Wednesday, July 7, 2010

THE OSCAR (1966), Frank Capra, and It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra, a brilliant a determined man who enjoyed everything Hollywood has to offer, learned a hard lesson over the course of his career — a mean sonofabitch of a lesson that Hollywood has taught to thousands and thousands over the decades: there’s no such thing as absolute control in the movie business. Picture making is a collaborative process — whether you like it or not — and everyone from the extras crowded around the hospitality table to Louis B. Mayer himself answers to somebody. This is why I, as well as every screen writer and cinematographer in the world, chuckle at author-theory people. Frankie Fane, the rotten protagonist of The Oscar, learns this too.

What’s Capra got to do with it though?

Here’s an oft-told Oscar tale: in 1934 the race for Best Director was contested among three nominees: Capra for Lady for a Day, George Cukor for Little Women, and Frank Lloyd for Best Picture winner Cavalcade. The presenter that year was humorist and film comedian Will Rogers — probably the sharpest, make that wickedest, man in the room. He declared the winner by jovially announcing, “Well, well, well. What do you know. I’ve watched this young man for a long time. Saw him come up from the bottom, and I mean the bottom. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Come on up and get it, Frank!” At this, Capra stood and wound his way through the tables toward the stage. He looked over and saw a jubilant Frank Lloyd, — the real winner — also coming up from his left. After a moment’s confusion Capra returned to his seat, humiliated, in what he would later describe as the “longest walk of his life.”

Capra was a filmmaker who greatly valued the creative aspects of his work and desperately wanted to win an Academy Award. He felt the accompanying recognition would give him enough juice to exert more and more control over his pictures. The irony here is that although he would shortly become one of the most recognized directors in film history, capturing the Oscar the following year for his own Best Picture, It Happened One Night, and winning it an astonishing two more times before the decade was out; he would never get the control he wanted — nobody ever does. Following his return from the war he even formed his own independent production company, Liberty Films, in an effort to gain more authority over his work. (Though it certainly fair to suggest that he had another reason: to pay less in taxes.) Liberty produced only two pictures — one of which was It’s a Wonderful Life.

Irony: Although Capra finally had a measure of the control he desired, It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop with post-war audiences — meaning that for their part the studio people were right. It failed to recoup its production costs and consequently drove Liberty into foreclosure and Capra back to the studio shuck-and-jive. More irony: in the decades since its release It’s a Wonderful Life has become one of the most adored films in history — a bona fide American classic — proving that for his part Capra was right. Even more irony: Lovers of this film often cite the source of their affection as the movie’s sweet Christmas message, though this shocks me. I believe what they are actually drawn to is the nostalgia of the film’s Americana, combined with its proliferation on television. My friends, It’s a Wonderful Life is a dark, forbidding, and troubling film.

Why the story? I was aware of the 1934 Oscar debacle’s connection to The Oscar and Capra was constantly in my thoughts as I watched. When one considers all the possibilities of a movie bearing this most lofty of titles it’s surprising — and something of a let-down — to witness the results — though Harlan Ellison was probably thinking of Capra when he had the “What if?” moment that probably got the this screenplay off the ground. The film itself has nothing to do with Capra and everything to do with an actor learning that old Hollywood lesson.

The Oscar stars Irishman Stephen Boyd (who most viewers will remember as Charlton Heston’s rival in 1959 Best Picture Ben-Hur) as Frankie Fane, a opportunistic heel who grinds his way through Hollywood, stepping on or over everyone who gets in his path. Fane is gifted with good looks and talent, but he’s so pathologically despicable that even shallow Hollywood types can’t stand him. The desperate and terrified actor’s career has finally hit the skids when he receives what amounts to a gift from the heavens: an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Yet the revivification certain to accompany the nod isn’t enough for Fane, he’s looking to hedge his bets — and in the end he pays a terrible price.

The supporting cast of The Oscar is noteworthy for being … noteworthy. This is one of those pictures about pictures that was able to recruit a boatload of high profile guest stars: Milton Berle plays Boyd’s agent while Joe Cotten is his studio boss. The film’s women are played by Elke Sommer, Eleanor Parker, Edie Adams, and Jill St. John. Ernest Borgnine is featured as a sleazy private eye; Brod Crawford, Walter Brennan, Peter Lawford, and Ed Begley do bits; and crooner Tony Bennett turns in his one and only (not too bad either) performance as a dramatic actor in the second lead. Bennett plays Hymie, Frank’s right hand man, conscience, and stooge. There are cameos galore, with Edith Head, Hedda Hopper, Frank Sinatra, Merle Oberon, and Bob Hope showing up as themselves.

The Oscar is both a morality story about the high cost of low morals and a trashy melodrama about life in the picture business. Whether it succeeds or fails on either count is up to the individual viewer, but the movie is stylish as can be (Oscar nods for Art Direction and Costume Design) and one hell of a ride — in a Jacqueline Susann kind of way.

The Oscar (1966)
Grade: C-
Directed by Russell Rouse
Starring Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, Tony Bennett, Milton Berle, and many more.
Released by Embassy Pictures
Running time: 119 minutes
Availability: Airs on TCM, rarely.

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