Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hollywood behind the curtain: The Oscar (1966)

The Oscar. Paramount Pictures. Executive producer, Joseph E. Levine; producer, Clarence Greene; director, Russell Rouse; screenplay, Harlan Ellison, Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; music, Percy Faith; art direction, Hal Pereira. Originally released as a motion picture in 1966. Performers: Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, Milton Berle, Eleanor Parker, Joseph Cotten, Jill St. John, Tony Bennett, Edie Adams, Ernest Borgnine. Based on the novel by Richard Sale. Summary: the story of an actor's bitter struggle to rise to the top and win the coveted Oscar.

style ***
substance ***

Has anyone ever noticed that movies with all-star casts are never very good? Yes, we have rare gems like the eight-decades vintage Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, but most films with lots of big names are of the ilk of The Oscar, which is saddled with a dismayingly high-powered collection of varyingly mid-level and bonafide stars. But this is just the beginning of its myriad problems. Simply put, The Oscar is of highly dubious pedigree, specifically its falling in the decade from roughly the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties, which might well be described as the golden age of the kitsch masterpiece. The VIPs; Love Has Many Faces; Imitation of Life; Peyton Place; Written on the Wind; Suddenly, Last Summer; The Carpetbaggers, to cite but a few of the highest – or is it lowest? – exemplars.

The Oscar continues the tradition of the polished, pretentious but rather empty affair that's so bad it's, well, if not exactly good then immensely entertaining, mostly by virtue of the unapologetic over-the-topness. Part of the (not so) secret of success is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Or is it because it takes itself so seriously? One can never be sure in this kind of material.  

Arriving as it did in 1966 The Oscar is in one sense the last gasp of the steamy, melodramatic potboiler. And indeed it has more the flavor of early 1960s or late 1950s than Swinging Sixties. Ergo one of the film’s central agonies: it wants to be both plushy Old School romantic and no-holds-barred gritty, frank and shocking at the same time. Thus we have several scenes which feature semi-nude actresses languorously stretched out on oversized beds, parading around in skimpy nighties, or performing bland stripteases.

In any case The Oscar milks the Hollywood-at-its-naked-dirtiest clichés to the hilt, and what we’re left with is a highly uneven artistic product awash in the gaudiest of period colors, the worst offenders being those awful Sixties clothes which even Edith Head designs can’t rescue. Frequently unintentionally funny, the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer script is delivered in suitably heavy-handed fashion. There’s also Tony Bennett’s unnecessary, eminently far too frequent, narration that’s way out of place for a high gloss would-be epic like this.

The story’s principal characters fly perilously close to caricature: the rising star who’ll do anything to become a bigger star, the long suffering girlfriend(s), long suffering wife, philistine producer, sleazy private detective. To the film’s credit, the script, and resultant overheated performances, lampoon these tropes along the way.

As for the mostly excellent cast, they chew their respective roles with unrestrained glee. Boyd is perfect as the svelte pretty boy who wants the good life and even more so wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Ernest Borgnine as a repulsive private eye and Edie Adams as his frowsy wife also register a strong impression, as does Eleanor Parker, here cast as our hero’s “older woman” mentor and sometime girlfriend. She has little to do but look beautiful, which she does. Of course Peter Lawford makes an appearance (as a maitre d’) – you didn’t think a movie this bad wouldn’t have him in it? But it's Milton Berle’s nicely understated performance as the crusty agent with a core of integrity that really stands out amongst all the scenery chewing.

Despite a few virtues, then, and with no disrespect to the stunningly tacky Mommie Dearest, ultimately The Oscar may indeed be the worst ever film which purports to expose the seamy side of the movie business, Hollywood Babylon meets Sunset Boulevard, if you like [1].

And even if a viewing of The Oscar ultimately leaves a deliciously bad taste in the mouth, somehow a question lingers: was (is) Hollywood as irretrievably corrupt a place as depicted in this film, populated by clawing, desperate, nasty little people? Probably not. Even reviewers a half century ago were skeptical [2].  

[1] The film actually received two AA nominations: Best Color Costume Design and Best Color Art Direction, and perhaps this was only just.

[2] As far as I can tell The Oscar is not, alas, currently available on DVD. 

Further reading:

Erik Nelson, The Oscar: Greatest Terrible Movie of All Time, Salon, March 5, 2010.
There's No Business, Cool Cinema Trash, Feb. 18, 2008.

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