Elke Sommer as Kay Bergdahl and Stephen Boyd as Frank Fane in The Oscar (1966) (IMDB)

From the Smoker to ‘The Oscar’: The Sweet Stink of Success

Russell Rouse's The Oscar is fabulously gaudy and kitschy, with overdone sets and costumes. The film practically hyperventilates in mood, story, and acting. You should see it.

The Oscar
Russell Rouse
Kino Lorber
4 February 2020

Oscar Levant is credited with the remark that underneath all of Hollywood’s phony tinsel, you find the real tinsel. In demonstration of that theory and from one Oscar to another, we find that Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of the 1966 Hollywood meta-melodrama The Oscar has rescued this maligned picture from the junk heap of rhetoric about “turkeys” and “so bad it’s good” and similar phony claptrap, and what stands revealed is the real claptrap. And it’s fascinating.

The film begins with documentary footage of the fanfare surrounding an actual Academy Awards ceremony. Appearing as himself, red-carpet interviewer Johnny Grant asks a few questions of Best Actor nominee Frankie Fane, played with pitch-perfect unctuous diplomacy by Stephen Boyd. He’s surrounded by well-groomed extras smiling for the cameras (the story’s camera and the film’s camera) and, in the background, more fenced-off extras screaming at the spectacle. It’s a nice fabrication of facetiousness, and if it’s not exactly the same as introducing fictional characters into a real milieu, as in Haskell Wexler’s use of the Democratic National Convention in Medium Cool (1969), it’s only one step away.

Inside the auditorium, regular Oscar host Bob Hope strides up to the podium and tells a few of his patented jokes. The audience is packed except that Frankie has an empty seat beside him, an echo of the emptiness he carries forever with him. Sitting further away is his wife Kay (Elke Sommer) and best friend and factotum Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett). Staring gloomily at Frankie, Hymie begins a voice-over that leads to wavy opticals and the flashback that occupies most of the movie, thus implying that this sporadically narrated story is from Hymie’s POV, even though he’s absent from much of it.

The flashback begins at a “smoker”, a men-only venue in some podunk town where Frankie is the “spieler” who introduces Laurel (Jill St. John), a stripper in a jaw-dropping orange tiger get-up with claws. Hymie is the DJ who drops the needle on the phonograph. The irony of Frankie’s confident flim-flam spiel is that he bellows about “art–A-R-T” to gussy up the sleazy act of Laurel performing modern modulations of terpsichore and ecdysiasm to drunken caterwauling yokels, and therein lies the kernel of what he’ll be doing even as a big-deal movie star at more expensive levels produced by the Hollywood machine.

Frankie is the movie’s primary sex object, showing off his hairy body more frequently and completely than his various interchangeable females. To underline the doubling and literal mirroring of his conquests, the same dutch-angled mirror composition and bedroom poses are used for two different post-sex scenes. We gather that Frankie’s modus operandi is to complete the act as quickly as possible and then rush to throw on his clothes in front of the mirror before his father comes home, all while staring at himself before he becomes his father.


Dancers by hsvbooth (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Whoops, we’re getting into the subtext. As Hymie explains to a fuming Laurel, Frankie sees all women as his mother, who would “sleep with anybody”. That’s tolerably Oedipal already, but Hymie adds that an adult Frankie once took his father for a rare outing and they came home to find mom in bed with someone, whereupon the father blew his brains out, so Frankie feels responsible for killing his dad.

What follows is sheer sordid speculation on our part, but we can’t help wondering if Hymie’s second-hand version of events may be laundered from an even more Oedipal scene that more readily explains the father’s suicide over a wife who “sleeps with anybody”. Dear Reader, you know what we’re getting at. Here’s where we must interrupt what’s actually in the movie for more shameless meta-speculation grounded in behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt. Let’s take the plunge.

The Oscar is based on a 1963 novel by Richard Sale, a very busy pulp writer who became a very busy Hollywood writer-director. According to the two commentary tracks, the movie bears very little resemblance to the novel, which followed the salacious scandals attached to all five actor nominees, included one “in the closet”. Sale seems to have sold the rights and then had nothing further to do with the project.

Those rights were bought by maestro producer Joseph E. Levine, with a hard-spent reputation for expensive Hollywood-oriented trashy soapers like The Carpetbaggers (Edward Dmytryk, 1964) and Harlow (Gordon Douglas, 1965) and, more sublimely, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris,1963). In the same year as The Oscar, he unveiled Daniel Petrie’s The Idol, yet another cautionary tale of an angry young heel who ruins women (and we’d like to see that one too).

Levine made a canny choice in hiring Greene-Rouse Productions to shoot the film on the Paramount lot for Levine’s Embassy Pictures. Greene-Rouse was a longstanding team who’d made a string of low-budget films directed by Russell Rouse, produced by Clarence Greene, and co-written by them both. They specialized in controversial and sleazy elements. They’d made a splash with The Well (1951), which uses a suspense plot to dramatize racial tensions, and we’d really love to see that one. Frankly, all their output needs to be on Blu-ray ASAP.

Their follow-ups included the dialogue-free The Thief (1952) with Ray Milland; the sleazy noirs Wicked Woman (1953) and New York Confidential (1955); and the prostitution drama A House Is Not a Home (1964), starring Shelley Winters as real-life madam Polly Adler. Greene-Rouse had also been attached to two relevant projects that eventually got made by others: Monkey on My Back (1957, Andre DeToth), an early real-life drug-abuse biopic that includes an early glimpse of interracial kissing, and Incident in an Alley (1962, Edward L. Cahn), about a delinquent street gang.

In other words, Levine’s penchant for glossy Hollywood sleaze combined its DNA with Greene-Rouse’s track record for low-budget sensationalism, and together they made the canny move of hiring budding science fiction icon Harlan Ellison, who also had a background in writing about street gangs, to turn out the script.

According to those on the first commentary track who’ve read his original 300+ page script, which sounds like a Netflix serial, it’s an epic story crammed with incidents dropped from the film or only alluded to, and this may explain why the movie is so rapidly and abruptly edited as the story cuts off scenes or glances in passing at a wide variety of undeveloped incidents, as revised by Greene and Rouse.

My Oedipal extrapolation doesn’t seem supported by what details are dropped about the full script, but the editing and telescoping leaves the possibility all the more intact. The other juicy tidbit here lies in the claim that Steve McQueen was originally mooted to star as Frankie. Now, when Frankie gets nominated for something called Breakthrough (a movie we never glimpse a moment of), one character opines that Frankie gave such a good performance because he was playing himself, a heel who claws his way to the top without conscience.

We cast no asparagus on McQueen, but his legend is dogged by unsavory rumors best sketched out in Darwin Porter’s Steve McQueen, King of Cool: Tales of a Lurid Life (Blood Moon, 2009), and apparently even that stops short of some of the more extreme gossip about his alleged prostitute mother and his own alleged rent boy past. I’m only pointing out that this raw material (as it were) could well have fueled a movie to which his name was at one point connected, or perhaps, in a vice versa (as it were), the movie could be a ground zero for the rumors.

Let’s get back to what’s onscreen. We’ve got Elke Sommer as a drop-dead gorgeous designer who somehow gets to wear spectacular Edith Head gowns even before her character works for the real Edith Head (as herself). We’ve got Ernest Borgnine and Edie Adams showing up halfway through, on a jaunt to Tijuana, as a brassy private detective and his equally classless wife, both of whom turn out to have more up their polyester sleeves than comic relief.

We’ve got Eleanor Parker as a lonely aging star who becomes one of Frankie’s stepping stones. We’ve got a blonde starlet named Cheryl Barker (Jean Hale), who seems viciously parodic of Harlow star Carroll Baker and gets involved in symbolic business about “green goddess” salad. We’ve got Milton Berle as a top agent so honorable that he seems pained to learn his client has been nominated for an Oscar when they’re in the middle of a lousy TV pilot deal.


Elke Sommer as Kay Bergdahl and Stephen Boyd as Frank Fane in The Oscar (1966) (IMDB)

Wait, there’s more. We’ve got cameos by Joseph Cotten as a studio boss on a green throne, Broderick Crawford as a crooked sheriff, Walter Brennan as a self-important TV sponsor, Ed Begley as an angry strip-joint owner, Peter Lawford as a has-been actor with some of the best lines, and Jack Soo as the laidback major-domo who calls Frankie “bwana” to his face. We’ve got Merle Oberon, Hedda Hopper, and Frank and Nancy Sinatra as themselves. We’ve even got art director Hal Pereira introducing himself to a distracted Frankie, which means the people in this film who received real-life Oscar nominations for it (including Head) actually appear on screen!

We’ve got those gaudy, kitschy, overdone sets and costumes, and we’ve got the rich Pathe Color photography of Joseph Ruttenberg, and we’ve got generally stylized and over-the-top hyperventilation in mood, story and acting, only counterpointed by certain underplaying actors who anchor the proceedings.

Fortunately, Stephen Boyd isn’t understated. He holds the film together with a strange, compelling, mannered, hermetic performance of mingled cockiness and panic, showing how each mode is the underside of the other. He delivers his lines in an odd accent and a low barrel-chested pitch that’s a model of consistent, unreal or hyper-real stylization that’s got nothing to do with screen “realism” or “the Method” or anything but the grand tradition of melodrama.

Those who mistake this for “bad acting” may not understand what “acting” is. He’s working with his director and producer to create a vivid two-dimensional character at the center of a circus. His final existential collapse, which manages to be internalized and extravagantly outsized at the same time, should make us point a finger at the screen and exclaim, “Now that’s acting!” It’s a compliment.

Speaking of acting, Boyd received no Oscar nods that year, but McQueen got his one and only, for Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, a movie he made instead of this one. A fellow nominee was Richard Burton, who was also fictitiously nominated against Boyd’s Frankie Fane. Also nominated were Alan Arkin, Michael Caine, and the winner, Paul Scofield. Boyd would never be nominated, alas, though he picked up a Golden Globe for Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler). Sadly, he died of a heart attack at 45, so we’re cheated of how he might have aged.

Tony Bennett’s only dramatic feature role isn’t as bad as it’s sometimes made out, although his lack of professional training tells in his Big Speech at the end. It’s hardly the only dramatically overbaked scene, but he’s the one who can’t quite sell it. Fortunately for him and the viewer, most of his role doesn’t approach that level of demand, and Hymie comes across as the lower-key, more down-to-earth, more conscience-stricken half of the double-act with Frankie. He’s there to be a dramatic and stylistic foil, a hanger-on and cleaner-up, the one who knew him when and can call his B.S., and mostly he does that.


© Embassy Pictures / IMDB

Perhaps in the spirit of overdoing things, the Blu-ray has two commentaries of three persons each. The first trio (Erik Nelson, Josh Olson and Patton Oswalt) makes fun of the movie but offers valuable information about the script by people who knew Ellison. They also mention Ellison’s pertinent admiration of Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The second trio (Nathaniel Thompson, Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell) admires the film within the “outlandish” tradition of glossy postwar melodramas like two mighty hits directed by Mark Robson from huge trashy bestsellers, Peyton Place (1957) and Valley of the Dolls (1967).

The second approach is more on point, as the movie belongs to a tradition of Hollywood’s subgenre of simultaneously self-loathing and back-patting mythology about itself, which goes back to self-parodies in the silent era. Audiences understood the mode of hysterical melodrama whose conventions are followed here, and if this one didn’t do the business of The Carpetbaggers or Valley of the Dolls, that has less to do with “taste” than satiety or restless appetite or what else was playing. The Oscar is neither bad nor great, and it’s sure never dull.

On a first go-round, the viewer notices the melodrama. On a revisit, one picks up the increasingly obvious comic nods from actors like Adams and Soo, and from characters like Cheryl Barker’s hostile yet blasé maid and Barker herself, the gluttonous sheriff, the drivel spouted by the TV sponsors, the open slapstick of the “green goddess” bit, the use of cameos, and even the deliciously overdone irony of the surprise ending and its “theatrical” self-consciousness. This movie has a sense of humor, which means if you’re laughing at it, it’s usually in on the joke.

One of the commentary tracks points out poorly matching day-for-night shots in one sequence to imply incompetence, but that kind of post-production detail sometimes arises in transfers from the negative, which then have to be re-filtered and color-timed. On a technical level, this movie’s not incompetent despite some distracting on-set lighting issues in the upper corner of an apartment scene with Boyd, Bennett and St. John, and that scene also has a few minutes of faintly visible vertical damage that may be on the negative.

Licensed from Studiocanal, the Blu-ray of this print looks beautiful in a 4K digital restoration with eye-popping colors. I suppose it won’t win any awards, but not for lack of the old college try, and really it’s playing a different game.

RATING 8 / 10