OSCAR (1991) – starring Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Landis

I have news for the world.  Sylvester Stallone can act!

I’ll just run that by you again.  Sly is more than big biceps and a sneer.  Both he and Schwarzenegger have astounded us all by transcending their muscle-bound, monosyllabic images and developing into genuine actors with considerable charm.

‘Oscar is a farce set in 1931, sort of Damon Runyon meets Feydeau,’ according to director John Landis.  ‘I shot the picture in a deliberately stylised manner, attempting a thirties Hollywood comedy look and feel.  The film is directed as if it were a film of that time, with humour and dialogue delivered in a manner reminiscent of old Hollywood comedies, particularly the ‘screwball’ genre.’  Possibly this was the problem for some of the more waspish critics.

I’ve been a fan of Arnie’s since Conan, but had never been very keen on Mr Stallone, thinking that Rocky was all he was capable of.  I was later quite impressed with his performances in Judge Dredd and Cliffhanger, but the film that did it for me was a rather obscure comedy called Oscar.  I can’t remember now how I came across this little gem, and I don’t know why it hasn’t received better reviews, but it held me spellbound and beaming all the way through.  Based on the Claude Magnier stage play, it is a remake of the 1967 French film of the same name, but the setting has been moved to the Depression era New York City and centres around a mob boss trying to go straight.   

It begins with Stallone as the gangster, ‘Snaps’ Provolone, being summoned to the bedside of his dying father (Kirk Douglas) and made to promise to go straight.  Snaps, in his own way, is a man of honour, and determines to keep his promise, against mounting odds.  He arranges to pay a substantial sum to a banking firm if they will take him onto the board of trustees, but on the day of the crucial meeting, the police and a rival gang decide to swoop on his mansion.  The plot is true farce, and you just have to accept it as such and go along with all its comings and goings, mistaken identities and frequently-exchanged bags.  It’s quick, slick, beautifully presented and exquisitely choreographed, with spot-on costumes and hairstyles, and some charismatic performances, not least from Stallone himself.

He plays the father of a spoiled daughter (Marisa Tomei) who is dying to leave home and sees marriage - to anyone - as the only way out, and he plays it with charm and confidence, leaving you gasping with admiration as he struggles to keep control of events.  Both he and Schwarzenegger were at their peak at this time and revealed an unexpected flair for comedy and a deal of personal magnetism.

Of the rest of the cast, it’s hard to recommend one more than another.  I particularly like Martin Ferrero and Harry Shearer as the Finucci brothers, Provolone’s tailors, who move as one and are so proud of their work that all they see in a photograph of a murdered gangster is the quality of the suit they made for him. 

This is a film I can watch over and over.  You can buy it on Amazon for well under a fiver, and it’s a total bargain, but if you’re really cheapskate, you can get it on You Tube.  But who wouldn’t want their own copy, to watch from the comfort of their sofa on a chilly winter evening with a nice Italian? 


Felix said...

Sounds good – you've persuaded me to give it a try! :-)

(I'm also a fan of Marisa Tomei's performance in My cousin Vinny, so that's another incentive.)

Ray Girvan said...

I strongly second Clare's recommendation. It's wonderful - perhaps because it provides stereotypes, and then subverts them. The gangster has honour and integrity. The dim and possibly brutal sidekick turns out to be intensely logical, as well as having a heart. The effete joke character and manipulative daughter have completely unexpected 'deeps'. This is one of my favourite films too.