Blu-ray Review: The Oscar

STUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTOR: Russell Rouse | CAST: Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, ernest Borgnine, Joseph Cotten, Jill St. John
RELEASE DATE: Feb. 4, 2020 | PRICE: DVD $13.29, Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: two audio commentaries
SPECS: NR | 120 min. | Drama | 1.67:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

That’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.

After decades of unavailability in any format, The Oscar, the all-star 1966 inside Hollywood drama about a narcissistic actor scratching his way to the top of the movie business in a quest to win an Academy Award, has finally been unleashed by Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Produced by the legendary showman Joseph E. Levine, directed by “B” movie veteran Russell Rouse (The Thief) and scripted by famously cantankerous Harlan Ellison (A Boy and His Dog), the notorious flop that has been tagged a “camp classic” and a “Golden Turkey” by those who have managed to see it over the years. The film features Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur) as the edgy thespian “Frankie Fan,” Tony Bennett as his long-suffering fixer/manager “Hymie Kelly,” TV great Milton Berle (Who’s Minding the Mint?) doing solid, straight work as his agent  and the likes of Jill St. John (Who’s Minding the Store?), Elke Sommer, (Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!), Eleanor Parker (Caged) , Jean Hale (In Like Flint), and Edie Adams (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) as the women he crosses path with in his  life. Along with this impressive lineup, there are cameos galore from the likes of Frank Sinatra (The Manchurian Candidate) and Bob Hope (My Favorite Spy).

The Oscar is a genuine curio for a number of reasons. Ellison’s ultra-cynical take on a trashy novel by Richard Sale—his script was actually 340 pages before being whittled down–plays like a poison pen letter to the film industry. Not surprisingly, we’re told in the commentary tracks that Ellison’s inspiration was Sweet Smell of Success, Clifford Odets’ sneering stab at the power of the press that was turned into the classic 1957 Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis movie. But the fact that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the deeply protective organization behind the Academy Awards, would allow their image to be presented in such a critical manner is truly bizarre.

The critics were not kind to The Oscar. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote a notorious pan, while Time Magazine suggested doctors and nurses should be stationed in theaters “in case patrons laughed themselves sick” because of phony, hard-hitting dialogue.

The movie is an over-the-top affair, loaded with over-emoting, oddball motivations and attention-getting artificial sets and flashy clothing. It’s like an old-fashioned soap opera seen through the lens of aliens who visited Hollywood in the 1960s.

For this long overdue digital debut, Kino Lorber gone to town with a terrific new 4K transfer and two separate commentaries—one by a group of three adamant yeasayers of The Oscar’s overlooked attributes, and the other by a trio of Oscar mockers.

Taking the “pro” side are veteran film historians and commentary contributors  Nathaniel Thompson, Steve Mitchell and Howard A. Berger who, while recognizing the film’s value as something people have laughed at over the years, have no problem pointing out there’s certainly more here than has met audiences’ eyes over the decades. They succinctly cover the background dope on all of the key actors’ careers, pinpointing just where The Oscar fits in. They also offer some fascinating historical tidbits about the project’s production; defend the oft-criticized “stoic” acting style of star Stephen Boyd; and even offer some thought-provoking Freudian psychologizing that simmers under the film’s surface.

The other commentary, which skewers The Oscar’s pretensions and pretty much everything else, boasts comedian Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), screenwriter Josh Olson and filmmaker Erik Nelson, all three of whom were friends with the late writer Ellison. While their reminisces of Ellison and his unhappy involvement with the film are filled with interesting asides, they tend to talk over one another to the point of annoyance.

At least, Oswalt gets in some pretty good pokes and there’s some humorous mocking admiration for the garish studio surroundings and classic lines like, “You lie down like pigs, you come up smelling like garbage!”

That was, of course, spoken by Tony Bennett’s “Hymie Kelly” in his first—and, perhaps, not so surprisingly—last acting role.

Buy or Rent The Oscar

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.