I stayed up way too late last night but it was totally worth it because I was watching a film from 1966, The Oscar.
Among those of us who love bad and campy movies from the 50s and 60s, The Oscar is a legendary film. It has a reputation for being one of best so bad-its-good-films ever made. The Oscar is a film that I’ve read about in several books but, until last night, I had never gotten a chance to actually see it. When I saw that the film was going to be on last night, I said “Sleep be damned!” and I stayed up and watched. What other choice did I have?
The Oscar takes place in a world where women are “dames” and men are “fellas” and everyone acts as if they’re a character in a Rat Pack-themed fanfic. One look at Frankie Fane (played by Stephen Boyd) and you know he’s the type of guy who snaps his fingers when he walks and probably uses pig Latin when he flirts. He’s one cool cat and as the film begins, he’s been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
The film begins at the Oscars. Frankie sits out in the audience, surrounded by Hollywood royalty and nervously waiting for the envelope to be opened. The camera pans over to Frankie’s personal manager, Hymie Kelley. Hymie stares bitterly at his former friend and suddenly, we hear his thoughts and do they ever let us know what type of movie we’re about to see.
As Hymie himself puts it:
“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…”
Hymie, incidentally, is played by the singer Tony Bennett. This was Bennett’s first dramatic film role and it was also his last. Whatever talent or magnetism Bennett may have had as a singer, it didn’t translate into screen presence. Bennett goes through the entire film looking embarrassed but who can blame him when the script calls for him to constantly tell Frankie that, “You lie down with pigs, you stand up smelling like garbage…”
As we discover through the use of flashback, Frankie has had to lay down with a lot of pigs to get his chance at winning an Oscar. After starting out his career working at sleazy clubs, Frankie, Hymie, and Frankie’s stripper girlfriend (Jill St. John) find themselves in New York. Frankie dumps his girlfriend (unaware that she’s pregnant with his child) after he meets artist Elke Sommer at a “swinging party.”
“Are you a tourist or a native?” Frankie asks her.
“Take one from column A and one from column B. You get an egg roll either way,” Sommer replies.
No wonder Frankie tells her, “You make my head hurt with all that poetry.”
Eventually, Frankie is discovered by a talent agent who takes him to see studio mogul Joseph Cotten (who went from Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Third Man to this). Cotten is so impressed with Frankie that he says, “Once in a while, you bring me meat like this. It all has different names: prime rib of Gloria, shoulder cut of Johnny. MEAT!”
With the help of savvy talent agent Milton Berle, Frankie becomes a film star but he’s still a total heel who cheats on Sommer and takes advantage of Hymie’s loyalty. When Frankie gets nominated for an Oscar, he hires a sleazy private investigator (Ernest Borgnine, of course) to leak a story about Frankie’s criminal past. Frankie assumes that one of his fellow nominees will be blamed for the leak and that he’ll be able to ride a wave of sympathy to victory.
And who are Frankie’s fellow nominees? We only learn the identity of three of them – Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton, and Burt Lancaster. We never find out what movie Sinatra was nominated for but we’re told that Burton was nominated for The Grapes of Winter (which, I’m going to assume, was a film version of a Shakespeare play about Tom Joad) while Lancaster was nominated for his amazing performance in The Spanish Armada. Doesn’t that sound like an amazing film?
Oh, how to describe the delirious experience of watching The Oscar? In many ways, it is a truly terrible movie but it’s fun in the way that only a “racy” film from the mid-60s can be. Nobody plays his or her role with anything resembling subtleness. Instead, everyone spends the entire film yelling, screaming, and gritting their teeth while flaring their nostrils. Everyone, that is, except for Tony Bennett who gives a performance that has a definite community theater feel to it. Even better is the dialogue. People in this film don’t just say their lines – they exclaim them. If you’ve ever wanted to spend two hours in a world where every sentence ends with an exclamation point, watch The Oscar.
For a film that was apparently meant to be something of a love letter to the Academy, The Oscar was only nominated for two Oscars. It received nominations for Best Art Design and Best Costume Design. While I had a hard time seeing what was so impressive about the film’s art design (in the world of The Oscar, Hollywood has a definite Ikea feel to it), the costumes were fairly impressive in a tacky, 1966 type of way.
Finally, I think it’s time that somebody remake The Oscar. David Fincher can direct it, Aaron Sorkin can write the script, Jessie Eisenberg can play Frankie Fane, and Justin Timberlake would make for an adorable Hymie Kelley. For the supporting roles, I think Billy Crystal would be a natural for Milton Berle’s role and perhaps Philip Baker Hall could step into the shoes of Joseph Cotten. Perhaps veteran film blogger and self-described very important person Sasha Stone could make her film debut in Ernest Borgnine’s role.
Seriously, I think it would be a winner.