Remembering 1966's The Oscar: Just As Cheese-Filled As the Real Thing
There are just two sleeps to go to the big night! The odds have been calculated and the prognostications made! The votes are in and now can't even be changed by Harvey's semitic signage, Nicolas's nincompoop e-natterings or James revealing that the Na'vi aren't actually CG but real genetic freaks he cooked up in his garage. Yet we can't keep having the same conversations for the next 48 hours. What we need is something to feed the appetite and stoke the fever -- something that's of the Academy Awards but not about their 82nd iteration. And The Oscar is that filmic fondue, a cauldron of cheese cooked up by director Russell Rouse, writer Harlan Ellison, stars Stephen Boyd and Tony Bennett, and a who's who of Hollywood donating cameos.
Here's a delicious taste (beware spoilers, which really kick in at the three-minute mark.)
Boyd, best known for playing Messala in Ben-Hur, plays Frankie Fane. Fittingly for a chap whose surname invokes both "fame" and "vain," he's a human slug hellbent on sliming his way to the top of the Hollywood heap. When we meet him, he's an MC for his stripper girlfriend Laurel, played by Jill St. John. After he's tired of abusing her, he takes a Robert Evans-esque gig in the New York City garment trade and moves on to Elke Sommer's designer Kay.
Delivering costumes to a theater one night, Frankie clambers onto the stage to show the actors how a knife fight really goes down. Impressed, the producer of the piece casts him, hooks him up with agent Milton Berle's agent Kappy, and it's off to Hollywood they go. There he's made arm-candy to a starlet, but after a quick montage he's the A-lister and she's doing his bidding -- that is, until he dumps her in front of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Nice! Eventually Frankie marries Kay but their marriage soon goes into terminal decline. Or, as she puts it: "We're running out of tomorrows." His acting career nosedives, too, and he's declared "box office poison" -- until he cunningly plants scandalous stories about himself, uses his resulting confession as a comeback and gets a sympathy-vote Best Actor Oscar nomination.
This is the evil Entourage, with Frankie the anti-Vinnie devoted solely to his stardom. "Like a junkie shooting pure quicksilver into his veins, Frankie got turned on by the wildest narcotic known to man: success!" is how Tony Bennett's unfeasibly loyal lapdog Hymie puts it. But Frankie also has a pathological need to bring down anyone he thinks crossed him. "Now it's payback time," he declares, anticipating Schwarzenegger by a couple decades.
Boyd's chomping, crazed performance as Frankie is an aberrant force of nature, enabled by screamingly bad dialogue from Harlan Ellison that sounds like angry beat poetry. "Will you stop beating on my ears!" he tells Kay. "I'm up to here with all this bring-down! I'm me! You don't like what you see then change the scenery -- go!" Frankie is such a woman-hater he makes Bluebeard look like Naomi Wolf. His most ruthless moment comes when Hymie tells him that after Frankie moved to Hollywood he married Laurel and then she died. Frankie's response isn't to ask how but to order his minion into swimming trunks so they can go cruise chicks. But we do find out the truth behind that tragic story in the film's histrionic showdown, with Bennett hitting the meltdown button like you wouldn't believe. (Again, big spoilers, along with the terrific use of "Birdseed!" as a cuss and an awesome castration reference. Just imagine E doing this to Vinnie...)
This is monstrously entertaining camp, and both John Wilson, founder of The Razzies, and Larry Charles, all-round comic genius, told me that The Oscar is one of their all-time favorite bad movies. But there's a shameful kicker. While this film, combined with a serious amount of champagne, is the perfect pre-show entertainment for your Academy Awards party, you're going to have to have access to a Mom-and-Pop video store that hasn't consigned their tapes to charity because it has never been released on DVD. But! You can catch it on TCM... which is broadcasting The Oscar on Sunday March 7 at 8pm -- in competition with the real deal. Talk about a choice as tough as Hurt Locker vs. Inglourious Basterds.
For more bad-movie madness, check out Michael Adams' pop culture memoir, Showgirls, Teen Wolves, And Astro Zombies, out now through It! Books.