Saturday, February 25, 2012
A Glass Mountain Called Success
Even after all this time, I still get a tinge of excitement when it comes to the Academy Awards. Every single year on the morning the nominations are announced I set my alarm for 5:30 and wake up to watch. My habit of writing down what’s announced in bracketed lists goes back to the pre-internet days and even though I know I’ll be able to get it all on line about a minute later I still perform this ritual so I’m fully prepared to have what’s been nominated there in front of me from the very first moment. Though I’ve gone to other people’s houses in the past to watch the show by this point I choose to decline all invites, stay home so I can actually watch and not have to deal with snark. And yes, I’ll argue about what’s nominated and have definite opinions but at the same time I’ve come to care less about the actual results. Really, until they burn the negatives of all the losing films in the parking lot immediately after the ceremony I’m not going to cry that it’s a ‘crime’ that a particular film or person wasn’t nominated or didn’t win. But I watch the show. And I still have opinions about it. I can’t help myself. And having said all this as a way to help celebrate this most important time of year in Hollywood I truly believe that the American Cinematheque should make it a tradition to show THE OSCAR at the Egyptian during that weekend every year to help celebrate the show going on right down the street. Because, really, that film is what the Academy Awards deserves. I mean, they give Best Picture to things like CHICAGO and THE KING’S SPEECH and I’m supposed to maintain respect for them? Sure, the Academy also gave it to UNFORGIVEN but what have they done for me lately? And I could definitely believe that THE OSCAR would draw a crowd. I know that I’d be happy to bring people. Hell, I’ll introduce the thing if they want. They’ve screened it a few times before and maybe the print has gotten too faded by now, but it’s a nice fantasy to have. In bringing us behind the scenes of the glamour of Hollywood this film asks the key question of just how far you might go to make it in this town. In a weird way I’ve come to love watching this film around this time of year, as absolutely terrible as it is. Either way, more people should have a chance to see THE OSCAR.
Yes, THE OSCAR, released in 1966, that tale of Frank Fane and his climb up the glass mountain of success, all the way to the top of the motion picture industry as one of its biggest stars, just about the biggest creep ever to be the lead character in a major motion picture, skulking his way through each scene as the lilting sounds of Percy Faith waft through the air during every single moment. It’s notable for featuring the beloved Tony Bennett in his one and only dramatic role but it also has the legendary Harlan Ellison as one of the credited writers, something he’s had to live down ever since—when the film screened at the Egyptian in 2000, the writer appeared for a Q&A after the film, gave us all the finger as he was introduced mere moments after the final moment as we cheered him while cresting on the wave of the film’s unforgettable finale and, if my memory is right, after listening to all the screams of laughter coming from the proceeding two hours told us that he would like to bash a baseball bat over all of our fucking skulls. It was a glorious evening. THE OSCAR inspires that kind of passion in people.
It’s the night of the Academy Awards. Movie star Frank Fane (Stephen Boyd) is nominated for Best Actor and is considered by all to be the favorite. As the show begins, hosted by Bob Hope of course, Frank’s old friend Hymie Kelly (“Introducing Tony Bennett as Hymie Kelly”) is sitting nearby and begins to reminisce about the long road they took to get there. We flash back (how far back? Who knows?) to the old days when Frank worked as a spieler for stripper girlfriend Laurel Grey (Jill St. John) and after some trouble with the law forces them to blow town fast the three of them take off for New York where Frankie tosses Laurel aside for the beautiful rising fashion designer Kay Bergdahl (Elke Sommer). Soon enough he’s discovered by talent scout Sophie Cantaro (Eleanor Parker) who sees great acting potential in Frankie, insisting that she hasn’t seen anyone as exciting as him in years and sets him up with agent Kappy Kapstetter (Milton Berle, and what is the deal with these character names?) who gets Frankie signed up at big Hollywood studio Galaxy Pictures. In spite of the hesitation of studio head Kenneth H. Regan (Joseph Cotton) Frankie quickly becomes a rising star, stepping on anything and anyone who stands in his way. He sends for Hymie to be his publicity man and, engineering things so she gets hired as a designer, marries Kay while still keeping up his philandering ways. Frankie has been turned onto the the wildest narcotic known to mortal man—success! And he needs larger and larger doses. But the path to fame and fortune comes to a crashing halt when Frankie’s bad behavior and low box office grosses lead to the studio deciding to pass on picking up his option. Worried about his house and yacht Frankie in dire financial straits is about to accept the lead in (GASP!) a television pilot when as he’s in the meeting to take that job all of a sudden his fortunes change with one phone call and he’s not dog meat like he was a minute ago. One phone call. So just go sliding back in there and tell ‘em game called on account of Oscar. That’s right. Oscar! A surprise Academy Award nomination for Best Actor alongside the likes of Burton and Lancaster. And you can bet that Frankie, lacking the capacity to understand that when you lie down with pigs you come up smelling like garbage, is going to do whatever possible to make sure that the Oscar goes to him and no one else.
Frankie and Hymie enter a swinging rent party somewhere down in the village with lots of chicks where they’re told to help themselves to all the chili and spaghetti they can scarf. “Man! What a scene! Forget it!” declares Hymie. Frankie makes a beeline right for the ultra-glamorous Kay, standing by herself for some reason and for his opening line goes with, “Are you a tourist or a native?” Without missing a beat Kay responds, “Take one from column A, two from column B. You get an egg roll either way.” Now, do you really need to know anything else to want to watch THE OSCAR right now? I truly subscribe to the theory that if you can’t sometimes enjoy a really bad movie then you don’t really love movies. You don’t pay good money to see A SOUND OF THUNDER or LOOSE CANNONS in the theater otherwise in a desperate attempt to absorb these things, to try to figure them out. The thing is, a little bit of laughing at bad movies can go a long way and just doesn’t hold much interest for me by a certain point. Besides, some bad movies don’t even deserve such hysteria--I’ve seen THE LOVE MACHINE which is terrible but also just kind of sits there in spite of whatever camp appeal it has. In other words, sometimes a really lousy movie is just a really lousy movie. Having said that, I don’t think I can express enough just how juicily entertaining THE OSCAR really is in all its unrelenting badness and how I’ll always be willing to show it to a roomful of people if the opportunity ever presents itself. I’m not even sure where to begin although this could almost be a piece that is nothing more than just quoting dialogue from the film that goes by as I write about it, like how Elke Sommer’s Kay Bergdahl explains to Frankie a minute after meeting him that she’s “not the kind of woman who uses sex as a release or even as a weapon.” She goes on that way until Frankie offers, “You make my head hurt with all that poetry.” THE OSCAR makes my head hurt with every single line in the best way possible.
Part of the thing about THE OSCAR (Screenplay by Harlan Ellison, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, based on the novel by Richard Sale) is that it apparently means every single overblown moment of its overblown narrative, packed to the gills with overripe dialogue that feels like it’s trying way too hard to be it’s own “What Makes Sammy Run?” or THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, but almost none of it works, at least not in the way it’s meant to. It’s so deadly serious so even the few moments peeking through that seem to indicate an intentional sense of humor about it all just come off as odd digressions. Whole reels seem to go by with scenes that are structured as if they had to choose between three or four uses of colorful slang so it decides to just go with all of them packed in to endless monologues as characters look at each other with steely determination and proclaim everything imaginable that’s wrong with their character. You could try to compare it to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS but of course that film is a masterful piece of filmmaking with actors who fall right into that dialogue effortlessly, as if this is exactly the way the world really is. THE OSCAR, in comparison, comes off as somebody trying way too hard in an effort to construct meaningful ‘colorful’ dialogue being shrieked by these actors non-stop. “You represent everything I loathe!” “You mean everything you love!”
And along with Hymie’s endless narration are ludicrous scenes, absurd moments, all as ham-handed in their obviousness as that empty seat next to Frankie at the Academy awards—the scene where he catches the talent scout’s eye by leaping onto the stage at a rehearsal to show some actors how to really hold a knife or the moment that goes on forever as Frankie and Kay meet again in Hollywood and begin dancing without a word between them as the main love theme “Maybe September” plays, endless arguments between Frankie and, well, just about everybody. I could go on, I really could. And it’s also terribly directed, set on spectacularly over-ostentatious sets that never feel anything like sets (although the modernistic design of Frankie’s Bel Air mansion seems kind of interesting), made up with the most lavish props imaginable including what seem like a hundred chandeliers spotted throughout and you could probably open an entire museum based on the paintings that are seen on the walls of these houses. Director/co-writer Russell Rouse actually did win an Oscar for being one of the writers of PILLOW TALK and his credits also include writing the original D.O.A. as well as directing some pretty good films like the noir tinged WICKED WOMAN, NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL and HOUSE OF NUMBERS which has Jack Palance in a dual role as brothers—maybe he went mad with whatever he was trying to do with THE OSCAR but he certainly wasn’t a director without talent. Visual and dialogue recurrences that occur indicate an attempt at a thematic goal but they’re never anything less than ham-handed and never really amount to much of anything, each one just sitting there like a matzo ball in the middle of a scene.
As for friend Fane and his climb to fame from the greasers in small towns to Greenwich Village all the way out to Beverly Hills and Bel Air, given a background somehow involving a mother who apparently slept around and a father who had no idea until the son squealed on her (“No woman is ever better than his mother,” Hymie states in an attempt to explain his friend) which led to him blowing his brains out. Um, ok. It may take some time to realize that Frankie Fane (“I’m me. And that’s plenty good enough.”) isn’t an anti-hero or even a relatable scoundrel in a Sidney Falco way but just a total slimy bastard, nothing sympathetic about him, nothing, forever getting dressed as the woman he just bedded continues to lounge around behind him, furious that he’s blowing the scene so soon. I mean, it’s not like this is the first movie to have a lead character without anything to redeem him but the points that try to build sympathy for his predicament become even more laughable as a result, moments where he’s scared into peering at his possible future, fears of being nothing but a big hunk of meat (“…You bring me meat like this meat. It all has different names. Prime rib of Gloria. Shoulder Cut of Johnny. Filet Fane. Meat!” as studio head Cotton declares in his mammoth office) lead to nothing and by the next scene he’s acting like the same creep all over again. I can’t bring myself to describe the legendary final moment since it really shouldn’t be spoiled for anyone who hasn’t seen this film but, trust me, you’ll never be able to get it out of your mind. Whatever the point of THE OSCAR might be is muddled further in how its pulling back the curtain of the town reveals that the paragons of virtue are really the studio heads and agents who believe in the nobility and tradition of the Academy Awards. THE OSCAR seems to endorse wholeheartedly the nature of Hollywood and the awards themselves—I suppose they wouldn’t have been able to make use of the statuette and awards ceremony footage otherwise (shots of arrivals at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium under the opening credits seem to deliberately obscure exactly which ceremony this is but a 37th seems to peek through a few times). When Joseph Cotton’s studio head defends the sanctity of the ceremony he means it and the film means it. Even Milton Berle’s agent Kappy (a lot of K names in this film, what’s up with that?) comes off as so decent like a puppy who’s being incessantly barked at by an attack dog as if the film is trying to underline how those in charge of Hollywood include some of the most decent, hard-working people imaginable and you should always play fair with them. There’s very little in the way of believable verisimilitude (beats me what the time frame of the movie is. One year? Fifteen?), no matter how many times they drop the names of people like Jack Lemmon or Dean Martin (cast in ‘that spy picture over at Warner Brothers’) to make it seem like we’re right in the thick of Tinseltown. We do see Frankie dating an ultra-vain starlet played by Jean Hale eventually giving her a needed comeuppance but he’s just as much of a jerk as she is. The entire cast is filled with creeps, no one you’d want to spend any time with except for Elke Sommer playing a character who is at least a little sympathetic even if she does get blinded by Frank and his fame and by a certain point can seemingly think of nothing to do but confront him while wearing the most ridiculous looking negligee imaginable (she’s still mind-blogglingly sexy and Jill St. John doing a striptease isn’t bad to look at either). The way she looks aside, I really can’t think of a single good thing to say about THE OSCAR. It’s a terrible film. Awful. Horrendous. And there’s barely a moment in it that isn’t totally entertaining in its own way. I can’t get enough of it.
The effect the film has is so bizarre that I can’t get over just what a piece of wood Stephen Boyd is, how he never looks at all quite human, every moment is phony and overblown yet at the same time kind of mesmerizing as this man without morals or decency who’ll do anything he can to get his hands on the Oscar. Every prickish act seems oddly genuine as if it would never occur to him to behave any other way as if he’s an alien who thinks this is how human jerks behave and I can’t help but think that he really is Frankie Fane. Somehow if I actually heard that Boyd, who died in 1977 of a heart attack, was the nicest, sweetest guy in the world I’m not sure I’d believe it. And hey, will you stop beating on his ears, he’s up to here with all this bring-down! As for Tony Bennett who has to scream “Birdseed!” at one point in defiant protest it’s pretty clear why this is his only feature appearance not playing himself—do you think he ever brought up this film while appearing on ENTOURAGE a few years back? There’s probably not a moment where he doesn’t seem to make the absolutely wrong choice in how to play a scene and by a certain point the cumulative effect of his various actions makes his character seem, well, mentally slow, for lack of a better way of putting it. Elke Sommer, asking for the ethical structure of the universe, seems like she’s convinced all her crying and emoting and speechifying will make her eligible for an Oscar herself for playing all this but she can’t quite achieve getting around all that mealy-mouthed dialogue she’s clearly having trouble with. Eleanor Parker and Jill St. John seem to spend most of their screen time either shrieking at Frankie or over emoting as if on a godawful soap opera, given no direction to pull things back just a little.
Milton Berle is one who does manage to do something with his character, giving one of the calmest, most layered performances in the whole film even while dealing with dialogue like, “You leave a man’s career like a bag of broken glass and you say, ‘Don’t, Kappy’?”, even if he’s sort of playing this high-powered Hollywood agent as a Manhattan garment worker on his last ropes. And along with him the great Ernest Borgnine as a private detective hired by Frankie and Edie Adams as his wife just about fare better than anybody since their characters aren’t handed the obligation of speechifying so they can just play part of their roles for intentional comedy. Jean Hale is selfish starlet Sheryl Barker and Jack Soo is Sam the houseboy—really, if you’re going to have a houseboy, shouldn’t it be Jack Soo? Broderick Crawford, Ed Begley (second straight appearance on this site) and Walter Brennan appear as “Guest Stars” in cameos and playing themselves in addition to Bob Hope are the likes of Hedda Hopper (who passed away right around the time the film was released), Edith Head, Johnny Grant, Merle Oberon and playing himself in the movie’s surprise twist ending is….well, I probably shouldn’t give it away but the moment is pretty unforgettable and how many takes do you suppose he did? There’s also Peter Lawford, listed among the guest stars, but instead of playing himself actually appears as a washed-up actor named Steve Marks who is reduced to working as a headwaiter. In the context of the film on first viewing it’s almost confusing considering that Lawford’s career was beginning to hit the skids around this post-Rat Pack time. You can’t say that THE OSCAR isn’t at times somewhat intriguing when it comes to these points. Maybe that’s just part of what makes it oddly fascinating in all its badness.
Acknowledging that the film’s reception basically killed his feature career in the crib, Harlan Ellison has spoken of how some of his work was rewritten but, to his credit, he doesn’t seem to disavow total responsibility either. One of the handful of things I remember of that night he appeared for a Q&A at the Egyptian (Edie Adams, who has since left us, was there as well) was his mentioning that he had wanted Steve McQueen and Peter Falk for the two leads—this sounds better considerably better but you’d have to remove at least half the dialogue which I can imagine would have been an improvement as well. A film that really needs to be seen to fully appreciate its madness, THE OSCAR unfortunately isn’t on DVD but TCM does run it on occasion—once it was a choice of guest programmer Bill Maher, so points to him for that, and on another occasion they ran the film opposite the actual Oscars. I wonder who watched. It’s a rotten film that I suspect is a little of what I always wish Hollywood was anyway, particularly with overdone Percy Faith playing in the background (“Maybe September” is the song that makes up the love theme) as I hang at some nightclub where everyone is done up in formalwear. Maybe I’ll need to watch it again after this year’s show. And to all winners at the Academy Awards this year and all the years to come, I do hope the Oscar keeps you warm on cold nights.
“Go on and run! Who the hell needs you? You’re too stupid to understand. This damn town wasn’t trying to pull your guts out! Nobody was trying to shove you into a sewer. Look around, go ahead, look around! How does anybody win? You’re too stupid to know that. I’m going to win and that’s what counts! I’m gonna win! Go on and run, you freeloaders! Go on, run, who needs ya? Who needs ya? Freeloaders! FREELOADERS!”