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Doctor K’s Cult Classics: “Game Called on Account of Oscar”

Since Oscar season is in full bloom, I thought it would be a good idea to examine one of Hollywood’s attempts to dramatize the dog-eat-dog world that exists behind the scenes of the Academy Awards.

That film, The Oscar (1966), defines irony: a film about the highest achievement in American cinema also happens to be one of the worst movies that Hollywood has ever produced. But it is also truly glorious in its overwritten, overacted awfulness. Starring Steven Boyd, Tony Bennett (in his one and only film role), and Elke Sommer, along with a host of cameos, and written by director (and Academy Award winner for Pillow Talk) Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene, and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, The Oscar tells the story of Frankie Fane (Boyd), a young burlesque show spieler who ruthlessly claws his way to the top of the Hollywood food chain on the backs of his friends and lovers.

The movie is a mess, but it achieves a sublime level of badness that never ceases to be thoroughly entertaining. It is the perfect storm of an over-the-top, self-important script and some really terrible acting. Clearly, everybody involved in the movie thought they were making a great, important film, and that may be the most essential part of the joy The Oscar brings.

Ellison, Rouse, and Greene swing for the fences with every single speech, and the great/bad dialogue flies fast from the get-go, as if the actors are in a rush to get it all out before the audience can really pause to think about it.

For example, there are about 20 metaphors for success used throughout the film: it’s “a glass mountain” as well as “the wildest narcotic known to mortal man.” The dialogue is barely recognizable as real human speech. At one point in the movie, a character says to another, “Explain to me the ethical structure of the universe,” and I challenge anyone to find a way to work that sentence into a real conversation.

Perhaps the biggest victim of the script is Elke Sommer, who plays Frankie’s neglected wife, Kay. Sommer, whose success was never built upon her ability to speak English, is forced to utter lines that no human being has ever said in his or her life. When she first meets Frankie at a swinging party in the Village, Frankie asks, “Are you a tourist or a native?” she responds, “Take one from column A, 2 from column B–you get an eggroll either way.”

What the hell does that even mean?

Maybe we’re supposed to guess that she didn’t understand the question. As the conversation continues, she explains to Frankie her life philosophy that, I think, has something to do with saving herself for marriage, to which Frankie replies, “You make my head hurt with all that poetry.” And to that, the audience can only nod in sympathy.

The movie is framed by the Academy Awards ceremony where Frankie Fane has received a Best Actor nomination for his role in the film Breakthrough, a title that hints at the subtlety we are to expect from the rest of the movie. Bob Hope hosts the ceremony, in scenes that were actually shot at the Academy Awards. The Academy gave the filmmakers special permission to shoot these scenes and use the actual statuettes in the film, a decision the Academy no doubt regrets to this day. As the nominees are about to be announced, the camera focuses in on Tony Bennett, who plays Hymie Kelly, Frankie’s best friend and ostensible manager throughout most of his career.

Hymie narrates the rest of the film in flashback, taking us back to the early days, when the duo fronted a burlesque road show starring “Miss Laurel” (Jill St. John). One performance somewhere in the rural south goes bad, and they run afoul of a racist sheriff played by Broderick Crawford (of course). The sheriff picks up Frankie, Laurel, and Hymie and charges them with prostitution after they beat up a bar owner who renegs on payment for their show.

While he’s throwing the trio in the clink, Crawford asks Bennett, “How’d you get a name like ‘Kelly,’ HYMIE?” Bennett answers, “My father was Michael Kelly … and my mother’s name was Sadie Rabinowitz–any other questions?” The writers obviously settled on the name “Hymie Kelly” after rejecting their first choices, “Jewy McPotatoeater” and “Shamlock Leprecohn.”

The three end up jumping bail and hitching their way to New York, where they are supported by Laurel’s stripping career while Frankie and Hymie look for work. The Village is a wild and hopping place, perfectly suited for an untamable swinger like Frankie Fane, and he soon ditches Hymie and Laurel for the theater crowd.

Here, he hooks up with costume designer Kay, who takes him to a play rehearsal. The actors are practicing a knife fight, and Frankie vocally criticizes the lack of verisimilitude in their performance. So, he jumps onstage to show them what a knife fight really looks like. Obviously in violation of union rules as well as basic concerns for safety, the actors are actually using a real knife, and Frankie comes dangerously close to hurting several people. A talent scout, Sophie Cantero (Eleanor Parker), recognizes something in the young rebel that no one else, including the audience, sees: talent!

Soon, Frankie goes to Hollywood, where he invites Hymie to live with him in a pad that had “hot and cold running everything.” Sophie also sets Frankie up with an agent, Kappy Kapstetter (Milton Fucking Berle), and as part of a big publicity push, Frankie is set up on a date with a young blonde starlet. No one puts Frankie Fane in a box, however, and pretty soon, he’s making a name for himself with some publicity stunts at the starlet’s expense.

Meanwhile, Kay shows up in Hollywood, now working for famed costume designer Edith Head, who appears as herself. Kay and Frankie hook back up again and take a trip down to Tijuana, where they impulsively get married, as witnessed by vacationing private investigator Barney Yale and his wife (Ernest Borgnine and Edie Adams). After their wedding night, though, Frankie suddenly turns cold toward Kay, and we see the beginning of what will be a quick slide in this relationship.

Back in Hollywood, Frankie gives Hymie a new job: pimp. Or, as Hymie calls it, “The Hymie Kelly Broad Procuring Agency.” As Frankie is whoring around, Kay is becoming increasingly depressed, indicated in the film by the amount of time she spends lounging around in slinky lingerie. But Frankie’s career goes into a sharp decline with his increase in bad behavior, and the studio is ready to dump him. Theater owners say they would rather have botulism than more Frankie Fane movies, something the audience understands completely.

Frankie has several crisis meetings with Kappy in order to try to salvage his career. At one, Frankie asks, “What about that spy thing at Warners?” to which Kappy replies, “They signed Dean Martin.” It’s a nice metatextual reference to the Matt Helm series, which was just starting up at Warners when this movie came out, but it also gives me horrors to think that someone other than Dean Martin could have played Matt Helm (It’s also a subtle nod to the fact that Stephen Boyd was lined up to play James Bond before Sean Connery took the role–another bullet dodged by film history.)

In another meeting, Kappy tries to get Frankie a TV pilot, and as the actor is just about to sign up for it, he gets a phone call–he’s received a Best Actor nomination for Breakthrough! When Frankie returns to the meeting, he announces that he’s not interested in television anymore: “Game called on account of Oscar!”

At this point, the movie floors the crazy pedal. In order to win the Oscar, Frankie hatches the most ridiculous plan. He hires PI Barney Yale to leak the story that Fane and his friends got picked up for prostitution and jumped bail. He leaks the story in order to make everyone think that one of the other nominees is responsible, and as a result he will get the sympathy vote. He even holds a press conference to reveal the whole truth about his past–he was an underdog who lived hand-to-mouth on the burlesque circuit.

All of Hollywood, including those who just a few days before were ready to dump him, begins to celebrate Frankie, and his former boss, studio executive Regan (Joseph Cotton) even throws a party for him. It should be noted that Cotton was an actor who should have been walking around with a fistful of Oscars for his roles in Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Shadow of a Doubt, but instead never received a single nomination in his career.

In this film, he gets the ironic job of delivering a long speech defending the sanctity of the Academy Awards in the face of Frankie’s scandal. Soon after, Kappy dumps Frankie as a client, explaining that Frankie is just too immoral and ruthless for Hollywood.

The plan quickly backfires on Frankie when Barney Yale tries blackmailing him to keep the secret. Frankie can’t afford Yale’s demands, and instead he seeks out Hymie’s help to put a hit on the renegade PI. This ends up being the last straw for Hymie, and he leaves Frankie to fend for himself.

The film’s climax puts the icing on this deliciously overcooked cake. At the Academy Awards ceremony, Merle Oberon comes on-stage to give out the Best Actor award. She announces the nomineees: Richard Burton, Burt Lancaster, Frank Fane, and the voiceover obscures the rest. Then, “The winner is…Frank…” Fane stands up, ready to accept the award, but Oberon finishes her sentence: “…Sinatra!” Fane lamely tries to recover by leading a standing ovation as the Chairman accepts his award, and then Fane huddles fetally in his seat, realizing everything he’s sacrificed only to come up a loser.

I’d love to see this in an Oscar ceremony: after an award is announced, the camera cuts to the reaction shots of all the losing nominees, and one of them is just huddled in the seat, crying.

I love the hell out of The Oscar, even though it’s easily one of the most overwritten and overacted movies ever made. It’s so excessively self-important, yet one can also sense the writers bending over backwards to insist that Frankie Fane’s ruthless ambition is the exception in Hollywood. Still, all of these flaws come together to form a movie that is completely and utterly engrossing from beginning to end.