Retro Review: Oscar
It’s that time of year again: talking heads pontificating about merit and importance, celebrities mooning for any camera that makes a flash bulb effect, the hoi-poloi breathlessly watching every vapid statement on the news. No, Kanye and Kim did not rob a bank…It’s Academy Award times! Did you favorite get snubbed? Tough nooggies. Do you resent that the same old Oscar-bait crap gets nominated in order to cement a Hollywood elite status? Go kick rocks. It’s February, and besides being a tremendous savings at Subways on processed protein sandwiches that smell like feet, it is also the month we celebrate the run up to The Awards by looking at all things Oscar. So, let us begin the month with a prescient pick, the Sylvester Stallone movie actually entitled Oscar. Cause he was nominated for an Academy Award! (full disclosure: not for this movie. God no.)
Oscar, a John Landis comedy starring Sylvester Stallone, has a viciously bad rap. It is credited as one of the pair of comedy movies (the other being Stop! or My Mother Will Shoot) that caused Sly’s major drop from prominence. I’m here to firmly state: “bullshit.” Sylvester Stallone has starred in a major motion picture every year from 1981 to 2004, and if you give him leap years, has starred in at least one movie since he was born. Seriously. Look at his filmography. The man is hungry for work. If audiences stopped treating his movies like they were Rambo: First Blood or Rocky, that is because they weren’t. If you like Over the Top or Cobra, you have nary a leg to stand on with me for arguing that his later movies were crap. If you argue that he simply can’t sustain a good comedy, I will proudly throw Tango and Cash and Demolition Man in your face. And you know what? I’m about to spill ink arguing that Oscar is a good comedy. No. A classic comedy. Nay, a Shakespearean comedy! Let’s see why.
Greed is Good
Oscar centers around the actions of a Sicilian family boss, Angelo “Snaps” Provolone (Sly), who is a bit of a softy. He arrives in the initial scene to witness the final moments of his dear papa, Kirk Douglas, who denounces him as a gangster and gets a deathbed vow from Snaps to go straight. Sly acquiesces and gets rigor-mortise slapped by Douglas, which is fantastic. Fast forward to the day Snaps goes straight.
Having arranged all of his under-worldly affairs, Snaps decides to meet all of his contacts and convert his ill-gotten wealth into bank holdings, forcing the local banksters (a timely insight, if there ever was one in the 90’s) to make him a trustee. In a side scene, we see that the bankers (with hilarious cameos by Animal House alum Mark Metcalf, and Ghost Busters alum William Atherton) have no intention of accepting Snaps, and only want his money. Shocking. The Day of Madness begins.
Arriving out of order is Snaps accountant, Anthony, who floors Sly by pledging his love to his daughter, and revealing that he has stolen 50K in funds to pay for their nuptials. Snaps is incensed, but remembers his promise, and tries to worm his way out of the deal. He talks to his daughter, Lisa (Marissa Tomei) who not only claims the illicit love affair, but also to be pregnant. She has no idea what is going on, but takes her best shot at escaping her controlling father by claiming to be with child.
Snaps comes back to Anthony and takes his dowry (the 50k, converted into jewels in a black bag) and accepts, knowing that something is fishy. Turns out Anthony is in love with another poor girl who claimed to be Snaps’ daughter in order to get his attention, and a comedy of errors ensues. The black bag changes hands a dozen times, and nobody knows who is marrying who until the final scene, where all’s well that end’s well.
Much Ado About Meatballs
Oscar adheres to the classic rules of a marriage comedy: multiple couples are vying for their true loves, and identities are humorously mixed. Oscar even takes this formula to the Nth degree. We have the unlucky suitor, Anthony, clamoring for the wrong girl. We have the wrong girl, Lisa, clamoring for ANY suitor. And we have endless suitors who are paraded passed the two in order to get a marriage of convenience. The “real bride” and Anthony finally find each other, only to have an argument break the whole thing apart, and have Anthony reluctantly accept Lisa. Who has finally found a true match, in an awkward scholar, Tim Curry (see this movie for him alone, if you value comedy…) So now nobody is happy, and the black bag keeps bouncing, making the matches switch like partners at a barn dance. Add in excellent comedic performances by Dom Ameche, Chazz Palminteri, and Vincent Riegert
(who should have had a supporting actor nod for his Herculean effort to keep the plot together) and you have a thoroughly enjoyable John Landis film. Or a Shakespearean play.
Elements of the farce smack of Much Ado About Nothing (with the sharp tongued wife of Snaps providing Beatrice’s role and the dew-eyed Theresa reprising Hero) and even elements of a high-handed miss-match echoing The Taming of the Shrew. If you want to really grasp at straws, the local power broker in Measure for Measure is named Angelo (Snaps’ Christian name) and the main antagonist of Taming of the Shrew is named Sly. QED, people.
The bigger influence on the marriage comedy: The Marriage of Figaro, is more directly referenced in the damn musical selection.
The Marriage of Figaro Spaghetti
The musical score of Oscar, while including period pieces that are redolent of another hilarious period comedy featuring Tim Curry: Clue, are mainly drawn from The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, a pair of timeless marriage comedies (well, comedy in the classical sense of only a few deaths and a little sexual assault hinted at…) It seems that John Landis was not only well-aware of the territory he was stepping into as a director, but relishing the challenge of taking on this genre. The more you appreciate of the sources being drawn from in Oscar, the more audacious it becomes.
This is not the say the movie is without flaws. The racist stereotypes in this movie are almost comically over the top (but still racist, people, we’re not barbarians here.) The eeni-ini-oni banter of the Italian participants would make The Olive Garden cringe. Tim Curry’s Englishman is the picture of a fop, and Nora, the Irish maid, is a nightmare. The only apology you could make is that everyone gets the same caricature treatment….so that’s OK right? Nope. But having a background in the above classical comedies does excuse a part of it, as all of the characters are SUPPOSED to be playing on the audience’s knowledge of character tropes. Which doesn’t excuse Sly’s awful Sicilian, but he’s marble-mouthed most of the time anyhow.
Let Any Man Present Speak or Forever Hold His Peace
Oscar is not the best Sylvester Stallone comedy. It’s not the best John Landis comedy. But for the love of all this is holy, it is not the worst, by any measure. The acting is pretty good, and great in places. The frenetic pace is well adapted for a comedy, especially a comedy of errors. It takes place in a very quick day of miss-cues, just like The Marriage of Figaro, and adapts from the best stock elements of a marriage comedy. If it was poorly received, it is because so few of these comedies get made, at least that are not remakes by Kenneth Branagh of Shakespeare plays. Give it a view, and see if you don’t get a laugh out of the fast and frantic action. If you can’t find something to love about this film, may heaven have mercy upon your soul…