Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter heads to the intersection of Hollywood and Harlan Ellison with The Oscar.
The great Harlan Ellison is best known for his mastery of language. It was most often put to use in the form of brilliant short fiction, essays, and verbal put downs, but he also worked quite a bit in television too. He even, to the point of this entry in our Commentary Commentary column, dabbled in the world of film. Ellison has three official feature film credits — the classic A Boy and His Dog (1975), the little seen Jackpot (1980), and 1966’s legendary debacle, The Oscar.
The film is new to Blu-ray, beautifully restored by the folks at Kino Lorber, and among its special features is a new commentary track featuring three men who knew and loved the irrepressible genius that was Ellison. All three are also filmmakers to one degree or another, and they have opinions on everything from Ellison to hand gestures to angora sweaters to the fiasco that is The Oscar. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
The Oscar (1966)
Commentators: Patton Oswalt (starred in Young Adult, 2011), Josh Olson (wrote and directed 2002’s Infested… just three years before receiving an Oscar nomination for writing 2005’s A History of Violence), Erik Nelson (wrote and directed Dreams With Sharp Teeth, 2008)
1. The real Oscar ceremony scenes were filmed in 1965 during the 37th Academy Awards. This was the year that My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove for Best Picture, and Rex Harrison beat Peter Sellers. Mistakes were made.
2. They believe that this movie is the reason why you can no longer make movies about the Oscars — as in the trademarked names for the Academy awards — as the show no longer wanted their name associated with bad movies. Sure, it didn’t stop them from giving their top prize to Green Book last year, but whatever.
3. They point out that Ellison’s co-writers (Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene) actually made some “good movies” too including D.O.A. (1949) and Wicked Woman (1953).
4. They’re all fans of Stephen Boyd for his work on Ben-Hur (1959) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), but they’re all equally in agreement that he was horribly miscast here as the lead Frankie Fane. That said, they rightfully acknowledge his dizzying array of hand gestures throughout the film for the masterful entertainment that they are.
5. Olson and Nelson have actually read Ellison’s whopping 344 page screenplay for The Oscar, and they have thoughts. “At this point in the movie we’re five minutes into the film, [but] we are approximately 120 pages into the screenplay.” Ellison’s original script apparently went deep on background for the characters. They’re hoping to help shepherd the script into publication which would be very cool.
6. Oswalt recalls seeing the film on 35mm some years ago and noting how damaged and discolored the print was. He was told that Paramount “wanted it to die” and had no plans on restoring it for any official release.
7. Ellison was apparently obsessed with Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Olson thinks he was trying to channel that film’s character relationships here.
8. The rear projection for the driving scene at 9:22 was used some years later in Airplane (1980).
9. The brief arrival of Oscar winner Broderick Crawford leads them to recall stories about him being so hammered on the set of Highway Patrol (1955-1959) that the show’s powers that be would routinely lay him on the floor, lay props next to him, and then film from above to pretend he was simply leaning against a wall.
10. This movie did receive two Oscar nominations of its own, one for Costume Design and another for Production Design. They are boggled as to how that could have happened and repeat their befuddlement throughout the film’s running time.
11. The Los Angeles screening at the Egyptian theater that Oswalt mentioned also featured a Q&A with Ellison, and as the film ended — clearly having not gone over well with the audience — Ellison walked down the aisle flipping the middle finger to the audience. “It was pretty amazing.”
12. Olson believes that “the collaborative process frustrated” Ellison — probably an understatement given the numerous stories about him throughout the years — and the issue here is filmmakers trying too hard to capture the script rather than interpret it for the screen.
13. When Frank refers to Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett) owing him for something in the past, the longer script reveals that to have been the accidental murder of Hymie’s younger brother that Frank took the heat for. A minor plot point I guess.
14. Nelson recommends SCTV’s “The Nobel” spoof but adds that “as brilliant as the comic actors are they cannot improve on the original.” Maybe so, but it’s no less perfect and funny for it. Check it out below.
15. The knife fight at 24:00 is in the script with a reference from Ellison describing the exact knife that should be used and stating “the author can supply a knife on request for this scene.”
16. Nelson recalls a lunch with Milton Berle — “the only restrained performer” in the film — where he complimented the actor and learned that producer Joseph Levine was the man responsible for bringing the Raymond Burr-starring Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) to the US.
17. The film had to overdub Joseph Cotten‘s performance as he was having “denture issues” at this point of his career.
18. Peter Lawford‘s appearance prompts them to point out that he had recently been “ex-communicated from [Frank] Sinatra” due to a dust-up involving the famous crooner being banned from the John F. Kennedy White House. It makes his character here especially on point as Lawford plays a man who once had it all but lost it all the same.
19. As with some characters in the film, one of Ellison’s five marriages ended in a Tijuana divorce.
20. They wonder aloud who Guy Kibbee is after Frankie says “I’m not exactly Guy Kibbee, world’s most beloved actor.” Olson actually looked him up and shares that Kibbee was a character actor with 114 credits from 1929 through 1948. Oswalt promises to make “Guy Kibbee” trend using his vast power and reach as an influencer.
21. Had this film found success, Ellison was apparently up to write Valley of the Dolls (1967). This obviously didn’t happen.
22. One of the scenes deleted from the film showed Kappy Kapstetter (Berle) in Baltimore — still referenced here but without explanation — receiving treatment for cancer at Johns Hopkins. Now we’re left with him just being sweaty and no longer taking his orange juice on ice.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I have also unfortunately seen this film.”
“He knew this was a mistake, and he never ever acted again. To his credit.”
“He couldn’t turn off the Harlan.”
“The hand gestures are monumental in this film.”
“There’s the tracking shot in Goodfellas, and there’s this scene.”
“Erik Nelson, the only guy who uses audio commentaries to pick up actresses.”
“There’s Rick Dalton in the background.”
“Salad on the lady!”
“Oh, now, the immortal huevos rancheros scene.”
“It looks like something out of a Clive Barker movie.”
“Fuck you Frankie Fane.”
The Oscar is a movie all right. Its pacing is labored, its lead actors are miscast, the dialogue is endlessly heightened, and the production design is wanting, but it’s a memorable watch all the same. The trio share plenty of anecdotes and jokes regarding the film and are every bit as entertaining as it is in the process. Granted, the film isn’t trying to be funny, but still…
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.