Bad Movies To Love I: The Oscar (1966)

Doing that write-up on Harlan Ellison earlier reminded me of how I needed to go back and re-watch The Oscar again, a wonderfully over-the-top piece of SEE HOLLYWOOD’S SEAMY UNDERSIDE!!!! from the mid ’60s.

The story falls into the sub-genre of “ambitious Machiavellian backstabber does ANYTHING for stardom” that you can find elements of in everything from All About Eve to Valley Of The Dolls, and Stephen Boyd’s portrayal of Frankie Fane leaves no room for subtlety or sympathy on our part – he’s a total bastard from the get-go, and unlike the main characters in most Hollywood movies, he undergoes no change by the end of the film.

Lest you think The Oscar is an Antonioni-styled endless exploration into character study, the movie seems to be more an exercise in giving Frankie numerous opportunities to realize what a cad he’s been and redeem himself, only to see him stick another knife in someone else until he finally gets his come-uppance in the end. The plot is a simple formula, and not the true source for the appeal of this movie on the levels of camp humor it attains. What we can enjoy here are the numerous cameos, casting choices, and consistently ridiculously over-written and pseudo-hip dialogue that makes us wonder what universe we’ve landed in.

The story is told in flashback after an opening at the Oscar ceremony, where we see Frankie’s rise to fame and all the people he screwed along the way, both literally and figuratively. Structurally, this set-up was used again in 1983’s The Lonely Lady, another piece of dreck with a lot of unintentionally funny lines here and there, only this time the victimization is reversed, with Pia Zadora’s Jerilee being at the receiving end of abuse from her peers and from showbiz before getting her treasured writing nomination. There’s even a direct rip-off of Boyd’s nightmare sequence in The Oscar, where he’s tormented by the voices of various people from earlier in the film surrounded by scary fog effects (Cut to Count Floyd: “Ooo, kids! That’s scaaaaary!“), which is paid “homage” when Pia’s typewriter keys sprout the faces of everyone who has abused her in the film (I wonder what she waters them with?), and spin around her until she cowers in the corner and has the courtesy to dissolve to the mental institution that we also presumably saw back in Valley Of The Dolls when it was Neely O’Hara’s drug rehab. In any case, as we follow the rise of Frankie from his days as nudie-club barker for his stripper girlfriend played by Jill St. John to his later Hollywood success, we see example after example of what a total scumbag he is. The origins of this asshole-idness is explained only by his lifelong pal Hymie Kelly, played by Tony Bennett of all people, who recounts the story of how Frankie’s whore mom drove his cuckold dad to suicide after Frankie forced the truth on him, presumably as a father’s day gift when the store ran out of ties.

So we have Jill St. John as a stripper, Tony Bennett as an Irish Jew, and later on we get Milton Berle as an honest agent with a heart of gold (This universe is getting stranger and stranger), Joseph Cotten (right in the middle of a fascinating career trajectory that took him from Citizen Kane to Soylent Green) as a studio chief with integrity, Elke Sommer as the ice princess who makes the TERRIBLE MISTAKE of falling in LOVE with that BASTARD!, Peter Lawford as an actor who has fallen so far that he’s now just a maitre’d, and just to make sure we’re going to run the table, Ernest Borgnine as a sleazy detective, with Edie Adams as his moll!

At the center of this galaxy is Stephen Boyd, in all his Stephen Boyd-ness. If you thought he could go from wooden to Yelly McAngry on a dime in Ben-Hur, you haven’t lived until you see this, where he gets the snappy reparteé of “Quit bangin’ on my ears, I’m sick and tired of your bring-down!” or “If you’re tired of me, then change the scenery!” along with a demonstration of his chops for old ‘n’ horny theater agent Eleanor Parker, when he fakes her out by pretending to cry when Elke Sommer walks out on him and his boorish behavior, only to start laughing and reveal that, Hey baby, I was acting, get it? Never mind that the acting is, as this guy who writes a hell of a review puts it, “straight out of the William Shatner school of method acting.”

Besides the dialogue, for me it’s the head-shaking, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moments that fascinate – the Hollywood depicted here is one in which agents and studio chiefs are honest and have integrity, and the actors that believe they are being treated like cattle are in the wrong – when Frankie invites Hymie over to his swingin’ Hollywood bachelor pad and the pool area is literally wall-to-wall chaise-lounge bikini-chick land and Frankie informs us “This is nuthin’, you should see it on a weekend!” and then laughs like a cross between Butthead and a billygoat – when Hymie explains the recipe of huevos rancheros to Milton Berle despite Berle being the one who actually lives in Los Angeles – the WAAAAHHHH horn blare we hear when the strip club owner pulls a knife on Frankie – the deliberate matching of the ways that Eleanor Parker and Elke Sommer lie in bed, wrapped strategically with the sheet, reflected through mirrors where Stephen Boyd is only concerned with looking at himself dress, shot with identical Batman-style tilted angles – Stephen Boyd’s robotic clapping like a spastic seal when the Oscar goes to Frank…..Sinatra! – I could go on and on about how entertaining I find this stupid movie. And isn’t that the key to what makes a bad movie to love? It entertains us, only not in the way intended.

Since I can’t find a clip of the SCTV parody of this, “The Nobel” (you’ll have to scroll down the link to find it), I’ll leave you with the climactic scene of the flashback sequence which I did manage to find, and serves to remind me how much I love to hear Tony Bennett say “whore” the EXACT same way Joe Pantoliano said it on The Sopranos.

Why don’t they show this before the REAL Oscars every year on TCM? Why hasn’t this been released on DVD yet with some commentary tracks?

Birdseed! I’ve had it up to here with this bringdown!

UPDATE! On Monday June 16, TCM will be showing The Oscar at 11pm Eastern. You have to put up with the truly odious Bill Maher as guest programmer, but at least he made them haul this one out of the vaults so he can show you how hip he is for knowing about it. Does TCM running a pristine print of the thing mean a DVD release is imminent? We shall see…

Evidently, the TCM airing has led many of you to my little site – the hits on this particular piece are way up suddenly. Welcome! Feel free to look around! Click on the “Movies” category for more! 🙂

UPDATE II: Welcome to all the Vanity Fair readers & a tip o’the Wagstaff (Yeah I know, they took care of that at my b’ris) to James Wolcott for leading you here.

14 thoughts on “Bad Movies To Love I: The Oscar (1966)

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  1. You & me both. I left suggestions at the TCM website for it, but I don’t think it’s in their library. The VHS of it is out of print, but turns up on eBay every now and then. Sigh.

  2. I just saw this last night for the first time, classic stuff! the entire movie is just so bad you laugh the whole time.

    Frankie’s voice sounds just like Phil Hartman when he played the drunk sailor in the Pee Wee Herman show.

    1. Haw Haw! I kept trying to figure out what sort of voice Boyd was using – it sounded to me like he was trying to use a sort of gangster-tough American accent. He sounds different in Fantastic Voyage and Ben-Hur, so the Frankie Fane voice is definitely a conscious effort on his part.

      I was glad to see TCM haul this out again – perhaps they own it now & will make a ritual of running it right before Oscar time, besides spur a real DVD release.

  3. Great review!

    My girlfriend and I unwittingly came across The Oscar last night and were instantly struck its strange and hypnotically overdrawn form of badness.

    Glad to see some other curious watchers found their way to your blog, too.

    1. Thanks! There are some films that have a certain kind of badness that’s very entertaining. It’s a particular aesthetic I actually did some scholarship on long ago, so I’m always on the lookout for any examples of it.

  4. After ABC televised the first run of the Pic in late 1968 or early 1969, one of my high school classmates started quoting and imitating Frankie Fain, the camp actor version of Sammy Glick. I now live Hollywood adjacent, and would not be surprised to run into my old high school chum any day now.

  5. Bill Maher-odious? Please. Give us a break. The guy is f**kin’ brilliant. Oh, and “The Oscar”, is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen.

  6. Great review. Just watched the whole movie on At least it’s there while we wait…hopefully not in vain…for it to come out on dvd.

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