Friday, February 9, 2007

"The Night Was Spent and So Was Fane."

So goes the opening line of my all-time favorite trashy novel, Richard Sale’s The Oscar, published all the way back in 1963. My taste in books, like my taste in films, is a little all over the place, mainly classic pulp and crime novels (Donald Westlake, James Elroy) mixed in with quirky character pieces (Tom Robbins, Richard Russo) and biographies, but I’m not above the standard potboiler as long as its fun, and The Oscar is the very definition of fun in my, um, book. Long out of print, I happened upon a paperback copy in Austin’s Half Priced Books (the one on South Lamar, not to be confused with the one on North Lamar or the one at Anderson Mill and just to be clear, definitely not the one at Palmer Lane) in March of 2005 and had heard of it (mainly due to the much-derided 1966 film version) and figured this one was worth my $2.98. Boy was it ever. I held off on the book until Oscar season in early 2006 and couldn’t believe what I was reading. With all of the ridiculousness that the Oscars themselves have become, it’s almost refreshing to read that things have almost always been this way. No, scratch that, it’s actually depressing to read that. Depressing, but in this case, also a lot of fun.

Inspired by some of the Oscar nomination scandals of the early 60s (the shameless pandering of behalf of such unworthy films as John Wayne’s THE ALAMO and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, for instance), Sale’s tale focuses on Frankie Fane, an up-and-coming young actor who, in the book’s opening pages, has just seduced the young mistress of his biggest rival, Vincent Bundee, a respected actor, family man, pillar of the Hollywood community and Fane’s co-star in the crime drama THE LAST ANGEL. Just as Fane is waking up at the girl’s apartment (paid for by Bundee), he discovers his rival trying to make his way in for an early morning quickie. Unable to get out before Bundee gets in, Fane feigns ignorance to a raging Bundee as the mistress tries to calm both of them down, all the while without a stitch of clothes on. Just as things are about to come to blows, the clock radio alarm goes off, the radio comes on, and both actors learn for the first time that their performances in THE LAST ANGEL have landed both of them Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. Tempers cool down and both actors end up congratulating each other, with Fane insisting that not only does he not stand a chance against Bundee, but that Vince has his vote. The two men patch up their differences (for now) and head off on their separate ways, but not before Vince kicks his mistress out of the apartment.

This is the opening chapter, folks. And it just gets better from there.

The Oscar is mainly about Frankie Fane’s devious and underhanded campaign for the most coveted award in all the world. Fane resorts to everything except murder to win it, from arranging to blackmail gay nominee Brett Chichester (actually one of the book’s most sympathetic characters) to setting up the ultra-American flag-waving nominee Jeff Prescott (I wonder who he’s supposed to be a stand-in for?) with an assault charge. He gets alcoholic method actor nominee Roger Alcorn to shoot his mouth off about his distain for the awards in front of the press and arranges for the ultimate reverse blackmail against Bundee (and his wife!) all in the name of the personal glory for Frank Fane. He also gets married, becomes involved with the police on more than one occasion, loses pretty much all of his friends and proves himself to not only be a raging egomaniac but a dangerous sociopath as well. And he’s absolutely fascinating while doing it. As a book, The Oscar has its problems, but its leading character isn’t one of them. While unquestionably over the top, Fane is a magnificent bastard throughout, a wonderful antihero to make Hollywood seem like it’s Sodom and Gomorrah all over again, which, as we all know, it most certainly is not.

Make no mistake, The Oscar is meant to entertain, nothing more. Sale, who doubled as a novelist and as a filmmaker (he also wrote Frank Sinatra’s SUDDENLY) no doubt intended the book to be nothing more than a fun read for all of his Hollywood friends with no offense intended and no real message passed on, except possibly that it’s not a good idea to be a dick while nominated for an Academy Award. Certainly he gets a few jabs against the awards and the industry here and there, but for the most part it’s all in fun. Day of the Locust or I Should Have Stayed Home this book is not. But as a potboiler, The Oscar is first class crap all the way and while part of the fun lies in Sale’s now-dated writing style (Fane’s hipster speak alone could make this the next The Kid Stays In The Picture) some wit does escape. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that the film version (co-written by Harlan Ellison!) apparently turned out to be a melodramatic dud because they apparently played it straight (and I understand they made some pretty significant changes, too) and didn’t see the humor in it. I suspect in the right hands a pretty hysterical and fun movie could be made out of this, but boy oh boy, the time for this kind of picture is long past, isn’t it? But then again, if gladiator movies can make a comeback, why not big screen soap operas?

Used copies of The Oscar can be pretty easy (and cheap) to find in paperback throughout Amazon, so do yourself a favor this award season and read the book that makes Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar obsession look tame in comparison. And from that statement, you know Frankie Fane has to be one mean son of a bitch! He is, and The Oscar deserves one for being such a god damn fun read.

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