Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Glutton for Punishment: THE OSCAR

by JB
Both my prayers and my questions have been answered…

Until about six years ago, The Poseidon Adventure was my favorite “bad” movie. But writing about it, talking about it with trusted friends, and reading the comments of our own readers here made me change my mind. Back then I wrote, “The Poseidon Adventure has always been my secret shame—a movie I loved loved loved [but] assumed everyone else hated hated hated. My shame has abated recently, as I discovered that many other people share my love.”

It’s not that I no longer love The Poseidon Adventure; it’s that I realized it’s not a “bad” movie at all.

The Poseidon Adventure was quickly replaced in my little black heart by the hellish stinkfest that is The Oscar. I used to watch it once or twice a year when it showed up on Turner Classic Movies, but then those semi-regular airings disappeared. Were there rights issues? Did TCM finally realize what a turkey it was? The Oscar never even received a DVD release—just a cursory, cropped, miserable VHS transfer from Embassy Video in 1985. Kino-Lorber’s beautiful, new, restored Blu-ray is a godsend to lovers of cheesy cinematic so-bad-it’s-goodness.
The Plot in Brief: Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) travels the country as a kind of strip-club carnival barker with his girlfriend Laurel (Jill St. John) and boyhood pal Hymie Kelly (singer Tony Bennett in his first and last film performance). Frankie is an abrasive, deeply awful person, and one wonders why anyone would ever want to spend time with him. Frankie eventually dumps Laurel for Kay (Elke Sommer) and eventually dumps Kay for Sophie (Eleanor Parker). Sophie introduces Frankie to talent agent “Kappy” Kapstetter (Milton Berle) who gets Frankie auditions at all the big studios. Frankie appears in a few movies. Frankie’s repugnant personality causes all of Hollywood to swear NOT to work with him ever again. Frankie is labelled “box office poison” by the studios, but suddenly when all looks bleak, he is nominated for an Academy Award. Will winning an Oscar redeem Frankie in the motion picture industry… and the hundreds of artists and craftspeople he has deeply offended?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I eventually found the film, split into nine separate 12-minute chunks, on the YouTube machine and used an application of questionable legality to download it onto my desktop as a series of MP4s. Each one looked terrible, as if it was sourced from a different print, and the sound levels shifted from ear-piercing to whisper-quiet with no rhyme or reason. This made my secret, private copy of The Oscar even harder to watch—as if the film’s narrative, dialogue, and performances were not already terrible enough. Delicious!
Salon.com calls The Oscar “the greatest terrible movie of all time.” It is remarkably bad. The plot is repetitive, meandering, and plodding. As if raising Method Acting to a level heretofore only dreamed of in Marlon Brando’s fevered imagination, Stephen Boyd gives a performance as Frankie that is as shrill and repellent as the character he plays. He shouts every line in a bellicose, Neanderthal howl. Boyd’s Frankie comes equipped with a set of nonstop, bizarre hand gestures that must be seen to be believed. At times it’s like he is channeling some sort of alien life form trying to imitate a human, and not doing it particularly well. In the first scene in the film, Boyd even comes up with a way to WAVE that is peculiar and somehow “off.” And Boyd Never. Lets. Up. For two full hours, it is as if the audience is being subjected to a “dramatic highlights” reel assembled from ten other movies.
Tony Bennett’s performance is the opposite: wooden, lifeless, listless, and boring. At times it seems as if Bennett is rehearsing his lines in a sleepy daze, not actually appearing in a major motion picture. Looking at just the performances of Boyd and Bennett as the two leads, the film could have been titled The Asshole and the Narcoleptic. Perhaps the movie would have been very different if the producers had gone with their first choices for the major roles: Steve McQueen and Peter Falk.

Why is this film so batshit crazy? The famous script was written by science-fiction wunderkind Harlan Ellison; it was a titanic failure that he had to live with for the rest of his life. A commentary track on the new disc—featuring Ellison friends Patton Oswalt, Josh Olson, and Erik Nelson—explains one of the reasons that the film is so odd. Apparently, Ellison’s script was almost 400 pages long and contained lengthy backstory and material that never made the final film. (The Kappy character, for instance, gets cancer and travels far away to seek treatment. I can finally sleep at night, knowing my Kappy Kwestions have been answered.)

As it turns out, a lot of Ellison’s longer scenes were filmed, only to be cut down in the editing room. On the commentary track as the film plays, Erik Nelson refers to the original script and calls out when scenes begin five pages in, ten pages in, twenty pages into the original script; there’s even a scene that fades to black while Milton Berle is mid-sentence! Josh Olson explains that, as originally filmed, these scenes establish a natural dramatic pace; but the cut-to-the-chase editing strategy employed by the filmmakers forces every scene to go “from zero to sixty” in record time. All we get are the dramatic ends of scenes, which is why it seems that every character is trying to out-act and out-shout everyone else. (Stephen Boyd wins both contests.)

NOTE: It is never a good sign when the most subtle, nuanced performance in your film is given by Milton Berle.
Though the editing is to blame for a film that’s all-hubris-all-the-time, Ellison can be blamed for dialogue that seems to stream from a metaphoric river of slang and nonsense. Some examples:

HYMIE: [thinking] 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...

GROBARD: You got a pretty feisty mouth.
FRANKIE: [shouting] And you got a glass head, I can see right through it!
It's how I know you're stupid!

LAUREL: Ever since we hit this town you've been living off me. If you think I'm gonna work my tail off so you can run around with the Village chicks... Oh, stop spreading the pollen around, Frankie… or else!

KAY: Frankie, you are rude and nasty, and impossible. Absolutely impossible.
FRANKIE: [shouting] Will you stop beating on my ears? I'm up to here with all this bring-down!

FRANKIE: [shouting] Speaking of broads, whatever happened to Laurel?
HYMIE: I married her.
FRANKIE: [shouting] Oh yeah? HOW IS SHE?
HYMIE: She died.
FRANKIE: [shouting] What'd you say?
HYMIE: I said she died.

KAY: If a woman doesn't treasure herself, how can a man treasure her?
FRANKIE: [shouting] You make my head hurt with all that poetry!

HYMIE: [narrating] Frankie found himself married, but he still couldn't change his feelings about women. So his only avenue was escape. He employed the slimy services of the Hymie Kelly Broad-Procuring agency. I was running out of numbers! He used 'em like Kleenex! Once, and threw 'em away!
Kino-Lorber’s new Blu-ray transfer is absolutely flawless. The colors pop (check out Edie Adams’ PINK apartment and the GREEN restaurant Frankie frequents). This is the first time the film has been presented in its correct aspect ratio, and the new disc comes with two commentary tracks: the first by the aforementioned Oswalt/Olson/Nelson team and a second, more historic and academic track by Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathanial Thompson. It’s only February, but I can say with confidence that this is already one of the Top Ten Disc Releases of 2020.

JB [shouting]: Hey, why don’t all you crazy screwheads check out this nutty movie?


[waves hands insanely]

[Fade to black.]


  1. That's it, JB finally lost it

    But you make a great case for this movie

  2. JB adding "machine" to any piece of technology always makes me smile.