Shall I tell you my favorite line from The Oscar, that 1966 cinematic hotbed of infamously favorite lines? It’s not the obvious, well-known bits. Like “honey-drippers” or “thrombos” or the frequent, euphemistic exclamations of “Birdseed!” Nor is it the with-it ‘60s slang (“Swinging party”; “Man, what a scene”; “I’m splitting”) that now makes the film sound as archaic as a Jacobean tragedy. Nor such stand-outs as the bereft wife ungrammatically moaning, “My bed is empty of husband”; or the astonishingly cryptic, “I’m from Ohio; how many green stamps is that?” (I’ll bite: how many?)
Damn, no. It’s Elke Sommer’s sarcastic response to philandering movie-star husband Stephen Boyd’s return from a night out tom-catting: “I’m sorry, sir, but you have to go. My husband is expected back from the Punic Wars any moment now, and he’s insanely jealous.”
Whoa, I thought. Dig that: a reference to the Punic Wars. Heavy, man (to cop a ‘60s phrase). Elke’s riposte may not be elegant, but it’s certainly esoteric. How many movies do you know of that allude to that long-ago on-and-off argument between Rome and Carthage? Let’s give The Oscar a break, I say. At least one of its writers—it’s credited to three, Harlan Ellison, Russell Rouse, and Clarence Greene—knew something of ancient history and trusted the film’s audiences to discern a Punic war from a punch in the nose. My hat’s off to whoever penned it. I’m flattered he thought enough of our intelligence to slip it in.
Still, The Oscar veers more toward the punchy than the Punic. Any film purporting to dish the dirt on Sodom and Gomorrah on the San Andreas fault ain’t selling mere birdseed. Its producer, Joseph E. Levine, had earlier made the schlockily entertaining Hollywood exposés Harlow and The Carpetbaggers; and The Oscar makes for an unofficial Tinseltown trilogy. Its story, of how Boyd’s Frankie Fane rides into the film capital like the Romans into Carthage, avid for rapine and pillage, and all to get his greedy mitts on the title object of desire, is meant to give us the Low-Down on the High-Ups.
And, boy, they don’t come lower than Frankie. Nobody likes Frankie, not even his agent (and nobody likes agents). “You leave a powder of dirt everywhere you touch,” Fane’s rep growls. The craggily aristocratic-looking Boyd even tries for the low-brow and low-class in his portrayal, overlaying his Celtic brogue with a weirdly lower-East-Side vocal slide. I assume the actor was aiming for a hard edge, but he sounds more like James Mason slumming in a Bowery Boys flick. The tone and speech rhythms are off, the vowels slurred at an odd angle, as if Boyd had recently been to the dentist and the Novocain hadn’t quite worn off.
Let ‘em slur, I don’t care. It’s all part of the film’s irresistible fun. I’d rather watch The Oscar than collect all the green stamps in Ohio. There’s enough going on here to start yearly conventions, the way Trekkers do, with fans gathering to discuss their pet set pieces. I’ll tell you mine: it’s Edie Adams’s all-pink bungalow. Fabrics, walls, clothes, knick-knacks, furniture—all hideously pink. Who does this much pink? Even the air looks pink. I actually feared for the actors breathing it in.
Then there’s Catch the Oscar-Winning Guest Star, bustling on for a 30-second cameo and a priceless line, and rushing off while dignity is still intact. Look, honey, there’s Broderick Crawford! Brod plays a dirty cop arresting Frankie on a trumped-up charge. “If ya lookin’ for a bruise,” snarls Brod, da woids skidding off his own Novocained lips like Huntz Hall staggering back from the Punic Wars, “keep scratchin.’”
But wait, there’s more. Walter Brennan pops up as a crotchety businessman, Ed Begley as a burlesque showman, Ernest Borgnine a blackmailing detective, James Dunn a “Network Executive” (his last role), and Frank Sinatra as Frank Sinatra. Yes, all these guys won Oscars (Brennan won three). Edith Head also appears in a few frames, playing herself. She literally has no lines, but she designed everyone’s costumes, and she had won so many Oscars (eight, by golly) that Levine must’ve thought she had proprietary rights on the statuette. What the heck, throw her in.
The Oscar itself received two Oscar nominations, for Best Art Direction and Edith Head for Best Costumes (holy cow, she really did own that statue!). No nominations were bestowed on the screenplay. Why not, I ask. It’s the best piece of all. As Erik Nelson notes in his Salon essay, the film “conjure[s] up its own language.” It spouts enough campy dialogue to start its own cottage industry.
Much of that dialogue was dripped, like honey, onto Tony Bennett’s slumped shoulders, which no doubt accounts for that thrombo expression on his face throughout the film. Bennett, in his first and last dramatic acting role, played the thankless part of Frankie’s dogsbody and whipping boy, and many of his lines revolve around lost or misplaced body parts. “I’ve let you castrate me inch by inch,” Tony whines to his boss. Oy-y-y. I’m not surprised Bennett never touched another script. A line that forces you to contemplate your slice-by-slice emasculation is something only a masochistic Method actor could relish. Then there’s his epic wail to Frankie, about how, “I’ve been sitting like an extra nose on your face.” I keep trying to visualize that—Tony Bennett as an extra nose on Stephen Boyd’s map. I gotta admit, I never pictured Tony that way. A great singer who left his heart in San Francisco, yes; but a spare schnoz left on someone else’s pan? That’s a new one on me.
That’s what I call The Oscar Effect. You listen long enough to its dialogue, and you find yourself conjuring up bizarre mental images while doing so. (Try just listening to The Oscar without watching; it’s an experience.) The imagery is so terse and startling, it’s almost Joycean in its impact. “A little trouble,” Frankie grumbles, “and it’s Chicken-Licken, the sky is falling.” Fascinating, I thought. The reference should have been Chicken-Little, but Chicken-Licken—it’s different, it catches your attention. I not only heard the internal rhyme (that’s good, that’s poetic), but I also saw Frankie, in my mind’s eye, gnawing on a drumstick while sucking his fingers and gazing skyward from whence his woes descend.
Such graphic linguistic compression stirred my imagination. Take Frankie’s statement, “I never said anything about creaming Barney Yale.” Creamed Barney Yale; is there a recipe for that? Suddenly I saw a whirl of batter in a bowl (a college bowl, at that), and a whole new way of experiencing cinema opened up. Look, anyone can write great dialogue. But lines that take you out of a film and into a private, surreal universe, that allow you, as it were, to create your own movie-within-a-movie happening on the side—that’s an art all to itself.
And by golly, I got that, too. Another private movie within, I mean. It’s when Joseph Cotten’s gruff film producer dictates a memo to his secretary: “Note to the art department. The sets for Timbuktu are still standing. Why can’t they be revamped for The Mongol Horde?”
Mongol hordes, eh? Now that’s my kind of movie. Fur-hatted horsemen swinging swords as they pound over the Mongolian plains. It even set my mind working: Why not combine Mongol Hordes with Punic Wars and fashion an epic pelt-and-sandal extravaganza, featuring fur-hatted, sword-swinging Romans pounding over the Carthaginian plains? You could cast Stephen Boyd in it. He’d already played Roman soldiers in both Ben-Hur and The Fall of the Roman Empire, as well as a Mongol warlord in Genghis Khan. How much of a stretch could it be to play a Roman-Mongol-Carthaginian one?
Just get him a fur hat (the one I tipped to the screenwriters) and a few extra noses to swing a sword at. It just might work.
BONUS CLIP: Oscar highlights — The Oscar graphically compressed in under five minutes, each one a sheer guilty pleasure. The annual convention starts here: