This year’s Oscar ceremony is over now and all that’s left to do is to examine the clothes and perhaps ruminate on a couple of the results. It’s always a big night with cinematic history being made, sometimes the way we like, sometimes not. In The Underworld, however, when we celebrate Oscar, we mean we’re celebrating that simultaneously swanky and tacky, emotionally garish, expensive, yet cheap, monument to the obsessive desire for Hollywood’s top honor. We’re speaking, of course, of the 1966 film The Oscar.
The type of movie (think Showgirls or Battlefield Earth) that was a camp classic practically upon release and which becomes more and more so with each year that separates it from the time in which it first appeared, it is manna from heaven to those who enjoy that period in the mid-60s when studio films still clung to that clean, sharp, sleek visual style while the subject matter was beginning to turn more sordid than in previous decades. Then, of course, there is the female hair of that period, when it was de rigueur to tease it as high and full as possible and, often, to augment it with skyscraping appendages, anything to achieve that Nouveau-Grecian look.
The movie kicks off with footage from an actual Oscar ceremony (the 37th Annual), with shots of limousines pulling up as the staggering rundown of stars’ names appear in the credits. Produced by Joseph E. Levine (the same man behind The Carpetbaggers, Where Love Has Gone and Harlow, if that tells you anything!), it relates the tumultuous journey of one man, Stephen Boyd, from small-time stripper agent to Hollywood leading man and Academy Award contender.
The ceremony begins (featuring perennial Oscar host Bob Hope, who helmed the ceremony an impressive eighteen times in all) with Boyd seated on the aisle, anticipating his category. Looking on is his former best pal Tony Bennett (in his big screen acting debut and, fortunately, his swan song as well!) Bennett stares at Boyd with an expression of grim woodenness that will become exceedingly familiar to the viewer over the course of the rest of the two hour film. He is heard in monotonous voiceover chastising Boyd for what it took to get him to the place he’s in and the screen begins to blur, signaling the beginning of a flashback.
Cut to Boyd, Bennett and Boyd’s curvy girlfriend, Jill St. John, several years prior as they attempt to make ends meet in a smoky, dingy nightclub. St. John is done up in a tiger print ensemble complete with black gloves that have copper claws on each finger. Boyd is her “manager” and lover while Bennett serves as their sidekick/helper. To the delight of the men in the club (and, to be honest, to my own delight as well!), St. John begins taking off pieces of her outfit and bumping her way around the small stage. She looks fantastic (better than anyone in her position should. After all, what lowdown strip artist has hair by Nellie Manley, Wally Westmore makeup and a six-piece Edith Head costume?!)
When the dive's owner tries to chisel them out of the money they're owed, Boyd roughs him up and the trio flees the town. Unfortunately, local sheriff (and real life Oscar-winner) Broderick Crawford, who's in on the sting operation, tracks them down and jails them. By the time they've bought their way out of trouble, they have little but the clothes on their backs. Soon, they hit New York where St. John secures a job with Ed Begley. Alas, this leaves Boyd free to carouse around town while his lady works nights. One of the hot spots Boyd and Bennett go to is a crowded swingin' party where the chief attraction is plates of chili & spaghetti!
Here, Boyd meets pretty fashion designer Elke Sommer and the two flirt and spar with one another in dialogue that really could only have been written in the '60s. (One of the three screenwriters for this gem was Harlan Ellison, a man who did a fair share of science fiction and this movie could almost qualify!) St. John finally has her fill of Boyd's shenanigans and he is tossed out. He takes a job as a stockman in a dress factory in order to be near Sommer.
One day, while accompanying Sommer to deliver costumes to a nearby theatre, he witnesses a pair of actors engaged in a knife fight and (having defended himself from one in the small dive town) he hops on the stage to teach them how it is really done. This display of intensity catches the eye of a talent scout (Eleanor Parker) who decides to take him under her wing (and under some other things of hers!) The fact that he's an arrogant, explosive jerk nearly all the time doesn't seem to phase her.
Sommer now put to one side, he and Parker work on his acting (and, offscreen, work on each other, too! This publicity photo shows them canoodling and headed for the bedroom, but the scene isn't in the finished picture. It's a shame because I love Parker's hair and clothing here.) Before long, he's out in Hollywood being presented to the head of (the fictional) Galaxy Studios, Joseph Cotten. Cotten derisively refers to Boyd as “meat,” but eventually takes him on. Boyd also lands the skillful Milton Berle as his agent (the whole movie is like this... star after star filling each role right down to some of the bits!)
Before he's really established himself in the movies, Boyd must be the studio-arranged date for one of its successful starlets. The divine Jean Hale (who never worked enough for my tastes) essays the vain, self-serving, eternally bitchy actress who treats Boyd like less than a dog on a leash. She's filled to the brim with rules, conditions and demands. She also has a hilariously bug-eyed, surly maid who probably gets the brunt of the blasts when no one else is around to take it.
Later, once he is better established, he and Hale have a second date and this time it's all about him. Hale has, by now, started to slip out of favor and the tables are turned. They are approached at their table by legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in one of the last things she did before passing away. When she waves goodbye, it's like seeing the woman herself say goodnight to decades of ink-wielding power (and, for a time, a bit of a reign of terror!) in Hollywood. She gets a pretty good scoop, though, when Boyd decides he's had enough of Hale's attitude and dumps a gargantuan Green Goddess salad into her lap!
Boyd's career starts to rise and he is reunited with his old buddy Bennett, who, like a moth to the flame, can't seem to quit Boyd. Boyd also runs into Sommer again, who is now ensconced at the studio as a sketch artist for Edith Head. Somehow this job enables Sommer to have a stunning tudor-style mansion?? Boyd begins to win her over again and the pair trots off to Tijuana to watch the bullfights.
While there, they encounter married couple Ernest Borgnine and Edie Adams and the foursome gets along like a house on fire. When Borgnine and Adams ask the younger couple to help witness their divorce at a Justice of the Peace, the seed is planted for Boyd and Sommer to elope. They do so and share about 45 seconds of happiness before he's treating her like all the other women he's ever known.
Back in H-Town, Boyd is making heavy demands on Cotten and causing a strain with Berle as well. While lunching with Berle, he comes upon a former actor (Peter Lawford) who's lack of career momentum has led him to become the maitre de at the restaurant! Lawford hands Boyd some advice and unsettles him with his reflections on the cruel nature of the biz.
When things continue to fall apart with Sommer (who languishes at home in an array of platinum creamy-whip hairdos and eye-popping lingerie ensembles), Boyd looks up old flame Parker and barges into her home, seducing her and then lashing out a few insults over her age. Here, Parker gives Boyd a run for the money in chewing the scenery. Lying face down on the bed and clutching a pillow, she rails on and on about his selfishness. Nonetheless, her raw, emotionally charged performance is a far cry from the confident, tightly-controlled one she gave as Baroness Schraeder in The Sound of Music the year before.
Whenever Boyd deigns to sleep with Sommer, she gets the same sort of treatment. In fact, in one of several parallel scenes in the movie, Sommer is shown in the same body position as Parker, being looked at in a mirror by Boyd, as she pleads with him for some level of understanding or attention.
As Boyd's position in the industry grows, he continues to alienate anyone and everyone around him, his head swelling in a similar way that Patty Duke's would the following year in Valley of the Dolls. Sadly for him, his most recent picture is one that Cotten (fed up with Boyd anyway thanks to the contractual squeeze he put on him) wants to offload as a second feature. He also decides to end Boyd's tenure at the studio. This coming at a key time of financial crisis for Boyd, he is reduced to considering a role on TV, where (real life Oscar-winners) James Dunn and Walter Brennan haggle over Boyd's ability to hawk the sponsor's product in between scenes.
As he agonizes over his dreadful career turns, he has one of those hooty cinematic nightmares in which smoke drifts in and various peoples' faces appear, repeating dialogue from earlier in the movie.
Just as he is about to fall off his place in the Hollywood totem pole, it is announced that he is up for the Best Actor Oscar for the “throwaway” film against other heavyweights like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Foaming at the mouth to win, he decides to take matters into his own hands and has ads placed in the trades of him glamorously photographed in elegant poses with only the word “Consider” for text (this is a joke... No, unlike Melissa Leo, he decides to try reverse psychology and deliberately leaks the hoary old information about his scuffle back at the strip club and subsequent arrest for assault and prostitution.) He gets his old acquaintance Borgnine to anonymously smear him with his police record, believing that this will make voters suspect sabotage on behalf of the other four nominees.
Things seem to be working fine until Borgnine decides to press Boyd for more money in order to stay quiet about it. Here, the wheels really come off as Boyd manages to drive away everyone in his life from wife Sommer to best friend Bennett to even his Asian butler Jack Soo. As Bennett and Sommer flee the house, Boyd delivers a three-act mini-Shakespearean monologue to the presumably empty driveway, standing in the door yammering until long after they've gone!
Segueing back to the big ceremony, the movie has gone on for close to two hours, though, even at that, it is less time than a real actor would have to sit in his seat awaiting his fate on Oscar night! The elegant Merle Oberon (with hair to the heavens) is on hand to present the award for Best Actor and everyone grits his or her teeth as the result nears. The climax is one of the greatest, most hysterically awesome things ever put on film. I've put several spoilers in this review, but I would never spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't seen it!
Boyd, so deliciously menacing and intense in Ben-Hur about seven years prior to this, is off-the-hook from the start. There is almost no modulation in his performance, nor is it ever realistic. He's a high-strung, quick-tempered, selfish, reckless lout with virtually no redeeming qualities. There are maybe two flashing instances in which he displays some degree of humanity, but otherwise he is like something out of Starship Troopers in his ferocity and wired physicality. I actually really like Boyd (there's a mini-tribute to him on this site) and think he was a handsome, lean, talented actor who looked terrific in (and out of) those crisp '60s clothes, but here he needed to be reined in and molded a little bit more in order for anyone to care what happens to him. Sommer, just as she was in many of films of this period, is stunning to look at and gives a pretty heartfelt performance. She has just the right figure with which to display a wide variety of sleek, chic, elegant Edith Head creations. Her relationship with Head in the film, though, is hysterical! First they are seen consulting each other on one of the streets of the studio lot, then they are shown celebrating Boyd's Oscar nomination, then at a glitzy Hollywood party, Sommer arrives and Cotten goes, “Edith is over at the bar” as if, out of the two hundred people there, Sommer is going to ignore every soul in sight and beeline it over to Edith as she stands there in one of her own concoctions! She has no lines in the film, which makes her appearance all the more amusing. She's like a prop for Sommer to use! It surely must be the only case of a costume designer being nominated for an Academy Award for her costumes while she also appears in the film herself three times in said costumes!
The Oscar for costumes went to A Man for All Seasons, by the way. The only other award it was up for was Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (and the sets in The Oscar are absolutely gorgeous), but that award was won by Boyd's subsequent film Fantastic Voyage (the one in which he and a team of scientists are shrunken down to microscopic size and injected into the bloodstream of a dying man with instructions to save him.)
Bennett is positively dreadful. He has, maybe, one and a half expressions and his lines have that swinging, “socko” quality that comes off as so phony and uncool now. (Boyd's are this way, too.) Given horrific makeup and lighting, he resembles a Hollywood Wax Museum figure of Dean Martin that was left on a sunny front lawn for a couple of hours. Near the end, he has a marathon meltdown sequence that has to be seen to be believed. It's hard to believe that Bennett wasn't enlisted to provide a credits song or some other tune in the film, but perhaps he was attempting a career as a legitimate thespian. Anyway, the whole experience was so unpleasant, he never did anything but play himself after this. (Incidentally, when Harlan Ellison wrote the screenplay for this turkey, he envisioned Steve McQueen and Peter Falk in the leading roles. That casting just might have saved this from being the camp riot it became, but then we wouldn't have the pleasure of laughing at it now.)
Parker is mostly very glamorous and yet sincere. She brings a lot of savvy and skill to her part before she gets torn down by Boyd. Another woman with a long, lean physique, Head had fun whipping up things for her to wear. I've always been amused by the drapey, hood-like thing she wears to Cotten's office, though she was frequently given unusual headgear in the early-'60's. She has interesting hats in Madison Avenue and for the courtroom scenes of Return to Peyton Place, she wore some sort of wrap around her head. The same year as The Oscar, she played Stuart Whitman's nasty, drunken shrew of a wife in An American Dream, but, sadly, was dropped off a balcony before the credits had even rolled!
Berle is surprisingly believable and world-weary as the put-upon agent. He makes no effort to ham it up or overplay, a smart thing when faced with the histrionics of Boyd. Cotten serves up an acceptable level of authority as the studio chief, though he, like most of the cast, is given a couple of silly lines along the way. St. John is likeable enough in her role, but some of the more demanding sequences seem beyond her somehow. Her big break-up scene is particularly bad, with a lot of unmotivated pacing and gesticulation.
Borgnine is reliably effective and very slick. He's one of the few actors who gets to perform more than one dimension and does so rather well. Adams is also good, though she is saddled with some incredibly awkward blocking. In her most significant scene, she is asked to lean over onto a sofa that is about three feet off the ground. Thus, she's all hunkered down, looking preposterous, as she speaks to Boyd, and then the camera gets her from the rear, splaying her hot pink-clad behind across half the screen! WTF?
Here's a little trivia about Hale. She was married from 1961 to 1984 to Dabney Coleman and had four children with him! Soo, of course, went on to a supporting run on the police station sitcom Barney Miller. Dunn, an Oscar-winner for his touching work in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, struggled with alcoholism for most of his life and would be dead about a year after this, his final feature film. His secretary in the film is Jean Bartel, a statuesque spokesperson/actress who had been Miss America 1943 and played several nurses and receptionists over the years.
The writer-director Russell Rouse and his frequent co-writer Clarence Greene found themselves in something of a career slide after this. They had to their previous credit the tight little noir B-picture D.O.A. and the colorful, fluffy Pillow Talk, but after The Oscar was presented to audiences, they only worked together on one more film. The film was Color Me Dead, a rehash of D.O.A. With Tom Tryon in the lead. Rouse directed one more time, a film called The Caper of the Bulls, but then he departed the scene. Amazingly, after the fairly disastrous pairing he'd just made with Stephen Boyd, Boyd was the star of Bulls as well! It was a Spanish made caper film that made little impact at the box office.
Watching The Oscar is like having a meal of whipped cream with a side of cotton candy. It isn't substantial, nor is it nourishing, unless you are a person like myself who craves the kind of cinematic badness that can only come about when money, talent and resources are being poured into a project that has an inferior foundation (i.e.- a crappy script!) It was released onto video with rather inferior quality many years ago, but hasn't seen the light of day since except in infrequent movie channel airings. Why oh why couldn't they put out a DVD with commentary from Miss Sommer and Miss St. John? (Even the still-thriving Ernie Borgnine could partake!) The fact that StudioCanal owns it ought to make this situation easier rather than harder. Please make this happen and time it to coincide with Oscar's impending 85th anniversary?!