I highly recommend visiting goatdogblog’s Blogathon entry and reading the terrific blogs that participated – just click on the picture to take you to the list. There are some wonderful movies being blogged about!
Unfortunately, “The Oscar” (1966) is not one of those wonderful movies. It’s a tepid melodrama that fails to reach full-on camp, and thus becomes a thin soup of bad acting and false fables. There is a punchline at the end, however, that almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. As always, there are spoilers — there is no way I could blog about this without telling you the punchline. No way.
The film opens at the Oscar ceremonies where actor Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) is walking the red carpet. He’s been nominated for the Best Actor award, and you can hardly hear him talk to the interviewer because of the screeching girls behind him. They sound like they are in pain. I’ll skip the obvious joke.
The opening credits are footage from actual Oscar ceremonies, and since you can see what appears to be “37th” on the sign, it is probably the ceremony held in 1965 for films of 1964. The actual Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is used for indoor shots — the Oscars didn’t move to Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until 1969 — and Bob Hope is the emcee, yet one never feels as though this is a real ceremony. Sitting a few rows away from Frankie is Hymie, played by Tony Bennett in his first film role. Hymie, who is in full Barthelmess Stare, starts to narrate a flashback à la “All About Eve”; one can tell immediately that Bennett is no actor.
Several years ago, Frankie and Hymie worked together at a seedy strip bar with Frankie’s girlfriend Laurel (Jill St. John.) When the owner of the bar threatened to take some of their pay, Frankie beat him up, stole his money, and the trio ran away. They’re stopped by the police, led by a corrupt sheriff (Broderick Crawford in an unintentional but terrific Eugene Pallette impression), and charged falsely with pimping and prostitution. Crawford is the first of many cameos by real-life Hollywood almost-legends. Well, one cameo besides Bob Hope is an actual legend above and beyond being simply well-known, but I won’t spoil it for you. Yet.
Frankie is supposed to be both hip and mean, an exciting character that women can’t help but be attracted to. Unfortunately, his dialogue seems to have been written by the proverbial chimps at typewriters. Unhip chimps at typewriters who don’t make sense. The more professional, experienced actors manage to convey meaning and context to clumsy lines, but Boyd and Elke Summer often struggle with the words. It’s also pretty annoying to hear “birdseed” and “shucking” as a G-rated stand ins for profanity. Harlan Ellison is partly responsible for this hideous, poorly-written script, and since he didn’t use the name Cordwainer Bird as he is wont to do with work he’s not proud of, I can only assume he stood by the final product.
Stephen Boyd may have been a good actor at one point. “The Oscar” was shown on TCM during a schedule chosen by humorist Bill Maher, who says in the outro that for a brief moment, Boyd was a huge star. That’s either an exaggeration for effect or a lie. Boyd became a star after his role in “Ben-Hur” (1959) but never made it past second-lead parts in a few well-known films. He was on the shortlist for the role of James Bond in “Dr. No” (1962) and was initially cast as Antony in “Cleopatra” (1963), but neither role panned out for him, and his chance at huge success was lost. By 1966 and “The Oscar” he was old news; according to the IMDb he always thought the failure of his 1964 film “Fall of the Roman Empire” was the reason he lost out at stardom, but I suspect his acting ability had more to do with it. He is thoroughly terrible in “The Oscar”.
Hymie, Laurel and Frankie run out while on bail and head to New York, where Laurel gets a job dancing at a bar. The owner (Ed Begley) doesn’t like Frankie and won’t hire him, making Laurel the breadwinner in their relationship. Frankie takes advantage to become a layabout jerk, causing fights because Laurel just wants him to get a job and stop leeching off her.
Hymie lives with them as well, and one night after Laurel goes to work, Frankie tags along with Hymie to a hot party. He meets Kay (Elke Sommer) and her perpetual Vaseline lens. Every shot of Elke involves a Vaseline lens, and it is pathetic. Kay and Frankie engage in a few moments of pseudo-intellectual talk — if you call Elke and her thick, slurred accent saying “Take one from column A, two from column B, you get an egg roll either way” as intellectual — and quickly start talking about Kay’s virginity. Okay then. It’s stupid dialogue and horrid delivery, and it ends with Stephen Boyd laughing in the most unattractive, doofy “hurh hurh hurh” I’ve ever heard on screen. It’s the kind of laugh someone fakes to make themselves sound stupid for a joke. Boyd laughs like this again later in the film, so I can only assume it was his real laugh. Unfortunate.
Laurel and Hymie are both angry with Frankie for sleeping around and being a freeloader. Frankie’s response is to scream at Laurel, threaten Hymie, then run off in a huff. This is how Frankie deals with all his problems, but Hymie defends him by saying that his mother is to blame. Frankie’s mother was a prostitute, and Frankie’s father killed himself because of it, so of course you can see why Frankie treats all women like something he scraped off his shoe. It’s because they are. When will you women stop being evil to these poor men? Haven’t they been through enough?
I should mention that Frankie’s dad found out about dear old mom being a hooker because Frankie told him. Nice guy, that Frankie.
Whoops, the sarcasm got out again. Moving along: Frankie cuts off all ties with Laurel and Hymie, gets a job at the costume design company Kay works at, and tags along with her when she drops off some costumes at a play. He decides the actors rehearsing a knife fight for a play are ridiculous, so he jumps up on the stage and physically threatens everyone with a knife, proclaiming “That’s how it’s done!” as he walks off.
The play’s director, Sophie Cantaro (Eleanor Parker), is intrigued. Hey, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a guy who grabs someone from behind and threatens to slit their throat? We all know that no one would put their film in jeopardy by hiring someone who thinks it’s acceptable to attempt to stab people for realism; just ask Brandon Lee or Jackson “Rock” Pinckney what it’s like when movies aren’t careful about prop weaponry. Frankie is a nightmare waiting to happen, and it’s so obvious that you can’t for one moment believe that dozens of people would be suckered in. Frankie has no charm, what are people attracted to? His v-neck sweaters and Sansabelt slacks?
Sophie gets Frankie an agent, Alfred “Kappy” Kapstetter (Milton Berle), and a contract with studio chief Kenneth Regan (Joseph Cotten). When Frankie becomes a bit of a star he sends for Hymie. He asks what has happened to Laurel, and Hymie answers that he married her, but she died. The movie decides that that’s enough of that talk, even though I know we’ll find out Frankie was somehow responsible for her death. I just know it.
Anyhow, Frankie keeps busy dating movie starlets for mutual publicity. He makes a career of humiliating the starlets in front of the press, fighting with them and insulting them to the entertainment of others, not just for his own publicity but because starlets are women and women are no good.
By now it’s clear that these incidents aren’t simply to show Frankie in a bad light. Someone involved in the film — writers, directors, whoever — decided Frankie’s behavior wasn’t all that bad, considering he was dealing with women. We’re expected to identify with Frankie a little because women are such nuisances. All the women in his life are the same, too. Laurel says the same things as Kay who says the same things as Sophie. They all have identical flaws — they’re attracted to men who are cruel to them, they work in showbiz, they’re gorgeous and stylish, their demands for respect are treated as shrill complaints — and there are identical restagings of the same scenes with each woman, most notably a post-coital scene where Frankie is too busy looking at himself in the mirror to notice the nude woman on his bed. Because the movie concerns itself so much with presenting women as all the same, evil, vapid, or silly, we can’t take it at face value about anything.
The humiliate-the-starlets act works and Frankie gets bigger and better parts. Tony Bennett narrates us through a very quick few years of Frankie’s rich lifestyle, where Hymie is still his friend and Frankie is still humiliating Cheryl Barker, the starlet we saw moments earlier. On the lot, Frankie is surprised to see Kay, who has been hired on to work with Edith Head (pictured below).
We discover Frankie’s a huge star, because when he goes out to dinner with Cheryl, a gaggle of girls has been standing screen left waiting for their cue to pretend to be screaming fans. Later we see jump cuts in the middle of strides and sentences cut off in the midst of words. Oof. Someone fire the editor!
During dinner Frankie deliberately turns Cheryl’s head so her face won’t be in photos with him, and takes over a conversation when Hedda Hopper (playing herself) arrives to chat. He ends the dinner by dumping salad all over Cheryl. Everyone laughs and someone snaps a photo, because it’s so apparent that she deserved to be humiliated. She is a woman after all, and a woman can’t scheme to try to get ahead in showbiz. That’s a job for a man like Frankie.
Frankie saw Kay that evening at the restaurant and afterwards goes to her house, promising her dinner. Instead they arrive at his yacht which he has named after her. She’s not convinced he cares for her and says he’s the same cretin as ever, just in fancier clothes. Sulking, Frankie goes to Sophie’s place, where we discover they had been having a fling until he inexplicably stopped talking to her 2 months prior.
Eleanor Parker gives a great performance, a breathy, passionate, over-the-top scene-stealer straight out of the Lana Turner Handbook. After sleeping with Sophie, Frankie leaves while cutting her down by lobbing cruel insults at her for being so pathetic, because a beautiful 44-year-old woman wanting love with a 38-year-old man is just so wrong. Or maybe it’s because she has had multiple lovers, I don’t know, but the next time we see Sophie she is once again chastised for being so pathetic, and it’s not believable. She’s too beautiful, too confident, too right about Frankie to be pathetic.
Frankie goes to dinner with Kappy and discovers the maître d’, played by Peter Lawford, is a formerly famous actor who has resorted to restaurant work. After dinner is canceled, Frankie searches out the maître d’ to offer him a role, but he refuses. He’s cynical and bitter and warns Frankie that he’s going to get eaten by The Biz, too. I’d say this was foreshadowing, but a loathsome little scum like Frankie won’t get eaten alive, he’ll epically screw up and get cast out, if anything.
Frankie bullies Kappy into making Kay a designer on his movie and put the studio head “up against the wall” when he learns a technicality in his contract that means it can be renegotiated. Kappy and Hymie both plead with him not to be rash, but he screams and threatens and gets his way, just like always, because this is a Hollywood fable about an asshole.
Poor Boyd is sorely outmatched by Milton Berle. Berle was never my favorite comedian but he was a fine actor. His natural line delivery and perfect timing dominate this scene. It’s odd that Berle is one of the more understated actors in the film but it’s true; “The Oscar” could have been a scenery-chewing delight, a guilty pleasure on par with “Valley of the Dolls” or “Peyton Place”, but instead it hovers steadily at the edge of camp without going completely overboard.
Kay is charmed by Frankie getting her a job and she agrees to go with him to Tijuana on a quick romantic getaway. While in Tijuana Kay and Frankie get married, and meet Barnie and Trina Yale who get divorced. After one night Frankie turns back into a selfish pig who won’t look at Kay when he talks to her, just like he wouldn’t look at Laurel.
Frankie keeps sleeping with other women thanks to his friend Hymie finding dates through what Hymie calls “The Hymie Kelly Broad Procuring Agency”. He laments that he didn’t know what to call himself, that “at least a garbage man applying for a credit card could call himself a sanitation disposal expert”. Kay sulks over Frankie’s late nights and his refusal to sleep with her anymore. When she calls the studio to see if he’s still there, she complains that she’s turned into the kind of woman that everyone hates. UGH. What a revolting segment. Don’t worry, kids, that wasn’t the end of the sexism and classism, because apparently this movie had all kinds of dignity left to lose.
Meanwhile, Frankie’s star is on the wane. His movies make no money and Regan and Sophie are tired of dealing with him. Kappy tries to save him and jumps all over Sophie for being so malicious to poor Frankie. GRR. Frankie initially says he doesn’t need Regan but when he finds out he didn’t get “that spy thing” with another studio — a little self-referential jab at him losing the role in “Dr No”, maybe? — he starts to panic.
Out of the blue, Frankie gets nominated for an Oscar. He decides to not do a television show he’s offered and weasels out of the agreement, throwing Kappy under the bus while he’s at it. For a moment Frankie feels guilty and even has the stereotypical nightmare, but never fear, folks. He has some skeevy plan already in the works.
He cuts a deal with Barney Yale to get the story of his arrest years ago with Hymie and Laurel on the front page. He does this knowing people will assume one of the other nominees has planted the story just to eliminate him from competition, and in turn he may get a lot of sympathy votes when he sadly confesses. Clearly he doesn’t care that the departed Laurel or current pal Hymie are smeared along with him, or that Hymie now has a reputation for being a pimp as he was falsely charged years ago.
Things start to fall apart for Frankie: Barney Yale is blackmailing him but he doesn’t have enough money, Kappy has quit and Barney’s ex Trina knows more about the blackmail than she probably should. Ultimately she does decide to help him, and Frankie gets out from under the blackmail shadow, but not before seriously considering murder as a solution.
Hymie is mortified and tells Frankie off, punches are thrown, Kay finally realizes Frankie is evil — it’s ridiculous that she and Hymie ever thought otherwise or stuck around this long — and they leave him. Frankie hollers after them that they were freeloaders, which is what Laurel had called him when she kicked him out year earlier. He says it several times, of course, because this film doesn’t do subtlety. It hammers every point home so thoroughly that one feels compelled to wear a helmet.
And now the flashback is done. We’re back to the Oscars, where Merle Oberon announces the Academy Award for Best Actor goes to Frank… Sinatra! HA! This isn’t supposed to be funny, but it is, it’s a total punchline at the end of a 2-hour long joke. Sinatra claims his award as we watch Frankie’s dreams crushed before us, which manifests itself exactly as though Frankie were a mime pretending to be smooshed by a 2-ton anvil.
There weren’t many scenes of movies in this movie, so I feel a bit like I’ve cheated the theme of the Movies About Movies Blogathon. The film is about Hollywood, though — a Hollywood where everyone is decent and honest and nice and only psychopaths like Frankie fight to the teeth to get to the top — so I figure this was close enough.
Professor Wagstaff’s review – You should have just read this instead of my review, because it’s 1000 times better. Ha! Suckers! The good Dr. Wagstaff and I both saw elements of other films in “The Oscar”, but we differ on Frankie’s character. I feel the film tries to make him somewhat sympathetic, but time and society have changed so much that now, in 2008, he’s an irredeemable, dangerous cretin. In 1966 he was more of a cruel manipulator and not necessarily an outright psychopath. But Wagstaff does peg Bill Maher as “truly odious”, so I’ll forgive him anything.