Bil’s rating (out of 5): B
USA, 1966. Greene-Rouse Productions. Screenplay by Harlan Ellison, Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene, based on the novel by Richard Sale. Cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg. Produced by Clarence Greene. Music by Percy Faith. Production Design by Arthur Lonergan, Hal Pereira. Costume Design by Edith Head. Film Editing by Chester W. Schaeffer.
Imagine if the waves crashing against the rocks in From Here To Eternity were turned into a film and you have this bombastic soap opera that has been derided, with good reason, since the day it was released. At the annual Academy Awards ceremony, Stephen Boyd shows up as a first-time nominee for the Best Actor Oscar, a pivotal moment in his career that he handles with grace as he humbly accepts the good wishes from journalists on the red carpet. Inside the auditorium, his old friend Tony Bennett (in his one and only dramatic film role) sees Boyd sitting alone with an empty seat next to him and flashes back to their long history together, beginning with them as low-class hustlers accompanying a stripper (Jill St. John) at gigs in dive bars where Boyd is her “spieler” (warming up the crowd).
Boyd and St. John’s romantic relationship falls apart when they move to New York and he gets a job as a grunt for a costume designer (Elke Sommer) with whom he falls in love, and his volatile relationship with her puts him in the way of a Hollywood executive scouting for talent (played by Eleanor Parker). She takes him to bed and then out west, turning him into a star as he rekindles his romance with Sommer, who is now designing costumes for films (initially under the supervision of Edith Head, who makes a cameo as herself), but he never leaves behind his street-savvy ways, good and bad.
Sharp and self-possessed, Boyd is also gruff, mean and violent, climbing the ladder to success in the spirit of revenge and stabbing everyone he can in the back (managing a Hollywood career is similar to taking over the streets as a crime boss, something that might have been shocking to some viewers in 1966). Boyd thinks he’s immune to the karmic retribution that comes to all such tragically un-self-aware heroes, but once his films start showing poor results at the box office, the studio head (Joseph Cotten) that he has tried to strong-arm for a better deal is happy to cut him loose, and his put-upon agent (Milton Berle) is relieved to be rid of him.
He’s just about to sign a contract for that woeful of humbling deals for actors, a television pilot, when he gets call about being nominated for an Oscar; this for him is a chance to cure his vulnerable position for good, including clearing the mountain of debt he has gotten himself into, but the things he does to ensure a win end up threatening his relationships with the people closest to him.
Frequently cited as the perfect example of dramatic camp, this film doesn’t have a hint of irony to it and it only makes it that much funnier to watch; harsh, uncompromising monologues are delivered by actors surrounded by lushly decorated sets that all look like the bathroom at a burlesque show, with seasoned and proven performers like Boyd and Ernest Borgnine put up against the considerably feebler talents of Sommer and Bennett (who vowed never to act again after the horrible experience he had on this one), making for some, to say the least, dissatisfying dramatics. No one has a whit of a clue of the disaster they’re in and it actually contributes a great deal of pleasure to the experience, Boyd in particular draws you in to his character’s insanely outsized hubris and keeps you hooked until the bitter, ridiculous end as we wait for the final outcome, the results of the envelope that will prove if the end justified the means.
Make no mistake, this is not a good movie, but don’t take that to mean that it is not an absolute must-see.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Art Direction-Colour; Best Costume Design-Colour