dreary epic Genghis Khan (1965), and would follow up with Fantastic Voyage and the nutty epic The Bible in 1966 before he too would follow the path of aging stars and appear in largely forgotten fodder like Shalako (1968), do some TV work, and end his career with the horror film Lady Dracula (1978).
Director Rouse, though, would direct one more film, The Caper of the Golden Bulls (1967), also starring Boyd, and author Color Me Dead (1969), an update of Rouse’s best-known script D.O.A. (1950), before withdrawing from filmmaking.
Perhaps the Oscar Curse also affects those who make films based around its golden lore…
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan