WHEN it came out in 1966, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described it as "another distressing example of Hollywood fouling its nest" and "a cheap, synthetic film that dumps filth and casts aspersions upon the whole operation of Hollywood." Such was his distaste that he was moved to defend from its sleazy insinuations "a community that may not be perfect, but is not so foul as hinted here."
Time magazine was less bilious and more amused. "It should be shown exclusively in theaters that have doctors and nurses stationed in the lobby to attend viewers who laugh themselves sick." And Pauline Kael liked it too, hauling it out whenever she needed a yardstick for measuring sublime awfulness. "A lubricious howler," she called it in a review of a different movie, recommending it in another to "connoisseurs of the tawdry" as "the modern classic of the genre."
This oddly resonant "classic," now all but forgotten, is "The Oscar," which was produced by the same Joseph E. Levine who would later bring us "The Graduate," "The Producers" and "The Lion in Winter." On the surface, it seems to be a fairly run-of-the-mill rags-to-riches-to-rags melodrama about a lowlife who crawls his way to the top of the Hollywood heap and nabs an Oscar nomination -- only to be undone by his epic misdeeds at the eleventh hour.
Featuring monumentally bad acting and dialogue so kitschy and florid it borders on the surreal, "The Oscar" is a tribute to the art of clueless excess and sincere, heartfelt incompetence. To watch it is to see it perform an ecstatic swan dive -- naked, pink, exuberant -- into a drained pool. It is to experience failure on its own, uncompromised terms. A tone-deaf and hilariously over-the-top study in puffery, it is possibly the best bad movie ever made.
In its own indirect and accidental way, this campy, far-fetched fiction somehow manages to reflect the stranger-than-fiction aspects of a business that is all about presenting a polished, above-board image of itself, revealing much more than was probably intended about the world it describes.
At its most sublimely ridiculous, it pegs everything that's wrong with a notoriously byzantine and cutthroat business on one errant psychopath, of whom everyone -- his agent, the talent scout who discovered him, his flunky, his wife -- thoroughly disapproves.
Bosley Crowther got it weirdly backward. "The Oscar" is a mash note to Hollywood, an appeal to audiences not to let a few dubious characters color their view of the "whole operation."
The film, released 40 years ago, is unavailable on DVD, nor can it be purchased directly from Amazon. At last check, there were 10 used VHS copies available through third-party Amazon sellers as well as two used copies and a 16mm print for sale on EBay. So, but for the occasional screening, Levine's spectacular \o7oeuf d'oeuvre\f7, possibly the biggest egg he laid in his body of work, appears to be finished in this town, that's-right-Frankie-you-heard-me finished.
This is clearly a tragedy. Having watched it several times thanks to a friend's gift of a home-burned DVD, I have no problem stating that watching this film is a transformative experience. "The Oscar" changes people the way Everest does. And near-death experiences. And alien abductions. And weird drugs.
DIRECTED by Russell Rouse, it was adapted from a Richard Sale potboiler by Harlan Ellison and Clarence Greene -- and by "adapted" I mean it was loosely translated from the English into some of the jiviest beat hipster scat ever recorded outside of a 1960s anti-marijuana propaganda movie. It's a Hollywood morality play in the vein of "What Makes Sammy Run?" and "Sweet Smell of Success," which is to say it is the camp embodiment of those stories, in much the same way that "Showgirls" could be considered the rococo extension of "All About Eve." That it all might be intended as parody crosses your mind more than once.
The movie stars Stephen Boyd where Burt Lancaster should be, Tony Bennett (in his motion picture debut) in the place of Tony Curtis, and Elke Sommer as a deep and complicated wardrobe designer who falls for the bad guy despite knowing better.
Though it boasts an "all-star cast," they mostly appear in cameos. Bob Hope plays the master of ceremonies at the Academy Awards for a few moments; Merle Oberon opens an envelope; Frank Sinatra plays a nominee, Nancy Sinatra pretends to play his daughter; and Edith Head plays a studio costume designer.
Of course, nobody doesn't love Edith Head. But when a movie keeps bringing up Edith Head in lines like, "Why don't you go say hello to Edith Head, she's right over there by the bar," you know something's not right. Something is fishy.