Thursday, July 29, 2010

Film Review: THE OSCAR (1966)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 45


THE OSCAR (1966 Embassy) Starring Stephen Boyd, Tony Bennett, Elke Sommer, Jill St. John, Eleanor Parker, Milton Berle, Ernest Borgnine, Broderick Crawford, Peter Lawford, Edie Adams, Walter Brennan, Ed Begley, Joseph Cotten.  Directed by Russell Rouse.

Stephen Boyd is a barker at a gentleman's club, St. John is his stripping girlfriend, Bennett his best friend/lackey and St. John's ex.  At the outset, at least. After getting stiffed for performance fees and arrested, Boyd's "Frankie Fane" (yes--really) decides they should hitchhike to New York City where he plans to put his talent to use.  While said talent is never apparent to the viewer, he becomes a successful actor once he privately auditions for Parker.  Boyd eventually ends up in Hollywood when honest, scrupulous agent Berle decides to represent him on Parker's recommendation.  A user, womanizer and borderline psychotic offscreen, Boyd moves from St. John to Sommer and experiences a meteoric rise.  His fall is harsh, though, and just when he's about to submit to the ultimate indignity for a "big star"--a television series(!)--he gets word from ever-loyal Bennett that he's about to receive his first Oscar nomination.  Seeing the opportunity to get back on top of the "glass mountain", Boyd decides to stack the odds in his favor.

Oh, Lord.  THE OSCAR is one of Hollywood's most notorious messterpieces, as beloved by bad movie buffs as the following year's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS or any of the countless all-star "disaster films" of the 1970's.  The notoriously inept screenplay is famed for jumping from one implausible situation to another and for the strained attempts at hip dialogue and hard hitting narration.  Creating your own lingo is terrific when it works (i.e. OCEAN'S ELEVEN, CLUELESS) but positively painful when it doesn't.  Who thought "birdseed" as an expletive would elicit anything but giggles, or that "bustin' thumb" had a shot at catching on as slang for hitchhiking?  

That aforementioned narration is given to first-time screen actor Bennett in another of the highly questionable decisions made by the filmmakers.  Bennett may be the epitome of cool on the concert stage, but he's completely lost trying to play "Hymie Kelly" (yes, really!), Boyd's socially inept but sensitive conscience.  Bennett is not only wooden, but clearly uncomfortable with his lines, delivering them rapidly with little inflection.  Not that the crooner should feel too bad about his debut. There's plenty of seasoned veterans making fools of themselves in THE OSCAR, including real-life Oscar winners Brennan, Borgnine, Begley and Crawford (as the bigoted "redneck sheriff").  Worst of all is the scenery-devouring Boyd, as the thoroughly uncompelling lead character--he's a heel (or, in this film's vernacular, isn't it a "fat honey dripper"?) in the beginning, a heel at the end, and a heel in between.  At least he's consistent.  To be fair it can't be easy playing a one-note character in one unrealistic, melodramatic scene after another.  Especially when you're forced to deliver howlers like:

"You got a glass head.  I can see right through it!  It's how I know you're stupid!!" Or: "Will you stop beating on my ears! I’ve had it up to here with all this bring-down!"  Or perhaps: "You’re making my head hurt with all that poetry!"

Just to name three out of two hundred or so.  Perhaps even more puzzling than all the wasted talent in front of the talent is the appalling screenplay that somehow came from 11-time Hugo winner Harlan Ellison and former Oscar winners Rouse and Clarence Green.  Then again, Ellison's greatest triumphs came in science fiction and Rouse and Green won for the light comedy PILLOW TALK.  Maybe each man was, like Bennett, just out of his element here.  Boyd's reign of terror (i.e. ruining lives, ruining careers, causing a then-illegal abortion) results in a "comeuppance" that doesn't even seem like a slap on the wrist in comparison, but he looks ready for an institution regardless.

THE OSCAR might be the biggest career destroyer in Hollywood history.  It effectively ended the careers of Rouse and Green--Oscar be damned, THE OSCAR was the penultimate feature for both.  Ellison continued to win awards by the armful for his short stories, teleplays and novellas, but THE OSCAR would be his lone screenplay.  Bennett would never again play anyone but himself in a feature, and Boyd's big screen career fizzled quickly following the one-two punch of this film and THE POPPY IS ALSO A FLOWER.  Surprisingly, it is Berle who gives the film's best performance.  He often succumbed to hamminess in comedies, but Berle was effective in his infrequent dramatic roles (i.e. LEPKE).  He's a model of restraint here (certainly compared to Boyd) as the agent with a heart of gold, "Kappy Kapstetter" (yes---really.  Was there a plausibly named character in the entire film?). 

An embarrassment to almost all involved, THE OSCAR didn't come close to winning any Oscars but did get some Golden Turkey Awards love.  Still, that was 30 years ago, and this legendary baddie has slipped through the cracks since, while VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, THE SWARM, and the AIRPORT sequels continue to soak up the bad-movie love.   This is a wrong that should be righted: this oldie-but-baddie can stand toe to toe with any given year's Golden Raspberry nominees.  And so what if it's just two hours about a louse with no central theme?  According to Danny Peary, so is RAGING BULL--and this one's a hell of a lot funnier.

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

THE OSCAR had the misfortune to be released just before film language became more frank and honest ("Birdseed"???), the studio system became obsolete (BONNIE AND CLYDE and EASY RIDER were both less than 3 years away) and the aforementioned, flashier DOLLS assumed the all-star baddie throne of the 1960's.

Why it should be on DVD:

It may have been dated the moment it was released, but that only enhances the "appeal". THE OSCAR, long out of print on VHS, deserves more than just the occasional airing on TCM.  There's more than enough overwrought, badly delivered dialogue, ripe melodrama, and ridiculously named characters to keep a bad movie buff in glee for evenings to come.  It's also been way too hard to find for way too long.  Stop trying to sweep this one under the rug, Hollywood!  It's comedy gold, I tell ya!!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Film Review: LITTLE DARLINGS (1980)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 44

LITTLE DARLINGS (1980 Paramount) Starring Kristy McNichol, Tatum O'Neal, Armand Assante, Matt Dillon, Margaret Blye, Krista Errickson, Cynthia Nixon, Jenn Thompson, Nicolas Coster, Simone Schachter.  Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell.

Kristy McNichol is a tough, poor, chain smoking tomboy.  Tatum O'Neal is a prissy rich girl wearing the latest designs.  They're sent off to summer camp by parents who are having problems: McNichol's single mom Blye is man hunting, and O'Neal's parents are on the verge of a divorce.  After the two polar opposites get off on the wrong foot with a fight on the bus, McNichol and O'Neal are egged on by snooty aspiring model Errickson (think Mena Suvari's AMERICAN BEAUTY character) to settle their differences with a contest.

Said contest?  As the only two "inexperienced" girls at camp, they will compete to see who loses her virginity first--with everyone else wagering on the outcome.  McNichol sets her sights on Matt Dillon from the neighboring boys' camp, while O'Neal aims older: French-speaking swim coach Armand Assante (30 at the time to O'Neal's 16!).

LITTLE DARLINGS is yet another film at odds with its marketing.  Those of a certain age (I was 11) at the time of LITTLE DARLINGS' release will remember print ads playing up the titillation factor, but the two teenaged stars were already respected Emmy (McNichol, for FAMILY) and Oscar (O'Neal, for PAPER MOON) winners, and the script by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young is ultimately a sensitive coming-of-age drama despite the comedic elements.  There's some profanity, sure, but no F-bombs, and if you blink you'll miss the only glimpse of nudity: males skinny dipping, from Schacter's binocular-aided P.O.V.  Yup, LITTLE DARLINGS is not only a rare summer camp teen drama, it's a chick flick.

The MPAA gave it an "R" but teen boys were hooked by the marketing, teen girls by the word-of-mouth, and LITTLE DARLINGS ended up 20th at the box office for the year 1980, grossing the equivalent of just under $100 million in today's dollars ($34 million in '80 if you're curious).  They just don't make 'em like this any more. In addition to the central plot, there's underage drinking/smoking and perhaps the biggest eyebrow raiser today: the aphrodisiacs and other questionable pills/potions passed out by Nixon's tween hippie chick.

McNichol is the standout but the teen cast is uniformly strong, with future stars Nixon and Dillon already showing considerable chops.  Peck and Young help out with credible dialogue.  Their script is far from perfect: the resolution of the O'Neal-Assante situation (potentially very sticky) is glossed over too quickly and the food fight seems forced, as if they were trying to "punch up" a script deemed too serious.  Overall, though, LITTLE DARLINGS is a solid drama from a perspective too seldom seen in the summer camp subgenre, and given its popularity its absence from DVD is particularly puzzling.  Maxwell directed McNichol again in 1981's THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA.  O'Neal went on to another May-December romance in her next film, the disastrous CIRCLE OF TWO, with 54 year old(!) Richard Burton.

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

The central plot focuses on a 15 year old girl attempting to seduce a man twice her age.  The soundtrack features Supertramp, Blondie, John Lennon and the Bellamy Brothers (among others) making music rights an issue.  Underage drinking, underage smoking, and both leads have faded from the public eye as adults.  Matter of fact, McNichol hasn't acted at all in well over a decade.

You know, on the surface, sounds logical enough, but on closer examination, none of this really holds water.  I'll explain:

Why it should be on DVD:

Ok, first off, let's take on the above reasons "why not" one by one. O'Neal's attempted seduction of Assante? The aforementioned CIRCLE OF TWO, with its even more jaw-dropping O'Neal-Burton coupling and a scene with then 17 year old O'Neal topless, got a DVD release in 2006.   Furthermore, FOXES, released a couple of months earlier in 1980 to about one-third the box office, has been available on DVD for some time despite earning its "R" with plenty of underage drug use and sex---including a marriage between thirtyish Randy Quaid and a teenager.  Doesn't seem like a film that was much more popular than either should be kept off DVD for that particular plot element.

Music rights?  Didn't keep THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN (which didn't exactly light up the box office) from getting a release several years back despite just as many popular artists contributing.  Not to mention FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and countless others.

McNichol and O'Neal haven't been lighting up the big screen as adults?  Ok, Jodie Foster has, which no doubt helped FOXES.  But Matt Dillon and Cynthia Nixon, just starting out in LITTLE DARLINGS (his second feature after OVER THE EDGE, her film debut), are still going very strong 30 years later.  Their earliest roles would would have to be intriguing to their current fans.

The only conclusion I can reach?  The sight of Nixon pushing uppers, downers and aphrodisiacs and spiking Assante's drink with a "love potion" is just too upsetting to SEX AND THE CITY fans and is keeping one of the most popular films of its year off DVD.  Yeah, that must be it.........