Saturday, August 30, 2008

I'm Up To Here With All This Bring-Down!

Following up my highlight reel from The Swarm, I've compiled a highlight reel from the worst movie of the '60s, The Oscar, focusing mostly on the overacting, the insane dialogue, plus one of the worst stunt doublings ever (Ernest Borgnine being replaced by someone who doesn't look anything like him just so he can fall over a desk). The sad thing about the film is that the producer-writer-director team, Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse, had a decent reputation before Oscar; they hadn't done anything great, but they'd made some interesting independent films like the dialogueless The Thief with Ray Milland, and they created the Mike Connors TV show Tightrope. This film, though, pretty much ended their careers.

In a way, The Oscar demonstrates that the difference between a good line and a terrible line doesn't have a whole lot to do with the screenwriter. Harlan Ellison's dialogue is pretty overbaked and ridiculous, and the rewrites seem if anything to have toned down his weird metaphors and syntax (in comments on another blog, he complained that Greene and Rouse changed "I need you like an extra set of elbows" to the more traditional "I need you like a hole in the head"). But there are lots of good movies that have dialogue like that. When the movie is good, the dialogue becomes classic. If Sweet Smell of Success had been poorly made, Clifford Odets' dialogue would be mocked to this day; because it's good -- and that includes, of course, that the actors make this dialogue sound as natural as it can possibly sound -- the dialogue is famous in a good way. But when the movie is The Oscar and the writer is Harlan Ellison, you get this:

Speaking of Ellison, it's not in this compilation, but one line in The Oscar is lifted from an episode he wrote for, of all things, Burke's Law. "No one changes anyone else, they merely open the doors," Milton Berle says to Eleanor Parker, which is exactly what Gene Barry said to the murderer-of-the-week on Ellison's first episode of Burke's Law. But that episode had a better script.

What makes The Oscar the most absurd Hollywood a clef film ever made -- and boy, is that ever saying something -- is that its concept is basically this: Hollywood is a perfect, wonderful place where most people are great and honorable, and mean, selfish people just don't fit in. The studio boss (Joseph Cotten) is a fine, upstanding man whose only fault is that he sometimes hires actors he doesn't like to appease his employees. The agent (Milton Berle) is shocked when Boyd wants him to engage in hardball negotiation tactics and take advantage of legal loopholes in the contract. The Oscar is the symbol of the nobility of the people who vote for it; "The Oscars mean a lot to us," Cotten explains; "we don't like to see them tarnished." And sure enough, the ending shows all the non-Boyd characters applauding for the fact that Boyd didn't win the Oscar: in Hollywood, we're meant to see, bad people never prosper. This movie is like that Simpsons episode where the sweet, innocent Hollywood film crew is preyed upon by the cynical small-town people; except that that was a joke, and this is serious. Or thinks it is.


David Germain said...

I think the weird metaphors in movie scripts have been replaced with references to other movies, tv shows, etc. In Tropic Thunder, Alpa Chino refers to Downey Jr's character as Crocodile Dundee, Kangaroo Jack, Benson, and Chicken George as an example. And, of course there's Juno. Practically everything out of her mouth was a reference to something.

Of course, like you said earlier. None of that makes for a bad script. Like anything, if it's done well it can be very colourful and entertaining. If not, people think they're using references as a substitute for actual writing (think Family Guy as the most obvious example).

Stacia said...

Oh, the dialogue. Early in the film Boyd attacks the owner of the strip join while saying something like "You fat honeydripper! I'll peel the lard off ya!"

It was too convoluted to blog about, but "honeydripper" in its original connotation didn't seem to apply, and the actor they got for the landlord? Not fat. At least he didn't look fat. That's when I realized the dialogue was going to blow.

I said it elsewhere but I'll say it here, I am LOVING the clips.