Sunday, June 26, 2016

THE OSCAR 1966

“You finally made it, Frankie. Oscar Night!. And here you sit, on top of a glass mountain called ‘success.’ You’re one of the chosen five, and the whole town’s holding its breath to see who won it. It’s been quite a climb, hasn’t it, Frankie? Down at the bottom, scuffling for dimes in those smokers, all the way to the top. Magic Hollywood! Ever think about it? I do, friend Frankie, I do….”

And thus begins one of the most sublimely terrible movies ever to grace the screen. Rife with overelaborate hyperbole (even in the 60s, few took the Oscars as seriously as this potboiler suggests), labored clichés, and the name “Frankie” repeated three times in a brief paragraph (the three, count ‘em three, screenwriters responsible for this gilt-edged burlesque must have thought they were writing for the radio. Characters keep repeating the name of the very person to whom they're speaking.)

With nary an ironic or self-aware bone in its overfamiliar, moth-eaten body, The Oscar is the kind of pandering-yet-earnest, self-serious Hollywood trash no one has the tragically unhip, old-school, out-of-touch naiveté + clueless moxie to know how to make anymore. A 1966 film that would have felt warmed-over in 1960 (the year Ocean’s Eleven and Sinatra’s Rat Pack made this kind of clean-cut, pomaded, sharkskin suited, ring-a-ding-ding brand of cool into a veritable brand), The Oscar is from the Joseph E. Levine (The Carpetbaggers, Harlow) school of overlit, elephantine artifice. Every interior looks like a soundstage, everyone’s clothes look as though they’d never been worn before, and the characters are so lacquered and lovingly photographed, they resemble department store mannequins. As though encouraged to get into the spirit of things, The Oscars’ flirting-with-obsolescence “all-star cast” (eight Oscar winners in all) gleefully comply with the latter by giving hyperactive, yet mannequin-stiff, performances wholly unacquainted with the psychology,  movement patterns, or vocal rhythms of normal human behavior.
With each viewing of this unrelentingly unconvincing take on what I assume was intend to be a cautionary tale on the dangers of unbridled ambition, I grow less and less surprised that one of its screenwriters (Harlan Ellison) is known principally for his work in science fiction.
Stephen Boyd as Frankie Fane
"I'm fighting for my life! And there's a spiked boot for anyone who gets in my way!"
Elke Sommer as Kay Bergdahl
"It's that seed of rot inside of you which makes you what you are that
you can't change. You just dress it better!"
Tony Bennett as Hymie Kelly
"You lie down with pigs, you come up smelling like garbage!"
Eleanor Parker as Sophie Cantaro
"You go after what you want. In some men it's admirable, in you it's...unclean!"
Milton Berle as Arthur "Kappy" Kapstetter
"You never know you're on the way out until you suddenly
realize it would take a ticket to get back in."

The Oscar, subtitled: Memoirs of a Hollywood Louse, is an unabashed laundry list of every show biz/Hollywood cliché handed down since What Price Hollywood? (1932). A beyond-camp, glossy soap opera which stands as a reminder that when it comes to churning out overripe and overwrought melodrama, the Dolls of the Valley and Beyond sometimes can’t hold a candle to the hilariously hirsute histrionics of hardier sex.

Stephen Boyd, he of the narrow frame and chiseled, Tom of Finland profile, is Frankie Fane; your garden-variety ruthless user with a suitable-for-movie-marquees alliterative name (I don't recommend anyone try playing a drinking game in which you take a shot every time someone in the film says Frankie’s name, you'll be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning by the 20-minute mark).
As this told-in-flashback opus begins, Frankie and longtime buddy Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett, making his film debut / swansong and looking like he wished he were back in San Francisco with his heart) are eking out a living largely thanks to the bump and grind efforts of Frankie’s stripper girlfriend, Laurel Scott (Jill St. John).
Jill St. John as Laurel Scott
"What does he think I am, dirt? Every morning I'd get the feeling
he was gonna leave two dollars on the dresser for me!"
After a nasty run-in with a crooked sheriff—a bulldoggish Broderick Crawford playing the flip side of his Highway Patrol TV character (1955-1959)—the vagabond trio thumb a ride to NYC where breadwinner Laurel (who’s, of course, basically a nice, decent girl who just wants “a kid”) soon tires of Frankie's freeloading. This in spite of the fact that Hymie, the perennial 3rd wheel, appears to be living with them and shows no sign of being any more gainfully employed than his pal.
As audiences wait in vain for Hymie to happen upon a microphone and solve everyone’s problems by discovering a latent talent for singing (and in the bargain provide a much-needed respite from the film’s ceaseless stream of risible dialog and ‘60s slang); Frankie the hound dog decides to accompany Hymie to “a swingin’ party in the village…lots of chicks” where he meets aspiring costume designer Kay Bergdahl (Sommer). In no time Frankie makes his move:
“You a tourist or a native?”
“Take one from column A and two from column B and get an egg roll either way.”

On the strength of that doozy, one would be forgiven for leaping to the conclusion that Kay might perhaps be suffering a stroke-related episode and in need of immediate medical attention, but not our Frankie. Clearly smitten by Kay’s pouting accent, silk-awning bangs, and mink eyelashes, our smarmy antihero instead continues to engage the comely blond in more Haiku-inspired small talk. Kay, hewing close to the film’s theme, has a way of making everything she says sound like excerpts from an Academy Award acceptance speech:
 “I am the end result of everything I’ve ever learned… all I ever hope to be, 
and all the experiences I’ve ever had.”

Oh...O.K., if you say so.

In a too-little / too-late display of backbone, Laurel—that hip-switchin’, nice-walkin’, bundle of loveliness—gets wind of Frankie’s nocturnal knavery and lays down the law:

“If you think I’m gonna work my tail off so you can run around with the village chicks…oh, stop spreadin’ the pollen around, Frankie...or else!”

Unfortunately, after having spent an evening with hard-to-get Bergdahl, round-heeled Scott’s ultimatum doesn’t exactly have the desired effect on Frankie, and the village pollen-spreader soon beats a hasty retreat. So hasty he misses the joyous news that Laurel is pregnant.

In much the same way Willy Wonka’s shiftless Grandpa Joe miraculously finds the energy to haul his wrinkled carcass out of bed once the prospect of a candy factory tour looms; the heretofore serially unemployed Frankie promptly lands a job in the garment district when it affords the opportunity to see more of the glacial good looks of lovely Miss Bergdahl. But it isn’t long before Kay’s middle-European cool proves no match for Frankie’s hotheaded, borderline sociopathic personality.
Koo koo Frankie shows a wise-guy actor (Jan Merlin) what it's like
to be on "the business end of a knife."

Frankie expends so much abusive energy exorcising inner demons (“The way he sees it, no woman’s any better than his mother,” intones Hymie, deep-thinker) that Kay scarcely has time to examine her own Bad Boy issues (“Sometimes I get the feeling, Frankie, that you ought to be chained up with a ring in your nose!”), before their relationship comes to take on all the dysfunctional sparring rhythms of Robert De Niro & Liza Minnelli in NewYork, New York…minus the warmth & mutual respect.

One particularly theatrical outburst of Frankie’s captures the slightly rapacious eye of roving talent scout Sophie Cantaro (Parker), who sees in Frankie’s mercurial mood swings the makings of a star (Charlie Sheen, no doubt). Faster than you can say “Bye bye, Bergdahl! Hello, Cougar Town!” Frankie is whisked off to Hollywood and becomes exactly the kind of noxious nightmare of a movie star you’d expect. Think Neely O’Hara crossed with Helen Lawson combined with every ego-out-of-control rumor you’ve ever heard about Jerry Lewis, and you get the idea.
Joseph Cotten as Kenneth Regan, head of Galaxy Pictures
"I find myself repelled and repulsed by you."

Of course, this is precisely when the already dizzying lunacy of The Oscar really swings into high gear. Cue the laughably garish sets meant to signify high-style glamour, the tired visual short-cuts (EVERY scene in a studio backlot features strolling cowboys, gladiators, and showgirls in headdresses), and the standard-issue What Makes Sammy Run? rise and fall of a an unscrupulous schnook scenario.

Yes, whether it be the simile-laden narration (“Man, he wanted to swallow Hollywood like a cat with a canary.”); the rote, claws-his-way-to-the-top conflicts (“The fact is my 10% before taxes is paying your office overhead. And you stop earning it when you stop giving me what I want.”); or clumsy, tin-eared metaphors (“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 everywhere you touch.”), The Oscar leaves nary a cliché unturned and untouched. And for that we should all give thanks.
Ernest Borgnine & Edie Adams as Barney and Trina Yale

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The Oscar is artificiality as motif. Without actually intending to, director Russell Rouse (who made the must-see Wicked Woman -1953) has crafted a film so phony and plastic, it winds up saying a great deal more about the real Hollywood than this contrived, self-serving fairy tale that would have us believe Hollywood is comprised of basically decent, principled, hard-working folks, and unscrupulous bad apples like Frankie are the rotten exception.
When I watch The Oscar I always wonder: was this a movie pandering to star-struck yokels and serving up a patently false, fan-magazine / press agent image of tinseltown because it believed that’s what they wanted to see; or had years of lying to itself  deluded “The Industry” into believing its own publicity? This can’t be how ‘60s Hollywood actually saw itself, could it?
In the film's most blatantly parodic role, Jean Hale is hilariously spot-on as the self-absorbed Cheryl Barker, an obvious and rather mean-spirited swipe at Carroll Baker that must have been included at Joseph E. Levine's behest. (Baker & Levine clashed famously during the making of Harlow, leading to her ultimately suing the producer).

It’s not as though nobody knew what a good film about Hollywood looked like (Sunset Boulevard -1950, The Bad & the Beautiful -1952, A Lonely Place -1950, Stand-In -1937), so I’d like to think everyone involved in The Oscar knew exactly what kind of trash they were making (Bennett doesn’t recall the experience fondly in his memoirs). But given the expense, effort, and the fact that many similarly fake-looking, questionably-acted, poorly written, overstuffed ‘60s films had found acceptance (The Carpetbaggers comes to mind); I can only imagine that the eventual awfulness of The Oscar wasn’t as much of a surprise to those involved as was the public’s total indifference to it. 
Exteriors of The Oscar were shot at the 37th Academy Awards in 1965. Bob Hope hosted that year, but as the interior sets don't match, I've no idea when or where they were shot. In 1967 The Oscar was nominated for but two Academy Awards (art direction and Edith Head's costume design) losing both.

PERFORMANCES
It’s an overcrowded, competitive field, but Stephen Boyd walks away with the honors for The Oscar’s most exaggerated, artificial performance. In a film of  parody-worthy acting, Boyd's bellowing, bombastic over-emoting (much like Faye Dunaway's in Mommie Dearest) sets the bar and serves as the rudder for this Titanic testament to overstatement. It's a performance that towers over the rest. And while one might argue he’s no worse than anyone else (certainly not Bennett) and only as good as the knuckleheaded screenplay allows; when there’s this much collateral damage, every offender has to be held accountable for their fair share of the carnage. 
Frankie's cutthroat efforts to win an Oscar make up the bulk of the 1963 Richard Sale novel
upon which the film is adapted, but comprise only the last half hour of the film  

Indeed, in a reversal of my usual standard in camp movies I adore, the women don’t really dominate in The Oscar. In spite of their towering hairdos and colorful wardrobes, Elke Sommer, Eleanor Parker, Jill St. John, and a woefully over-rehearsed Edie Adams have their work cut out for them in trying to keep pace with the hambone scenery-chewing of Boyd on one side, and the Boo Boo Bear blandness of mono-expression crooner Tony Bennett on the other (whose raspy voiceover narration is almost as annoying as Joe Pesci's in 1995s Casino).
The Dynamic Duo
Hope you like Tony Bennett's expression here, 'cause that's all you're getting for two hours

Add to this, schticky comedian Milton Berle as another one of those saintly talent agents that only seem to exist in Joseph E. Levine films (Red Buttons, another face-pulling comic, played a similar role in Levine’s Harlow). Berle’s approach to serious drama is something out of  an SCTV Bobby Bittman sketch: go so low-wattage as to barely register any vitality at all.
Not really sure the last time I saw a character in a movie resort to
 knuckle-biting to convey distress, but in The Oscar, it happens twice!

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As hard as it is to believe that the Motion Picture Academy actually endorsed this sordid melodrama, one has to wonder about the many drop-in guest appearances of so many "stars" adding verisimilitude and unintentional comic relief. Were they contractual, or were they simply prohibited from reading the entire script?
Edith Head (or an amimatronic copy) as herself
Columnist Hedda Hopper balancing several pounds of hair and a Joan Crawford necklace
A puffy Peter Lawford portrays a has-been actor (a little too convincingly)
Jack Soo as Sam, Frankie's live-in valet
A beaming Frank Sinatra and daughter Nancy, in her brunette phase

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The bad film delights of The Oscar are so myriad, I can only speculate that its relative unavailability is to blame for its not having risen in camp stature equal to Valley of the Dolls or Mommie Dearest over the years (it’s not on DVD and pops up on TV only sporadically). That perhaps, and its lack of an ostentatious drag queen aesthetic or even compelling roles for women. I’m not sure why, but a lot of the best camp is rooted in seeing women presented in the traditional “drag” of ornamental allure (big hair, theatrical makeup, elaborate costumes), only behaving in the aggressive, assertive, ambitious manner we habitually ascribe to male characters (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!)
The incongruity is a pleasant surprise and welcome change of pace, and often accounts for why a nasty piece of work like Neely O’Hara tends to remain in one’s memory longer than the passive Jennifer North.
The women in The Oscar are, despite giving lip-service to the contrary, a pretty passive bunch and more or less serve a traditional, reactive function in the plot. Pointedly, one of the film's two exceptions (the other being the blowsy but street-smart Trina Yale), the poised and elegant Sophie Cantaro is presented as both sexually desperate (“You, you’re 42. There are many good minutes left for you,” a well-meaning, tactless friend tells her) and unable to prevent her feminine emotions from playing havoc with professional decision-making.
I'm not sure if this preponderance of masochistic females has anything to do with The Oscar falling short of becoming the midnight screening hoot-fest its entertaining awfulness suggests; but such wrong-headed thinking prevails throughout The Oscar, making it one of the best of the worst, the apex of the nadir, and unequivocally one for the books. A book titled: " What The Hell Were They Thinking?"



BONUS MATERIAL
Elke Sommer wore the same Edith Head gown to the real 1966 Academy Awards she wears in the fake ceremony that bookends The Oscar (top photo).  Here's a clip of a somewhat botched dual acceptance speech with Connie Stevens for Doctor Zhivago's absent costume designer, Julie Harris. Watch HERE


Although only an instrumental version plays in the film, Tony Bennett sang the Muzak-ready theme song from The Oscar (titled, "Come September" ) on the soundtrack album. This 45rpm single was an opening day giveaway at many first-run theaters. Listen HERE


Copyright © Ken Anderson

33 comments:

  1. Frankie goes to Hollywood!

    A terrific piece of trasche that should be better known and appreciated; thanks for the memories.

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    1. Thank you for the funny and apt Frankie Goes to Hollywood reference!

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  2. Two quick comments before I even read this post about one of my favorite awful movies:

    Did you ever see SCTV's spoof of this, called The Nobel? Yes, Frankie is clawing his way to a Nobel Peace Prize in this take-off! Hilarious, especially Catherine O'Hara's spot on imitation of Eleanor Parker's grand-voiced, hair-tossing, eyebrow-arching performance?

    Second, I think in Bizarro World, Frankie Fane and Neely O'Hara should have played George and Martha in a Rat Pack version of "Virginia Woolf!"

    Can't wait to read this ; )
    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      Yes, I have seen that SCTV skit you speak of. I remember being so surprised they devoted so much time to spoofing a movie that (at the time) almost no one I knew had ever seen. Watching it was like sharing an inside joke.
      And of course, I have to smile at the thought of Neely & Frankie as George and Martha...they both have the same tendency of barking rather than speaking their lines...it would be strangely perfect.

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    2. In case anyone wants to watch, it's in two parts and is absolutely spot-on and hilarious:

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=5Vu6RIRmBf4

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=erBRmd_06zY

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  3. "Sublimely terrible" just about sums up this film! I can't recall ever seeing another movie where I sat through it wondering if audiences were supposed to take it seriously or not; just about everyone plays this as if it's the last movie they'll ever make (it does seem to have put a damper on Stephen Boyd's career, not to mention Tony Bennett fleeing motion pictures altogether).

    You make a great, revealing point about what we love about most camp movies: it's the female performances and characters. The Oscar is unique in that it's male-centered camp, with the men bringing the hysteria (and hilarity) to the proceedings (I would think Bennett's final tell-it-like-it-is speech to Boyd would be the stuff of parody nirvana). I'm surprised this film has never been released on DVD (though it seems to have been issued on VHS), as I know Levine's Carpetbaggers and Harlow both have. Could the Levine estate have decided that enough is enough and that the Levine imprimatur can stand only so much embarrassment? Thanks for a great post!

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    1. Hello GOM
      I agree, the puzzling thing about a lot of those 60s movies (Where Love Has Gone, Madame X) that in later years would have been made into TV movies and or miniseries, is never knowing to what degree the makers knew they were creating trash.
      "The Oscar" isn't that much of a deviation from many of the other overblown films of the era that later went on to boxoffice success, so it begs the question...what went wrong?
      I always think of Joseph E. Levine as being a pretty terrible producer, and that whole "Rat Pack" period of show-biz phoniness is what makes so many of the comedies of the 60s unbearable for me. But "The Oscar" is sooo hackneyed, it feels like an act of hucksterism: sophisticates thinking the could pull the wool over the eyes of ticket-buying yokels by selling them time-worn cliches, only to have it backfire on them.

      I've been wracking my brain to think of an example of male-centered camp, but could only come up with "Can't Stop the Music"- which comes off so bad because it tries to appropriate gay camp while staying firmly in the closet. I think you've hit on something when you mention male hysteria. Perhaps men giving full vent to the high-flown emotionalism usually attributed to women's roles is as camp as when women carry on like James Cagney in movies (I'm thinking of Patty McCormack in "the Bad Seed").

      I've never seen this film with an audience, but I'm sure it would be bliss. My sisters and I never missed a chance to watch it on TV.
      It's one of those movies where even the realiably good actors come off badly (Joseph Cotten's odd syllable emphasis in saying the words "despicable" and "industry" always make me smile).
      A cleaned-up DVD release is really overdue, but as you suggest, can an estate feel comfortable releasing a dramatic film solely for the purpose of allowing people to laugh at it?
      Thanks for the great comments, and thanks for reading!

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  4. I was wondering/hoping when you get to this one! Then wondered how to encapsulate is rottenness in just one column. But you did! I first saw this on TV in the 60s when I was all of, maybe 10 years old, and even then knew it was unbelievable trash. And I couldn’t wait to see it again! And again. I even tried reading my mother’s paperback copy of the novel but it was no fun. It needed Elke Sommer.

    But poor Jill St. John. Suddenly she disappears from the picture and it’s like, “Funny you should ask, she died about three reels ago but we didn’t show it.”

    I think Charles Busch is the exception, but you just can’t set out to make camp. It has to just happen. And what happens in The Oscar is so good.

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    1. Hi Max
      Nice of you to say I encapsulated all of this film's rottenness, but truthfully, space did not permit me to go into all I wanted to about this wonderful film (I had a screencap of Elke Sommer's anger-fueled eye-twitch that just didn't fit anywhere, and I didn't get to to go at all into Edie Adams' busy characterization or wax on about how bafflingly ill-conceived Tony Bennett's character is).
      I love that your mom had a copy of the paperback! I'm interested in reading the book, but from what I've gleaned on the internet, the movie fabricated the entire first 90 minutes and used the novel for the final third.
      I can't recall seeing a film with a larger roster of "middling" stars...(Boyd, Sommer, St. John, Adams, Borgnine) none are actors I would ever watch a film specifically to see.
      And yes, Jill St. John has scant screen time, but they manage to fit in two bikini-clad scenes. I've seen stills that indicate there was at least one romantic scene between Boyd and Parker that didn't make it into the film. I wonder if poor old Laurel had any more of a role than what we see?

      And you're right, successful intentional camp is something very rare (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is about the only example of that works for me), so when the real thing comes along like "The Oscar", I wish movie studios weren't so reluctant to just go with the flow and grant the film a healthy life on DVD as a camp favorite. Tony Bennett is having a bit of a career resurgence, I wish he would do a commentary on this.

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  5. Dear Ken: Hi!

    I've never had a chance to see this one, but I've known about it ever since Premiere Magazine (remember that?) did a derisive article about it in the early 1990s. I recall them quoting the priceless "One from column A, one from column B" line.

    I'm not sure why "The Oscar"'s been so unavailable. It was released by Paramount, same as "Carpetbaggers" and "Harlow."

    Where to start? I've seen Stephen Boyd in only a few films, but he has not been an asset to them, to put it mildly. He helps ruin the only so-so Doris Day musical "Jumbo" with his odd, clenched-jaw line readings.

    Elke Sommer--what was it with Hollywood's 1960s fascination with foreign starlets? Claudia Cardinale, Capucine, Virna Lisi, Camilla Sparv, Elsa Martinelli, etc. etc. Some of the actresses did truly have ability, but for me there was kind of an unseemly, "girl toy," Playboy-type mindset about taking these exotic femmes and then using them mostly as eye candy.

    I checked the complete cast list of "the Oscar" on imdb and it states that Joan Crawford makes an uncredited cameo. Can that be true?? I've never seen this film listed in her filmographies.

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    1. Hi David
      I TOTALLY remember Premiere magazine, but don't recall a feature on "The Oscar." it must have been a hoot.
      This film's unavailability really is a head-scratcher. I wonder if it has anything to do with the quality of print(s) available. I had the VHS for a while, and when "The Oscar" was screened on TCM some time ago, there was some obvious trouble in the scene between Frankie and Cheryl Barker character. Big scratches and then a cut of a reaction shot or something. The murky-image copy I have above is from a cable broadcast I think.

      I so agree with your comments about Boyd (very appealing to me but I was always surprised he was a movie star. he had TV western star written all over him), and about the mis-use of European starlets. Hollywood never knew what to do with them other them trot them out for their beauty. I'm always stunned when I compare Romy Schneider's US work compared to her Euro work. I can hardly believe it's the same woman. Hollywood at this stage turned every actress into Pamela Tiffin.
      Lastly, When writing this post, I looked at the IMDB cast roster too, and saw Joan Crawford's name. I've seen this movie countless times, and like I said, the copies haven't been the best quality, but I've never caught sight of Joan in the film. Like in "Rosemary's Baby" many people claim to have seen Sharon Tate as a guest in the Woodhouse party (not me), "The Oscar" has a big party scene with a lot of luminaries in attendance. If Joan is there, you've got your work cut out for you trying to find her.
      Hope you get to see this film sometime. You might hate it, or it may become your new favorite terrible movie. Thanks, David!

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  6. Oh my God! Where to begin with one of my absolute favorite baaaad movies? Many years ago, I taped this from the late show (complete with commercial breaks and all) and whenever we had a group of like-minded friends over, we'd stick this in the VCR and have it playing in the background. Someone would invariably say, "Hey, I didn't know Tony Bennett was in a movie" or "Milton Berle in a serious role?" It's just too over-the-top to be true. And my husband and I still roll out the "there you sit on a glass mountain" speech whenever we think someone (cough--Trump--cough) is getting too big for their britches.

    And not to be a spoiler or anything, but at this year's Oscars, did you see Mark Ruffalo's face when the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was announced, "And the Oscar goes to Mark R...ylance!" It was like Frankie Fane all over again!

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    1. Hi Deb
      If writing about "The Oscar" presents any problem at it, it's what you asked in your first sentence - where to begin?
      The list of what is so wrong and thus so right about "The Oscar" spans far too much territory for any one piece on the film to do it justice. It's such a curiosity in that it is both well-known (infamous) yet a great many people have never seen it. When they do, their reaction is always one of surprise (along the lines of: how did anything this bad escape me for so long?)
      I think it first aired on TV in 1969, and even as a kid (I would have been 12) this movie struck me as the best of the worst. What did adults think?
      I'm positive there was hope of getting Oscar nods for the score or for Tony Bennett's film debut. And Milton Berle's surprisingly well-received turn (I think he's awful but many critics singled him out for praise) has Oscar-bait all over it.
      And the Ruffalo mention is not a spoiler at all (I have to check that moment out on YouTube!). When "The Oscar" screened on TCM the host relayed a tale of how something similar happened to some famous classic film director in real life. I wish I could remember who.
      I'm forever amazed this film doesn't make the cable TV rounds every Oscar season. It's absurdity would put the whole "Awards Season" madness into perspective.
      Thanks for commenting, Deb!

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    2. It's just that their names were so similar and I really don't think anyone though Mark Rylance had a shot, so when "Mark R..." came out of the presenter's mouth, Mark Ruffalo had that "Oh yes/oh no" moment. Well, at least he didn't stand up like Frank Fane when he heard "And the winner is Frank...Sinatra!"

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    3. I just saw it, and exactly...the names were too close...Ruffalo's heart must have jumped a foot!
      What's funny about that scene in "The Oscar" is that sadistically loooong pause Merle Oberon puts between "Frank" and "Sinatra"

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    4. FYI, the director you're thinking of is Frank Capra, who was nominated for "Lady For a Day"; and when the presenter called out "come up and get it, Frank!", he rose from his seat and started for the stage--only to realize that the winner was another director, Frank Lloyd. Capra said that he then performed "the longest crawl in history" back to his seat.

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    5. Thank you for remembering the name of the director!I love that story...and what a terrible way to announce the winner!

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  7. One more comment (apologies in advance for length and if I've mentioned it before): my husband and I refer to something we call "Alan Alda Syndrome" which is when a filmmaker shows something about movie-making that he/she knows is false but shows it anyway because that's how the filmmaker thinks the general public imagines it happens (in other words, pandering). It all goes back to a dreadful Alan Alda movie called "Sweet Liberty" where Michelle Pfeifer and Michael Caine--playing the big stars of the movie-within-a-movie--ride on a bus with the extras and the tech people to a location. Now Alda has been in enough movies to know this doesn't happen--stars have their own trailers, drivers, etc.--but he thinks the public would think this is how big stars in a big movie would be treated. Yeah, right! Anyway, THE OSCAR is one Alan Alda Syndrome set piece after another. There's not an authentic moment in its entire running time. That's what makes it so deliriously, wonderfully bad!

    /And no apologies to Alan Alda for making his name shorthand for inauthenticity. He knew better.

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    1. Wonderful that you've given a name to an annoying phenomenon in movies about making movies! I saw "Sweet Liberty" and it falls into the category of one of those films I cannot for the life of me remember a single frame of.
      I don't expect documentary accuracy when I watch a movie, but in instances like you site, it throws everything off. I've always thought it was a good idea that "The Oscar" spares us any scenes of Frankie actually appearing in a movie. We'd never buy his Oscar nomination for a minute.

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  8. Hi Ken - isn't it sometimes more fun to write (and read about) the bad ones than the good ones? You must have had a blast with The Oscar because I am in camp heaven reading about it. Your essay is sooo much more satisfying than the film itself (but the next time it's on TCM, I will not miss it nevertheless!!)

    You have captured every cringe-worthy moment to perfection! Especially the scenery-chewing performance of chiseled star Stephen Boyd (who I adore when secretly lusting after Chuck Heston in Ben Hur, adding much-needed gay subtext to that long, long epic!!)

    And if only today's drag queens would scallop their glossy tresses as high as hair-hopper Elke Sommers's here...the world would be just a little more fabulous.

    Ken, thank you for enhancing my 1960s technicolor dreams with this golden turkey!!Your blog always delivers what it promises - Le Cinema Fantastique!!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Yes, it's a sad fact of life that trashing a film is ofttimes a good deal easier (and a lot more fun)than praising it.
      Certainly I've found it to be true that I can come up with a million colorful ways to say something bad, but when it comes to saying good things I struggle not to use colorless generalities like "great" "wonderful" and "terrific" too often.
      As you've no doubt discovered, a piece about a movie like "The Oscar" practically writes itself. There's just no let-up on the things to comment upon. They practically have neon arrows pointing them out.

      I hope this airs on TCM again soon (for a while Get-TV screened it once a week, it seemed). Good to hear it's a good/bad favorite of yours (can you believe I've never seen Ben Hur? I'm kinda allergic to Charlton Heston) and thanks, Chris, so much for taking the time to relay such very kind words!

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  9. You nailed it, Ken!

    I just watched "Valley of the Dolls" recently and felt exactly the same about THAT movie! I'm surprised the two trash classics have never been run on a double-bill ; )

    I'm always surprised that Sinatra agreed to appear in this as himself, as I thought Frankie Fane was sort of a cartoon version of Sinatra, with some Tony Curtis thrown in.

    The only thing that offsets the star's awful performance is how hot Stephen Boyd was! Though I take Raquel Welch's latter day showbiz dish with a large grain of salt, she's got a story about trying to seduce her "Fantastic Voyage" co-star, only to be gently rebuffed, because the buff star was gay.

    Elke Sommer, did she EVER appear without a wig in the '60s?

    I always thought Eleanor Parker and Anne Baxter should have made a movie together as evil sisters, with their over-dramatic, husky voices, and arched eyebrows ; ) With Joan Crawford as their mother...oh, wait...Joan would want to play their kid sister!

    This is one of those movies that I both love and loathe, just like "Dolls." They are both so phone and cliched. In fact, I can't really think of a great movie about Hollywood that's truly honest. Can you, Ken?

    Cheers, Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      I have honestly never understood why "The Oscar" is not spoken of as often and in the same circles as discussions about ""Valley of the Dolls" or "Beyond."
      Can a studio be so embarrassed about a movie that it keeps it out of the hands of the public, or do fans of bad films find it boring? (It never drags for me...there's nary a dull moment in this opus of awful!)

      And I often wondered about the whole "Frankie" name and how the producers convinced him to appear in a movie that more than a couple of people would say borrows at least some of the hero's caddish behavior from Sinatra's own bio. Maybe the first thing they told him is "You win an Oscar at the end!" and went backward from there.

      To me, Raquel Welch is exactly the kind of narcissist who would think that a man rebuffing her advances MUST be gay, so I know hat you mean. But Boyd honestly tweaked my gaydar waaay back as a yound man when i first saw him in "Dumbo." Paired with the somewhat butch Doris Day...I dunno. My gaydar has been known to malfunction now and then.

      I just did a quick Google image search of some of Elke Sommer's looks (since she never really registered to me at all during the 60s), and you're right; she was Miss fall and wiglet of the decade. I give Julie Christie a lot of crap because of her ever-present bangs, Miss Sommer was the bang queen (and I mean that in the most wholesome way).

      I love the idea of Eleanor Parker and Anne Baxter in a film together! It never struck me before how similar they are in throaty, dramatics.
      Lastly, you pose an excellent question about films that try to depict Hollywood. I don't know that I've ever seen an honest one.
      Movies like "S.O.B." and "Burn Hollywood Burn" are annoying because the makers have such obvious axes to grind, all you get is a sense of hurt feelings and bile.
      My favorite movie about Hollywood is likely "The Day of the Locust"- merely because the characters are so ugly yet they have absolutely no idea they're simply walking grotesques. Sounds like Hollywood to me!

      Thanks so much, Rick! I loved your comments and the opportunity they provided to write even more about this jaw-dropping film!

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  10. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. We profess to be lovers of the cinema, when we really love to wallow in trash! It's like being in high school knowing you should like the class president, but really want to hang out with the kid who rides a motorcycle.
    I've only seen The Oscar once. It was in 1969, and we had just moved into our new home. My mom decided she hated the wallpaper in the dining room and living room. So as soon as school was out, it was my sisters' and my job to scrape decades of wallpaper off the walls. We were cheap labor.
    Of course we complained about not being able to go outside and play with our friends. So to quiet us my dad set up our small black & white TV between the rooms so we could watch - mostly listen - as we worked. There were the usual soap operas and the Mike Douglas show. We saw a couple of movies, notably The Heiress. The drone of the TV helped while away time while scraped.
    Then we saw The Oscar. I don't understand how three preteen Catholic school girls knew camp when we saw it, but did we ever. We couldn't look away from this cinematic train wreck, even when my mom threatened to turn off the TV because no work was getting done!
    Of course to this day we howl about the Oscar getting out of my seat moment. But my memory is of Elke Sommer, who I thought was exquisite. That pert face. That cute voice. That hair! A golden confection.
    A couple of years later, Elke was a guest on The Tonight Show. I was shocked when she came out. A really bad 70s perm. Dressed in that tacky faux western 70s thing - boots, fringed vest. Khol ringed eyes. And a voice and teeth that belied too many cigarettes. I was bereft at what had happened to my German Sandra Dee.
    I've never been able to catch the movie on TV since then, but your essay and the readers comments are just as good! You're so right, the reviews of bad movies practically write themselves!
    As for Ben Hur, Ken, don't waste your time. It's one of the worst films to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. With both Charleton Heston and Stephen Boyd, there's so much clenched jawed acting you'd swear both actors stepped on the same rusty nail and contracted lock jaw. The only good scene in the entire bloated epic is when Heston confronts the on-his-deathbed Boyd to divulge where can find Heston's mother and sister. "In the valley of the lepers," hisses Boyd. "If you can still recognize them." Stone cold but the only funny thing in the three+ hour film. My sisters and I still reenact it. I'm usually Heston and my older sister is Boyd.
    Thanks, Ken, for a real gem!

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    1. Hi Roberta
      Wow! That's some introduction to "The Oscar" - a film I'm sure at least one person must have described as being as interesting as watching wallpaper peel.
      my sisters and I discovered this film together on TV for the first time, and indeed, the ending was a howler of a comeuppance for such an odious character.
      And what you say about being young and STILL knowing it was camp applies as well.
      I don't know what age a kid can discern what is inauthentic or corny, but a movie like "The Oscar" would test anyone's camp radar.
      Although I was oddly immune to Sommers' appeal, I know what you mean about how she is presented here. She may have loathed the movie, but she had to have loved how they made her look. I think I have seen her in only one other film (some Matt Helm thing) and once agin, she barely registered.
      I recall her talk show appearances and your description of her in the 70s is remarkably spot-on. To the point that I think I must have seen the same Tonight Show episode. Those curly perms did very few actresses any favors (my mind goes to 70s era Petula Clark).
      And thanks for the tip-off to Ben Hur. Every time I've tried to watch it, it's felt like a chore.
      Thank you for the fun trip back to 1969 and your first encounter with "The Oscar"...a movie so compelling it can make you stop peeling wallpaper. (they should have used that in their ads).
      Thanks, Roberta!

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  11. Hi Ken! This film was one of my holy grail films that I longed to see for so long. I was very surprised that I found a copy of this mythic film. I was not disappointed.

    It is unusual to see a male actor in such a Neely O'Hara part. I like Stephen Boyd but his acting in this film did him no favours. He didn't get any good parts after this. The film probably wasn't a hit because of him. He carries the whole film and he just isn't convincing as a bad guy who has affairs with many women. Who could identify with that character or the actor trying to play him? It could be that his acting was considered bad (and not funny) when the film was released.

    Yes, there's too little Elke and Jill (and Edith Head) in this movie. I'm amazed that Elke had the same hair do in all her films in the sixties! I love Jill's stripper cat outfit. That alone could attract lots of lovers of camp. The owners of this film has lost many a chance to earn money on this film. As you say, it is a mystery why it's not up there with Dolls as a camp classic!

    Thank so much for your sharp and funny review of this film. I laughed so much at your "debut/swansong" and Pamela Tiffin comments!
    -Wille

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    1. Hey Wille
      Stars like Stephen Boyd are always kind of odd for me. I can see why they are actors (handsome, not exactly overtalented, but tall and leading-man like); but I never get how they sustain careers. Is there something you get by hiring Stephen Boyd that you wouldn't get by hiring John Gavin, Hugh O'Brien, or James Garner? They all seem so similar to me.
      Aside from the absolutely wretched dialog, I wonder if Boyd thought a role of this size (he's in every scene and the film revolves around him) was a big coup? Makes me wonder if other male stars were considered.
      It also makes me wonder if ANY actor could have made this work. The screenwriter said he wrote it with Steve McQueen and Peter Falk in mind! (OK, I think McQueen might have been a good call. He has a natural roughneck side to him that could deliver the threats...Boyd just yelled too much and never looked convincing as a toughie)

      Among the many screencaps I wanted to include in this post was one of Jill St. John in her tiger-striped stripper outfit. Those gloves with the built-in nails!

      I know that some of the films I write about are obscure, but I'm glad this is one you've already discovered. Thanks so much, Wille! Look forward to hearing from you again!

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  12. This is a movie I've been flirting with for a while, but you finally got me to sit down and watch it. The YouTube version, on the iPad, on the front porch, so probably not the optimal experience. Also, I was exhausted, so I think I was drifting in and out--no recollection of Walter Brennan.

    Yeah, it's bad, even amusingly bad. But, truth be told, I can't sit through many capital-H Hollywood movies of the 60s-early 70s without squirming. (You and I part company at musicals of that era.) I can watch a dozen spaghetti westerns, B&W roughies, Japanese crime, or bad eurospy flicks from the 60s and have a great time, but sometimes it seems like the Big Studios forgot how to entertain. Did you ever catch those yearly promo reels (done for shareholders?) that show up in TCM once in a while? I look at those and can imagine the stomach problems in the NY offices.

    Good cast, though--a lot of familiar faces, doing what was expected. More familiar names lurking in the IMDB list (often credited as "bikini girl").

    Always had a soft spot for Elke Sommer, though. One of my earliest movie memories is seeing "A Shot in the Dark" (still a favorite) at the drive-in in my pajamas. And I love both "Lisa and the Devil" and the recut, puke-spattered U.S. version "House of Exorcism."

    At some point while watching The Oscar it clicked with me that she'd be reunited with Joseph Cotton a few years later in "Baron Blood."

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    1. I think you're the first so far to be really familiar with the films of Elke Sommer. She was very popular as I remember (for a time, anyway) but were I on a game show and asked to name three, I would be stumped. Seeing her for the first time at a Drive-In though...that's the stuff of which lifetime movie goddesses are made. No wonder you've retained a soft spot.
      Hmmm...House of Exorcism and Baron Blood both sound like movies I should have seen/heard of by now!

      I have indeed seen some of those little promo clips they've shown on TCM. Yikes! The roster of films these studios trotted out were all such head-scratchers. It was the 70s, young people were discovering movies and the studios were still churning out the same overstuffed, formulaic stuff. It brings in to relief the desperation that must have been in the air to bring about studios resorting to desperate acts like Fox green-lighting "Myra Breckinridge."

      "The Oscar" is very much a product of its time, and despite its name cast (most of whom would be clamoring for TV movies and "Bracken's World" walk-ons in a few years) and laugh-inducing plot, can be heavy going if you're not already predisposed. And some of those guest star appearances (like Walter Brennan's) are blink or you'll miss 'em cameos.

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  13. Hi Ken,

    Geez it feels like ages since I’ve commented but you had a short spate of films I hadn’t seen. So when I looked in today I was so glad to see that you had turned your eye to this cinematic Titanic!

    Boy this sucker is loaded with junky dialog and situations right from the top until its fevered conclusion and I luxuriate in every tawdry frame. I can add little to what you’ve so expertly written about this so I’ll just talk a bit about the various performers.

    Like you I don’t get the praise for Berle, though his appeal is largely lost on me under even the most favorable circumstances, the best I can say is that he gives a better performance than the one he delivered in “Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?” as Goodtime Eddie Filth around this same period. It’s also understandable how Tony Bennett didn’t venture back to the acting pool after this, at least to his credit he realized this was not his field of competence and chose not to humiliate himself further.

    As for the women…I loves me some Eleanor Parker and she looks very glamourous but there were times when her particular acting style didn’t help the material and this is one of them. With a good script and a strong director she could be compelling but since neither were at her disposal here she is just short one jeweled snuff box to clutch away from being a cartoon. Perhaps she felt given the hopelessness of the script that was her only characterization option!
    I never cared much for Jill St. John until I saw her hilariously fun performance as the ex-showgirl mother of one of the leads in the 2002 indie “The Trip” and she’s grown in my estimation ever since. No one gives anything approaching a wonderful performance in this movie but I’d say hers is the best, admittedly a very, very low bar, since she keeps her voice down and her acting muted. Of course she looks wonderful and has the requisite cyclone of hair.

    Someone I have always had a soft spot for despite the fact that I’ve never seen her demonstrate any real acting range is Elke Sommer. The 60’s being her best decade she was never less than uber glamorous but then what she was handed were rarely more than decorative roles. I think because the first place I saw her was one of her better roles and performances in a film I LOVE-the Paul Newman starrer The Prize where she had the highly alliterative name Inger Lisa Andersson, it never bothered me that she was usually little more than beautifully THERE. That film also co-stars Diane Baker, another performer who never hit the big time but I have a great fondness for and has had a long respectable career.

    Someone else commented on the mania for European actresses in the 60’s and how Hollywood seemed to turn them into cutout cuties in an attempt to find the next Sophia Loren. What they didn’t seem to realize was that Loren was always authentically herself, they spiffed her up a bit but the Sophia you saw in Italy was substantially the Sophia you got in an American picture. You look at Virna Lisi in “How to Murder Your Wife” and it’s completely unfathomable how she could ultimately grow over the years to the reptilian dragon she portrayed in Queen Margot. Or as you mentioned the difference in Romy Schneider, a bewitching creature, lovely in her few Hollywood films but with the interesting edges sanded off.

    But of course the film is perched on Stephen Boyd’s broad shoulders and falls off of them about every five minutes. Your description of his Tom of Finland profile is apt, he’s really a Tom of Finland drawing come to life and at least here as animated. From what I’ve read he seemed like a fun, decent guy with a bum ticker but not much range. I am likewise surprised that he stuck with low budget movies once his brief vogue passed, he seemed perfect to steer a TV Western as Clint Walker, James Drury and Chuck Conners did.

    Anyway the movie is both a dog and a dream come true for star gazing, lush overlit production values, very big hair and bad acting and I thoroughly enjoyed you take on it!!

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  14. Hi Joel
    Glad you enjoyed this piece, and I have to return the compliment by saying I thoroughly got kick out of your comments regarding this dream (nightmare?) of a movie. There's something about this level of awfulness that inspires vivid description.

    My favorite perhaps being your noting that Parker was "just short one jeweled snuff box to clutch away from being a cartoon." So spot on in capturing the odd, very period, details in fashion and acting styles that makes "The Oscar" so fun to watch (and critique!).

    I saw that terrible Anthony Newly film you speak of, and Berle in that reminded me of Groucho in "Skidoo"...performances so lacking in anything resembling humor they call entire reputations into question.

    It's nice to hear from so many people how Elke Sommer is such a favorite. She's always registered so far below my radar, but it's wonderful to know that she made such an impression on so many. A real rare quality in any performer is when you find yourself liking them even while being wholly aware of how limited they are.

    Speaking of below the radar, I had to Google the Jill St John reference you mentioned. I'm often surprised by how good some of the glamour actresses of my youth can be when they grow older and at last are offered roles that are not merely ornamental. One of those CI shows seems to do a great job of casting a lot of 70s/80s stars against type and I'm always surprised at how good they are.
    Lastly, you bring up a very good point about what perhaps made Sophia Loren different from the slew of European actresses we shoved in one nothing part after another, only to see them, in later years in their home countries, producing marvelous work (Senta Berger, of all people, seems to have matured into a very interesting actress).
    Lastly, Stephen Boyd is my male Neely O'Hara, and for that I'm grateful, but he too had his occasional moments onscreen later in life (I remember liking him in the TV movie "Carter's Army" but haven't seen that since the 70s).
    Great hearing from you, Joel, and thanks for making me laugh and nod with recognition at so many of your well-stated barbs (cyclone of hair!) Thanks!

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    1. Hi Ken,

      I recommend Jill's movie "The Trip" highly. It's low budget (it really shows in the wigs some of the performers wear!!) but I just found it so engaging. She's the performer with the highest name recognition in it but it's supporting cast is full of familiar faces and the two leads have a nice chemistry. Much of it was shot at Valentino's one time mansion Falcon Lair just before it was demolished, which killed me when I found that out-the house was beautiful. :-( It's not a missing masterwork or anything but well worth watching.

      I'm going to have to explore some of Senta Berger's more recent work. Now there's someone who really made very little impression on me in her American films. She was a knockout but beyond that I have almost no recollection of her.

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