Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Forgotten Movies: Russell Rouse's THE OSCAR (1966)

I’m probably not telling you anything you haven’t heard when I say that Russell Rouse’s 1966 film version of THE OSCAR is a howlingly bad movie. If you know anything about it (or have seen it) you’ll know its reputation as a classic movie turkey is pretty well deserved. It regularly turns up on “Worst Movies of All Time” lists and is a regular for bloggers who want to write about bad movies. It’s become increasingly popular over the last few years as more and more people discover it, and it seems that every time it airs on TCM message boards light up with notifications to set your Tivos and burn DVD-Rs, since it’s not on DVD and rarely screens theatrically. For those who love bad movies, it provides quite a bit of entertainment and for that reason alone it’s pretty well worth seeing, no doubt about that. And one of the amazing things about it is that it’s not a misunderstood film by any means; THE OSCAR is a poorly made, ineptly written, sometimes atrociously acted film that really is that bad. One can use it as a whipping boy for hours on end and not feel any guilt about it.

The nicest thing that anyone can say about THE OSCAR is that it’s not offensively bad, just…bad. Sadly, it could have been something much better than what it is. I’ve written about Richard Sale’s original 1963 novel, a very entertaining (if trashy) read that I happen to love, and since they pretty much chucked out Sale’s story, with the exception of a few character names, it’s possible that it still could make a good movie some day. (Sale’s novel finds up-and-coming young actor Frankie Fane out to sabotage his fellow Best Actor nominees chances through blackmail and other devious methods, while the film is about the backstabbing Fane’s career up until the nomination, which doesn’t even occur until the film’s last half hour.) The only positive thing one could say about the adaptation is that it doesn’t sugarcoat Fane in any way – he’s still a scumbag – though here he’s a borderline psycho, while in the book here a fascinating sociopath. Sale made it so that you could understand (though not believe) how Fane could get away with what he does through charm and charisma, but the way that Rouse’s script (co-written by producer Clarence Greene and none other than Harlan Ellison, whose modern-day recollections on the film can be found by scrolling down here) portrays Fane, you’ve got to wonder why anyone would go near the guy, or how he could go on to become any kind of a star. Add to this the ridiculously (and intensely) over-the-top performance from Stephen Boyd (an Irishman struggling with an American accent) and I suppose it doesn’t matter much in the long run, because if they did it any differently then THE OSCAR might not be as enjoyably bad as it is. The book is always there for those who want to find it (it’s been out of print for some time, but paperbacks are easy to find online) and can always be read and enjoyed on its own level. But this film is a pretty big failure on a level that not many others can claim.

What I do find interesting about the film version of THE OSCAR is looking at it as a representation of the kind of movie that was strangling Hollywood before the likes of BONNIE & CYLDE and MIDNIGHT COWBOY came aboard to really shake things up. Take away the bad acting and ludicrously awful dialogue (check out the Memorable Quotes IMDB page), this film is about as banal and unexcitingly made as any other second-rate film of its era. Even though Rouse was an Oscar-winning writer (he wrote the story for PILLOW TALK and also wrote D.O.A.) and had directed the classic noir THE THEIF, his work here is as pedestrian as you could ever get, completely studio-bound with the look and feel of mid-60s TV. He directs like a writer, protecting the words with no care of building any kind of creative visual style or imagination, and if it weren’t for the ludicrous nature of the rest of the picture it would otherwise be deadly boring. Yet, this was the norm back when THE OSCAR was made, the kind of safe-bet filmmaking that the studios preferred and hacks like Rouse lifelessly delivered. The book had a life to it, some vitality, while this is a big wasted opportunity that deserved to go down in flames, and it happily took this kind of hackneyed filmmaking with it. Part of THE OSCAR’s modern-day appeal is how it feels so dated, how its clichés and stilted dialogue turn it into high camp from a bygone era. But that out datedness is also what does it in as a movie, proving that by playing it so safe that they have nowhere else go to but into the obvious, it’s driving straight off a cliff and into disaster. This movie never had a chance.

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