Tag Archives: Doctor K’s Cult Classics

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Willie Dynamite

Willie Dynamite

When I ask people the pressing question, “Which Children’s Television Workshop actor gives the best performance as a pimp in a motion picture?” nine times out of ten, the answer I get is, “Morgan ‘Easy Reader’ Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance as Fast Black in 1987′s Street Smart, of course” (one time out of ten, I have to explain that Rita Moreno did not play a pimp in West Side Story).

In either case, the answer is wrong. The correct answer is Roscoe Orman (a.k.a. Gordon from Sesame Street) as the titular pimp in the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite. In fact, one of the things I enjoy the most about this movie is pretending that Willie Dynamite really is Gordon from Sesame Street. That becomes especially entertaining when Gordon from Sesame Street has to slap a ho.

As the movie’s theme song explains, Willie Dynamite has “seven women in the palm of his hand.” These seven women, in fact, constitute the top stable of hookers in New York City, servicing convention-goers at the best hotels in the city. The opening scene shows the ladies at work during a Shriners convention. While they work, a voiceover comes from a convention speaker talking about small business success, making an ironic comment on Willie D’s business.

Willie treats his hookers like any great American business. As he explains to Passion, a new girl, “This is a production line, and just like GM and Ford, Willie’s coming through!” But, unlike GM, Willie is not eligible for a government bailout as he is not too big to fail. Willie also advises Passion to make a tourist “feel like he’s bonin’ the Statue of Liberty,” which makes for an interesting mental image.

After dealing with his ladies, Willie attends a special meeting of NYC pimps. One pimp, Bell, proposes a plan to consolidate territories. All the other pimps agree, including Baylor (an uncredited Robert DoQui), Sugar (who responds with “Sweet”), and Milky Way (who, if you couldn’t guess, is the one white pimp in the club–thanks, affirmative action!). Willie, however, strongly objects, as he doesn’t want other pimps horning in on his particular market and cutting into his profits. Bell is not happy with Willie’s objection.

When Passion gets arrested, she is approached by Cora Williams (Diana Sands), a social worker dedicated to putting hookers on the straight and narrow. Cora almost has Passion turned at the arraignment hearing, but Willie shows up at the last minute with bail money and a lawyer to get her out.

Cora then makes it her goal to put Willie out of business. She even goes to Willie’s stable and tries talking the girls into going independent. She claims to be “a Ralph Nader for hookers,” but she’s more like the Cesar Chavez of hookers, convincing the ladies to organize on their own.

The movie traces Willie’s fall as various forces work against him: Cora, Bell’s reorganization plans, and a couple of police detectives: Celli (the great George Murdock) and his Muslim partner, Pointer (the also great Albert Hall). Willie cannot keep all of these forces at bay for long. The police are constantly hassling him and his ladies, while Bell threatens him. He manages to temporarily take care of Bell by leaving him naked in the Bronx after Bell attempts to kill him.

Things really start to go to hell when Willie’s girls find another crew stepping in on an optometrists’ convention. A fight breaks out, and one of Willie’s top girls gets her throat slit. This is not that big a deal, though, because someone always gets cut at an optometrists’ convention. Later, Passion ends up going to jail, where she gets slashed across the face.

The real star of this film is Willie’s wardrobe, which looks like Ike Turner and George Clinton’s wardrobes got together and had a baby. He wears a lot of tight, brightly colored polyester jumpsuits and fur coats and hats. These clothes were not made for fast getaways, or for stowing weapons or contraband. In order to carry a gun, he has to strap it between his legs, and he can only reach it by unzipping his fly. When Willie is chased by Detective Pointer, they run through a tenement and a construction site, yet Willie’s white jumpsuit never gets a smudge on it, which is pretty impressive.

The movie takes a bizarre turn at the end. Willie’s world falls apart: he gets the shit kicked out of him by Bell and his men, then he gets arrested. During his arraignment hearing, his mother (who has thought all along that Willie was a musician’s agent) has a heart attack and later dies at the hospital. Cora, for some reason, feels particularly responsible and develops sympathy for Willie. He then gives all of his money to Cora to pay for Passion’s plastic surgery. As he leaves his apartment, he finds his purple pimp mobile with leopard interior getting towed away, but he has decided to leave the pimp lifestyle behind. He struts away smiling, and the movie ends with a freeze frame. It’s at this point I like to imagine that he decides to change his name to Gordon and move to Sesame Street.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Swinger

Before Easy Rider changed the way Hollywood looked at 1960s youth culture, filmmakers–most of whom were senior citizens at the time–created bizarre works that tried to capture what kids were into. Enter The Swinger (1966), starring Ann-Margret and Tony (“The Finder of Lost Loves”) Franciosa and directed by George Sidney, who was responsible for some of the great musicals of the ’50s and ’60s, including Viva Las Vegas. This movie tries so hard to be subversive and risque, yet, like most such movies of the period, its message is ultimately conservative and chaste.

After a fantastic opening credit sequence with triple-threat Ann-Margret singing and dancing to the theme song, the film establishes its edginess with an opening montage of seedy L.A. culture (porn theaters, strip clubs, etc.), narrated by the lecherous Sir Hubert Charles, owner and publisher of the men’s magazine Girl Lure. Sir Hubert’s office is the reason why sexual harassment became illegal, and the place makes Sterling Cooper look like, I don’t know, a monastery? Little House on the Prairie? A purity ring ceremony? Something like that. The office is equipped with a siren to let people know when he’s “busy,” a completely automated wet bar, remote controls for the stereo and fireplace, and a bed that pops out of the wall.

Ann-Margret is Kelly Olsson, a young writer from St. Paul (shorthand for “Virgin Town”) who wants to break out by writing short stories for Girl Lure. Her stories, however, are rejected because they’re too chaste. But before she’s rejected, she gets offered a nude modeling gig by editor Ric Colby (Tony Franciosa). “I’m not a nudie,” Kelly responds, “I’m a writer.” Obviously, she’s not aware she could be both, like the great Edith Wharton.

Kelly returns to the crazy hopping commune where she lives with hippies making generic protest signs in case something to protest comes up and a middle-aged vice cop who likes to paint. Kelly decides that if she’s going to get published in this sleazy men’s magazine, she will have to stop writing her Ladies’ Home Journal stories. Why she’s not trying to get published in Ladies’ Home Journal instead, we never find out. She does some research in “lurid paperbacks” with names like Rape Girl Rape and Sex-Girl. She also manages to dance while she reads, which is pretty amazing.

During this research, Sidney gives us a great photo-montage where Kelly imagines herself as a character on a pulp novel cover. The movie uses this technique a couple of more times, but never quite to this effect. She then begins her writing, amalgamating all the trashy fiction she just read. She composes the novel Kerouac-style–on a long scroll in a single, feverish fit of composition.

Kelly submits her novel to Girl Lure by confronting Ric in the magazine’s men’s room, which includes a sauna and steam bath (interestingly, this is also how Edith Wharton got Ethan Frome published). Ric, however, rejects the novel less on its content and more on his own prejudice against youth culture. He also claims that the novel lacks verisimilitude, which leads Kelly to claim that her “Swinger” character is based on her own experiences!

In order to prove that she is as wild as her fictional self, Kelly stages a bacchanal for Sir Hubert and Ric, where her commune buddies use her as a paintbrush for their giant abstract painting. This scene can best be described as “gooey.” They also stage a vice raid with the help of their cop roommate, since the L.A. vice squad really has nothing better to do.

From here on, Ric believes that Kelly really is the swinger, so he decides to straighten her out, Pygmalion-style. Much to the chagrin of his fiancee (and Sir Hubert’s daughter), Ric lets Kelly crash at his bachelor pad. From there, hijinks ensue as Kelly tries to sabotage Ric’s relationship. Some of her seduction techniques include luring Ric into the shower fully clothed (good idea!) and feigning alcohol detox (not so good!).

Kelly also has to fend off the advances of Sir Hubert in his office/sex dungeon. He chases her around the office, just like he does with his own secretary, until he collapses from exhaustion. In this scene, the movie proves that attempted rape can be hilarious when shown at comically high speed. This technique also works for the pinball machine scene in The Accused.

Ric eventually figures out that Kelly is a fake, and in order to expose her, he puts her through a photo-shoot meant to recreate some of “The Swinger’s” exploits: dealer in an illegal gambling den, street walker, stripper, etc. She proves that she’s not very good at any of these jobs. He then takes her to a sleazy motel and chases her around the room, Sir Hubert-style. This scene is even shot with a hand-held camera to give it an extra-uncomfortable sense of creepy realism.

Things get really crazy from here, and the plot defies easy summary. The movie, in fact, goes completely off the rails in a final chase scene, where Kelly on a motorcycle and Ric in stolen police car crash head on and apparently die. I am not kidding about that. Then, in what might be some kind of nod to the magical realist works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (but probably not), Sir Hubert in voiceover states that this is a terrible ending, and the film rewinds so that the crash never occurs. Instead, Ric and Kelly rush into each other’s arms.

Ann-Margret’s sexy performance carries things here, and the filmmakers were smart enough to let her sing a couple of times. Also, she completely outshines Franciosa, who was always a subpar Burt Lancaster impersonator. This movie was released mere months before Easy Rider changed the way youth movies were made, but it’s a fascinating artifact of a time when Hollywood was trying desperately to grasp what kids wanted. The film is quaint in its weak attempts at subversiveness, and George Sidney even takes stabs at some unconventional filmmaking techniques. But it’s also a movie that feels like it was dated the moment it hit the streets.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Black 6

Jim Brown, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith, Howie Long, Brian Bosworth–the National Football League has been the cradle of action stars for decades, more than any other sport. And nowhere is that more apparent than in this week’s film, The Black 6, starring six of the best NFL players from 1973: the 49ers’ Gene Washington, the Vikings’ Carl Eller, the Dolphins’ Mercury Morris, the Steelers’ Mean Joe Greene, the Lions’ Lem Barney, and the Chiefs’ Willie Lanier.

The Black 6 is basically yet another remake of Seven Samurai, but this time with a black biker gang instead of samurai or gunfighters (of course, in typical fashion, the man wouldn’t let them have seven), which seems brilliant on paper. Director and co-writer Matt Cimer manages to combine the qualities of two great subgenres in exploitation films: blaxploitation and biker gangs. The novelty of this film, along with a humorously handled anti-racism message, manages to overcome most of its flaws, which include a weak script, incompetent directing, bargain basement production values, and some pretty amateurish acting.

The Black 6 are all Vietnam vets who’ve banded together to ride their motorcycles around the country, living off their VA benefits and whatever they can make from picking up odd jobs here and there. When we first meet them, they are lobbing hay bales into a barn loft for a farm widow. As evidence of the film’s production values, the bales are clearly painted styrofoam blocks that the athletes have to pretend to be heavy. Actually, only Gene Washington and Carl Eller are lobbing the bales–the others are lounging around, and Willie Lanier is even petting a goat.

The gang stays the night in the old lady’s barn, and as they leave the next morning, they pass the mailman on his delivery route. He rushes to the old lady to ask if she’s okay, since a gang of black bikers just left her property. “You know how they are,” he explains. “Yes, I do,” she responds, looking at the freshly repaired barn the Black 6 worked on overnight.

This sets up an anti-racism theme that the film spends about 30 minutes dealing with before actually getting on with the plot. On the road, the gang stops at Flora’s Beer and Truck Stop, and one jokes that he could drink a truck, which is an insightful comment on the odd syntax in the establishment’s name. Also, Mean Joe Greene could actually drink a truck.

Inside, the place is cracker central, and the gang finds out that Miss Flora is out of beer and food, despite the fact that she’s pouring drinks for other customers and a dude is carving a ham behind the counter. This denial of service leads to further racial conflict where the Black 6 just totally destroy Miss Flora’s business, leaving the whole building completely flattened on the ground.

Soon enough, the plot gets going when, at the next stop, Bubba Daniels (Gene Washington) finds a letter addressed to him at general delivery, informing him that his brother has been killed. We know from the film’s opening scene that his brother was killed by a white biker gang because he was dating a white girl. And so, like 90% of all blaxploitation films, the prodigal son Vietnam vet has to return home to avenge his brother’s murder, and the rest of the gang goes with him. For the rest of the film, Washington is the only one of the six who gets what anyone might call a “character” to play–the others are just kind of hanging out for the rest of the film.

From here, the plot gets a little muddy. Bubba attempts an investigation, but finds that the locals, including the police (led by the awesomely named “Detective Octavias”), aren’t talking. However, he also spends a lot of time looking for his ex-girlfriend, Ceal. After learning that Ceal is hooked up with some guy named “Copperhead,” Bubba tracks the man down to the ubiquitous local pool hall. There, he learns that Copperhead isn’t Ceal’s boyfriend–he’s her pimp. Bubba decides to track her down anyway so he can convince her to go straight. Luckily, Ceal happens to know who murdered Bubba’s brother, so he gets to kill two birds with one stone.

The script for this film feels like a pastiche of blaxploitation clichés that don’t quite line up into a coherent movie (in fact, the script, along with some truly inept filmmaking, makes this a good example of the type of film that the great Black Dynamite is parodying). Bubba alternates between vowing revenge for his brother’s death and expressing a desire just to be left alone, which doesn’t make sense considering that he’s chosen to ride around the country with five other guys. During one bizarre scene between Bubba and Ceal, Ceal explains to him that she hasn’t changed–he’s the one who changed. This implies that she was always a prostitute, I guess. Bubba responds that he’s not looking for trouble. That being the goal, seeking revenge on your brother’s killers would seem to make for a bad choice.

After some nonviolent and relatively boring confrontations between the Black 6 and the white biker gang that runs the town, the white bikers decide to pool their resources with another, much larger statewide organization of bikers, led by Thor (Ben Davidson). The local gang leader, Moose King, gives an empassioned speech about how he’s tired of getting pushed around by black guys, and it’s time that white people finally stand up for themselves. And it only took him 37 years to see his dream finally come true.

The movie builds toward a nighttime showdown between the Black 6 and Moose’s gang. Most of the white bikers get killed pretty quickly, and this leads to the arrival of hundreds of bikers under Thor’s command. The Black 6 circle their bikes and manage to hold off the other bikers, even when Thor’s gang pelts them with lit road flares.

Then, in the film’s bizarre climax, one of the white bikers lights a flare, drops it in his gas tank, jumps over the Black 6, and explodes in midair, apparently killing everyone. However, as flames light up the screen, the following text appears:

“HONKY…LOOK OUT…
HASSLE A BROTHER…
AND
THE BLACK 6
WILL RETURN!!!”

I can only read this as a set up for a sequel that never happened: the zombie Black 6 rises from the grave to fight racial injustice in The Black 666!

There were a lot of poorly made blaxploitation films in the 70s–hence, the font of source material available for the creators of Black Dynamite–but The Black 6 has a charm and novelty to it that overcomes its obvious flaws. When else in film or sports history could a group of star players be brought together to make a film that barely rises above the quality of a home movie? And yet, despite a complete lack of acting skill (or motorcycle driving skill, for that matter) for everyone in front of the camera, it’s clear that these guys were having fun.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Mother, Jugs & Speed

Mother, Jugs & SpeedI often like to play a mental game with movie history that I call “What If ___________ Were Star Wars,” where I try to imagine what that history would be like if a certain movie had the same level of popularity and creative or financial influence as Star Wars.  With Peter Yates’s 1976 masterpiece about private ambulance drivers in Los Angeles, Mother, Jugs & Speed, we get a sense of what movies would be like if Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H had been the most popular and influential movie of all time.

In fact, Mother, Jugs & Speed wears the influence of M*A*S*H on its sleeve.  Both films alternate between high drama and bawdy comedy in rather episodic plots about people who stressfully deal with life and death on a daily basis.  Both parody the ineffective authority figures and the labyrinthine, contradictory bureaucracies that the characters must work around.  And like M*A*S*H, Mother, Jugs & Speed would have made a great TV series. In fact, at least a pilot was shot for such a series in 1978, though an extra “g” was added to the middle name.

The film follows the employees of the the F + B Ambulance Company, led by owner Harry Fishbine (Allen Garfield).  The episodic plot addresses the bureaucratic problems of a system that allows for privatized ambulance services. Ambulance drivers have to collect their fees from patients or their families before the patients can be taken away, to bribe police in order to get dibs on emergency calls, and to deal with other legal limitations on the job.  One particular ambulance driver, “Mother” Tucker (Bill Cosby), thrives in the chaos of the system, manipulating it to his advantage, while his antagonist in the company, Murdoch (Larry Hagman), exploits the system in a more insidious way.

Meanwhile, after Murdoch’s partner is injured in an accident involving an overweight patient and a rickety staircase, Fishbine hires Tony Malateste (Harvey Keitel), a cop suspended for drug dealing who is looking for a temporary job while his case is being investigated.  Tony gets the nickname “Speed” once his checkered past is revealed to the other drivers.  He’s also the only driver who manages to get anywhere with the office receptionist and dispatcher, Jennifer (Raquel Welch), who most refer to as “Jugs.” Jugs later gets her EMT license, which opens the door for some jokes about women drivers, and she’s teamed with Mother and Speed. In her first outing, Mother has her help a patient who got his junk stuck in his zipper, but later she has to deal with the tragic consequence of a pregnant mother who isn’t allowed into the nearest hospital.

In retrospect, some of Mother, Jugs & Speed‘s apparent rebelliousness seems quaint. Arguments about women drivers, frequent depictions of drug use, and much of the film’s racial politics might have been edgy in 1976.  However, in many other ways, the film has an edge that remains sharp.  Much of that edge lies in Larry Hagman’s repulsive yet hilarious c Murdoch.  Murdoch hits on every woman he sees (including an injured lady wrestler who doesn’t respond kindly to his advances), takes bets on the number of corpses they’ll pick up in a shift, and, in one of the film’s more unsettling scenes, attempts to molest an O.D.ed and unconscious co-ed. It’s Murdoch’s meltdown that provides the movie’s sudden climax.

The movie also features a strange collision of acting styles that almost doesn’t work.  Cosby, Hagman, and Allen Garfield all give exaggerated, cartoonish performances that meld with the heightened energy these ambulance drivers must maintain. Keitel, however, seems like he’s in a different movie, utilizing a more subdued, brooding style appropriate for his early roles in Scorcese films.  Meanwhile, Raquel Welch gives a spirited performance that doesn’t get lost in the extremes she has to navigate.

Despite some dated elements, this movie merges tragedy with dark comedy in a way that’s recklessly entertaining. Cosby is having fun in a way that he often seemed to do in the 70s, but Larry Hagman provides the biggest surprise. Though he became known for playing the egotistical jerk J. R. Ewing, Murdoch is a different kind of jerk. Going back to that movie history mental game, if movies like M*A*S*H and Mother, Jugs & Speed had a greater influence on today’s filmmakers, we could get this style of satire applied to the current state of health care, which we could probably use right now.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: A Serious Consideration of The Pom Pom Girls

The Pom Pom Girls

Last week’s film, The Oscar, represents a common type of cult film: the bad movie that reaches such a sublime level of awfulness that it transcends its quality and achieves a level of entertainment on its own. (I hesitate to use the common phrase “so bad it’s good” because I don’t think these movies ever become “good” by any measure of quality–they are still bad movies, but they do become entertaining in their own special way).  These are the types of movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and they especially lend themselves to the kind of communal viewing experience popularized by that show. In fact, the first time I saw The Oscar, I was with a small group of friends, and the movie was definitely more entertaining than it has been in my subsequent viewings.

Another subset of the cult movie, however, is the movie that transcends audience expectations and its own limitations–a genuinely good movie where the viewer wasn’t expecting to find one. The movie may transcend limitations based on genre, budget, or means of distribution. Such movies were prevalent in the B-movie era–Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour being the primary example–and in the grindhouse/drive-in distribution system where Roger Corman’s movies thrived. When a viewer stumbles across such a film by accident, it can be an exciting moment of discovery.

One such movie–and you’ll have to trust me on this–is the 1976 teen sex comedy The Pom Pom Girls (also known as Joyride and Palisades High), a Crown International Pictures release directed by Joseph Ruben and co-written by Ruben and Robert J. Rosenthal, who would later write and direct Malibu Beach (1978), which shares some striking similarities with the earlier film, including recycled sets and soundtrack. On the surface, The Pom Pom Girls looks like a typical ’70s teen sex comedy: it has fast cars, copious amounts of nudity, ridiculously inept adult authority figures combined with abusive ones, and lots of teenage shenanigans.  What it doesn’t have, though, is a lot of comedy–it’s not a very funny movie.

The Pom Pom Girls also doesn’t have much of a plot.  It takes place during the first few weeks of senior year for a handful of main characters: Johnnie (Robert Carradine), Jesse (Michael Mullins), Laurie (Jennifer Ashley), and Sally (Lisa Reeves). Romantic relationships amongst the four leads develop, and a football rivalry between their school, Rosedale, and Hardin High escalates from typical pranks to criminal vandalism and climaxes with a fistfight between teams at the big game.  But these developments only mark the passage of time in the film; they don’t drive the movie forward in any real way. Instead, the movie focuses on how Johnnie and Jesse deal with their adolescent existential angst. Johnnie picks fights, performs increasingly dangerous stunts, and steals hot rod enthusiast Duane’s (Bill Adler) girlfriend. Jesse has casual and meaningless sex with random girls in the back of his van (complete with 8-track player) and throws temper tantrums when the world does not conform to his capricious needs.

And, in a form of bait-and-switch typical of Crown’s output, the movie has almost nothing to do with pom pom girls.  The titular cheerleaders only appear a few times in the movie: once, at the very beginning, where we see the bikini-clad girls engage in a rather ineffective practice on the beach; later, during the obligatory try-out montage; and finally, at the big game where the fight breaks out. In the latter scene, we get the classic cheer, “Our team is on the ball! / Your team needs Geritol! / Drink it up!”–a cheer I distinctly remember from high school, which makes me feel old.

Jesse and Johnnie constantly test the limits of moral authority in their world, only to find that their actions have no consequences.  In one prank, they steal a firetruck from the local fire station, drive it onto the Hardin High football field during practice, and spray the team and coaches with the water hoses.  When done, they simply abandon the stolen truck and return to their lives.

The principal tries to enact some kind of punishment, but his weak attempts to elicit a confession only leads to the entire senior class admitting guilt, Spartacus-style. While pursuing virginal Laurie, Jesse continues to have sex with other girls in the back of his boss van (including one scene where he does it with a carhop at the local drive-in while she’s on the job, causing mass chaos among the customers who are demanding service), and he still ends up with  her without expressing any willingness to change. Later, Jesse punches out his coach, and both the coach and the principal decide that no punishment is necessary.

It should also be noted that parents are virtually absent from this movie.  Laurie’s parents only appear in one scene, and they are good-natured, trusting,  and oblivious to the fact that Jesse spent the night in their daughter’s room.  Thus, Jesse and Johnnie confront a corrupt and ineffective system and push against it to reveal an absence of true authority. This leads to a rather nihilistic conclusion more in line with the punk movement of the day than the surfer ethos one would expect from the film’s Southern California mileau.

The Pom Pom Girls is, in effect, to ’70s teen sex comedies what Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point are to the ’70s hot rod movies–all three movies embrace a kind of devastating nihilism in their climaxes that belies the lightheartedness of their respective genres.

At the end of The Pom Pom Girls, Duane decides to end his rivalry with Johnnie once and for all by challenging him to “suicide chicken,” where they are to switch cars and race toward a cliff, the first to swerve losing.  Johnnie “beats” Duane by driving the car off the cliff, and the film ends with the remaining characters literally gazing into the abyss as they look over the cliff to view the fiery explosion.  This is a brilliant shot choice by director Ruben: the camera is positioned over the edge of the cliff, looking up on the teenagers as they look down. Thus, the abyss they gaze on is the audience. Then, Johnnie shows up, covered in dust and laughing about how he ditched Duane’s car at the last second.  The four main characters walk away laughing, the frame freezes, and the credits roll.  After confronting the abyss, they celebrate what Milan Kundera refers to as “the unbearable lightness of being”: the unlimited freedom that comes with the awareness that there is no moral authority controlling their actions.

Or, on second thought, I may be reading too much into a plotless and relatively unfunny ’70s teen sex comedy. But I don’t think I am.

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.