Object Of Desire

OSCARposter

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.

Steve tries to slip a Punic War past Elke.

Steve tries to slip a Punic War past Elke.

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 Hollywood 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.

Think pink!

Think pink!

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 seems 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.

OSCARbennet

Tony thinking about what else he’s left in San Francisco.

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.

Here's something which which to create your own movie-in-a-movie.

A little something to create your own movie-in-a-movie by.

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.

OSCARboyd

BONUS CLIP: Oscar highlights — The Oscar graphically compressed in under five minutes, each one a sheer guilty pleasure. The annual convention starts here:

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13 Comments

  1. Wonderful! This is really one of my top ten favorite Bad Films and you latched onto just what is so irresistible about it: the screenplay. The best camp films (Valley of the Dolls, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) are quotable, but you have to look far to find a movie as eccentrically wordy as “The Oscar”. It never lets up.
    I’m impressed that you were able to settle upon a single favorite quote. I’m still racking my brain – although I suppose it it might be the sponsors discussing Frankie’s manhood (“Hell, he’s a man alright!”) or Milton Berle comforting the younger-than-I-am-now Eleanor Parker by reminding her she still “…has a few good moments left.”
    I do adore this film, everything about it (Boyd is very easy on the eyes while being a bit tough on the ears). And I love your very humorous take on its literate tin-ear. I’m going to have to rewatch my bootleg copy soon! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Ken,and thanks so much!
      I admit, it’s hard to choose a favorite line from The Oscar. I think the Punic Wars one stuck out for me because of its obscure reference in a film obviously constructed to be as big a box-office hit as possible. Another favorite of mine is when agent Milton Berle compares himself to Jesus (“What am I, the Messiah?”), which struck me as the echt Hollywood attitude about itself. It’s astonishing just how WEIRD the dialogue from The Oscar is, and yet how straight-faced the actors are when reciting the lines, as if they were acting O’Neill.

      So many of the camp movies you mentioned are from the 1960s, that I’m wondering if there was something about the decade that caused them to flourish. Maybe something about the breakdown of the studio system and the collapse of the Production Code let loose a collective neurosis. While movies like Faster Pussycat or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are obvious spoofs, you have to wonder about the self-seriousness of such Hollywood stories like The Oscar or Valley of the Dolls or The Carpetbaggers or Harlow, which are, on the surface, utterly humorless about their subject. You can sense the desperation of the mainstream hacks, trying to peddle a formula and a fantasy that no longer works for the public. I can only think how the films of the early 70s were refreshingly different and necessary.

      Reply
  2. One of my all time favorite bads – could watch it forever! Never got deep into it so your analysis is so wonderful to read. Much appreciated. Perfect for summer watching, as you said, think I’ll get a group together to do just that. Keep it coming!

    Reply
    • It really is a perfect late-night summer movie, going well with beer and popcorn. (You can also start a drinking game: every time someone says “Birdseed!”, take a swig!) Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  3. Great post, must check this one out! At first just because Stephen Boyd, but you make the whole thing sound so fun.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! The film is a hoot and fun to watch (mainly because it’s so jaw-droppingly bad). And Stephen Boyd is definitely easy on the eye. The whole film has been uploaded to Youtube (in 9 parts), so you can check it out there.

      Reply
  4. It is an immensely entertaining film and my admiration for Elke Sommer has grown recently. Plus, let’s face it, Stephen Boyd had the confidence to take on any role, say playing the commander of a microscopic sub injected into a human body! Knowing that GOM reviews are researched impeccably, I’ve gotta ask: How many green stamps does an Ohio resident get?

    Reply
    • Stephen Boyd had an interesting, international career; and I’ve always liked Elke Sommer’s performance in ‘A Shot in the Dark,’ the best of the Pink Panther movies. As for the number of Ohio green stamps a resident receives, I’m not sure but I do suspect that it’s in relation to how many inches Tony Bennett had lost of his manhood 😉

      Reply
  5. I wasn’t aware of this film, I’ll admit, but the jaw-dropping quotes you use here in such profusion have made me curious – plus the great cast, of course. I had no idea Tony Bennett had played a dramatic role, and the fact that Sinatra appears is enough to intrigue me, though I’m getting the impression this isn’t up there with his great roles. A highly entertaining piece!

    Reply
    • Yes, The Oscar does have its share of jaw-dropping quotes; apparently, audiences even laughed at the lines during the film’s initial release. And the collection of actors that producer Joseph E. Levine was able to attract is astonishing (I didn’t even mention Milton Berle, Eleanor Parker, Bob Hope, and Merle Oberon also making appearances). The Oscar seems not to have had a DVD release, but someone did upload it to Youtube – definitely check it out!

      Reply
  6. I am so glad someone else loves the Oscar as much as I do. Where the heck is the blu ray release?? Even a regular dvd release! Check out my Stephen Boyd blog if you wish. Thanks for making me smile. 😆

    Reply
    • Thanks for visiting! The Oscar (film, that is) actually has a pretty big fan base, so I’m surprised it hasn’t yet made it to home video. Makes you wonder who has something to hide…:)

      Reply

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