A loyal reader wrote to recommend this to me, and after I was unable to find it on Netflix or anywhere else, generously offered to send me a copy, which I accepted. It sounded fun; the story of a ruthlessly selfish bastard who runs over numerous friends and lovers in his self-regard, with an all-star cast of luminaries, and what was said to be an off-the-chart sense of camp. I looked it up on IMDb to find it enjoys quite a reputation as a lost camp classic in the Valley of the Dolls vein, my favorite review describing it as "what space aliens would make if they intercepted our TV signals." Who isn't up for that?
So this stars Stephen Boyd, with Tony Bennett, Elke Somer, Milton Berle, Joseph Cotten, Jill St. John, Ernest Borgnine, Ed Begley, Walter Brennan, Broderick Crawford, Nancy Sinatra, and Edith Head and Hedda Hopper as themselves. It has music by Percy Faith(!) and a screenplay co-written by Harlan Ellison! We open outside an Oscar ceremony (which can only bring back memories of The Lonely Lady), where we meet Boyd as nominee Frankie Fane. As the ceremony starts, we see Tony Bennett sitting a few seats away, looking at Fane, and his reminisces about Fane and his rise to fame comprise, in flashback, the bulk of the movie. Yes, shades of All About Eve, indeed. Little but a shade.
So back in the day it was just Fane, Bennett as his bud Hymie (you heard that right), and Jill St. John as stripper Laurel. They are shafted by the management after a show, beat him up and leave, which gets them in trouble with the law. They are hit with a prostitution charge, and have to pay exorbitantly to get off. Next Fane is at a party where he meets Elke Somer as Kay, who is quite forthright with strangers about being a virgin. He comes home to Laurel late, then won't sit around for her to harangue him. She kicks him out (he is essentially living off her) and then poor St. John has to launch into a long, wretched, tearful speech. If you have a taste for camp, horrible dialogue, and overacting, you can't really go wrong with this movie, although many of its lines and best speeches don't really reproduce in print, as well as going by so fast--and with such frequency--it would have been impossible to write them all down. Just trust our IMDb friend--it's as if this is human dialogue written by space aliens. Nothing here resembles recognizable human behavior--just echoes of overblown movies past.
So Fane is slumming as a mailboy at a place where Kay is working, where he almost gets fired for mouthing off to the boss. He goes with her to an acting rehearsal, where he loudly mocks the actors for their portrayal of a knife fight. Upon being asked to get out, Fane charges the stage, grabs the knife and threatens the actor--all to show how it's done. His raw intensity impresses an older female (read: bitter, lonely, desperate) casting director who witnesses the scene. Later, as Kay is upbraiding him at dinner, Frankie shouts "I'm ME! If you don't like what you see, then change the scenery." Kay storms out, causing Frankie to ignore the casting director sitting with him, and have a guilty breakdown about being a cad. This guy is unstable! Only hold onto that, it's the only swipe at psychology you'll get. Anyway, soon Fane has a contract to be in movies!
He is set up immediately with a star he is to have a romance for the benefit of the gossip magazines with. She lets him know immediately that she is the star and he is the companion, and to never speak, and to always stand on her right, which as you can guess, does not sit well with our megalomaniac star. He creates an embarrassing shot for the press, and at the next date, while she is in the midst of describing how very much she DOES adore a green goddess salad (check out the size of that salad), Frankie sees that Kay is in town. Frankie dumps the gargantuan salad into her lap and makes a beeline for Kay, just in time for Hedda Hopper to stop by and inform the starlet that she is just yesterday's wilted lettuce. Kay has only a few moments in the presence of Frankie before she informs him that "You represent envying I loathe!" to which he responds "You mean everything you LOVE!" She dumps him, but the next day he uses his clout to get her a big promotion in Edith Head's department, and she's drawn back into his web.
But as surely you know, fame is a fickle mistress, and that weeks turn into years--how quick they pass--and all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas. Frankie strides into a swank restaurant and greets a fellow actor--only to realize that the guy is now the waiter! This unnerves Frankie deeply, and his agent, Milton Berle, tells him that's the way it is, and he should be ready for it. Then he and Kay go on a date, and poof! Decide to get married at a Tijuana chapel. Sadly they did not yet have the example of Britney Spears to caution them. Frankie wants to go home the next day, i.e. skip the honeymoon, which makes Kay unhappy. There is no waiting for the inevitable marital strife, for as soon as they get back Kay is installed in Chez Fane as just another expensive bauble, as he suddenly gets renewed interest in catting around with starlets.
But work is no picnic, either. We soon learn that Frankie's pictures don't do very well, and he is box office poison. He has also alienated enough people that few will come to his defense. He finally is reduced to accepting the lead role in a TV series, and has to sit there as executives talk about him as though he isn't there, although this does lead to a curiously long discussion of how Frankie is "a man." He is interrupted from the meeting with a call saying he has been nominated for an Oscar, at which point he tells the TV producers to go screw! This dude just doesn't know how to nurture friendships and business relationships.
Now Frankie must ensure that he wins that Oscar, which he sees as his sure-fire ticket to eternal stardom. The rest of this movie tries to generate suspense around that very idea, although we knew even then that several actors have won the Oscar and still vanished into obscurity. So Frankie hires unscrupulous thug Ernest Borgnine as Barney to plant a story about Frankie's prostitution charge back in the day, under the notion that Academy voters will assume one of the other nominees planted it, and give Frankie the sympathy vote. This is supposed to be one of several last straws with Hymie (who has been ever-present, though not doing enough to mention), who married Laurel after she dumped Frankie. Anyway, it's not long before the other nominees are offering Barney more money to prove that they DIDN'T plant the story, which will only reveal that Frankie himself DID. And it seems that Frankie just doesn't have enough money left to pay Barney to be silent, even at Barney's special discounted rate.
SPOILERS > > >
Where else to turn... but MURDER? Frankie asks Hymie to kill Barney for him, which is too much for Hymie. Then Berle drops Frankie as his agent. Then Hymie comes back to deliver a huge dramatic speech to Frankie, in which the murder request is revealed to Kay. Many critics on the IMDb have noted Bennett's limited acting skills, and the unfortunate requests of him to deliver lines such as "Take it easy! You'll get a thrombo!" and, well, I am not going to disagree. He proves to be a cute and appealing presence, however, and I never really minded him, although it's true that every one of his lines sounds pretty much like any other. And none of them are convincing. Anyway, after Hymie delivers his long and awful speech, Kay launches into a long and awful speech, then Frankie throws something at his Asian assistant, and--back to the Oscars!
< < < SPOILERS END
So now it all comes down to whether Frankie wins or a not, a secret I wouldn't dare reveal, although I will tell you that he does enact the familiar cliche of standing to accept his award before his name is even called. The name is revealed and--the end!
Now the truth is that I personally am willing to accept quite a wide range of awfulness and camp and take it with seriousness, which is beneficial to the rest of this site, but not so much with a movie like this, where lines that can seem like OTT howlers to most people pass me by as just average dialogue. So just trust the IMDb critics when they say that there are so many awful lines and overheated emotions happening here that a drinking party based around them would likely result in the hospitalization of all present. If you and your friends like to see the very worst, campiest movies ever created--especially when they deal with stars, Hollywood and fame--you are safe in centering a gathering around this cinematic achievement. If you can find it. I hear it airs on TCM every so often.
Nevertheless, it remains really fun and watchable throughout. I just can't get enough of awful people acting in despicable ways (on film), and this movie has that in unending supply. You get to watch Frankie arrogantly screw and walk on everyone, refusing to accept responsibility for anything, then turn around and ask for favors and cry unfaithfulness when he doesn't get his way. And it all goes along quickly and throws in new wrinkles every step of the way such that I was completely entertained from beginning to end.
The word on the street is that this role, which no one else would take, effectively torpedoed Stephen Boyd's rising career, and sent him back to television and minor roles for the rest of his career. But unfortunately it's not one of those Mommie Dearest things in which one can suspect that a poor actor was doomed for simply being TOO GOOD in the role. Though it must be observed that no one could withstand the awfulness of this script. Anyway, it remains a subject of awe that this film was able to gather such an amazing cast, but one can see that a Hollywood-centric tale chastising those who would act selfishly--or, too obviously selfishly?--would attract interest.
So if you like Hollywood stories about meteoric rises and smashing falls with lots of extra-charged emotion, a golden cavalcade of stars, super-fun bitchery and outright evil, all delivered with an extra helping of camp, The Oscar goes to you!
If you've always wanted another Valley of the Dolls and never imagined your dreams could come true.