How Stephen Boyd Did and Didn’t Win an “Oscar”

Amusingly, the guy on the right is the star of this movie

Actor Stephen Boyd (William Millar, 1931-1977) was born on July 4.

I don’t know if that significant calendar date was something he celebrated, but in any case, though he sounded it, Boyd wasn’t American. He was born in Northern Ireland to Canadian parents — not a bad combo for getting you close to the dialect. It is my frequent observation that actors performing in accents other than their native ones often turn in lackluster performances because they have to work too hard on character to break out the other side and just live in their skins. I’ll be generous and speculate that this might be the factor which caused Boyd to be one of the dullest and most forgettable Hollywood stars that I can think of. He was considered “ruggedly handsome” by some back in the day; I’ve always found him creepy and palpably oily (or sweaty, or whatever the hell causes him to look so shiny on screen, like he just crawled out of a vat of Vaseline).

Nonetheless Hollywood cast him in numerous big roles. He was the villain Messala in William Wyler’s 1959 version of Ben-Hur. I don’t know why, but producers always seemed to cast the most boring actors in turgid, lengthy Biblical and Roman epics, when they drastically required quite the opposite. Boyd was liked for this genre, so you could also see him in Imperial Venus (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and John Huston’s The Bible (1966). Other major pictures he appeared in included The Bravados (1958) with Gregory Peck, Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962), and Fantastic Voyage (1966).

Boyd was often cast as a second male lead or other supporting part in his Hollywood pictures, but on one notable (notorious) occasion he played the lead. And you know what it is on account of the title of this post! The Oscar (1966) ranks with the great unintentionally campy Hollywood melodramas, alongside such priceless rubies as Inside Daisey Clover (1965), the twin Harlow bio-pics (both 1965), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968). Wooden though he was, Boyd did possess a sort of dark, brooding quality, and that’s what this movie attempts to tap into. He plays a grasping ambitious actor who claws his way to the eponymous award by destroying friend and foe alike. There are echoes of better things such as Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and the original Nightmare Alley (1947). As in the latter, he largely hops ahead on the backs of women. He starts as the spieler for stripper Jill St. John, dumps her for fashion designer Elke Sommer, and then wraps talent scout Eleanor Parker ’round his big little finger. Ernest Borgnine (soon to be in the similar Lylah Clare) plays a private eye hires to blackmail his Oscar competition; when Borgnine threatens to turn the tables, Boyd also makes nice-nice with his vulnerable wife, played by Edie Adams. Joseph Cotten plays the inevitable exasperated studio chief.

Best of all, though, the stunt casting, the stunt casting! My old boss Tony Bennett plays Boyd’s long-suffering flunky and our Virgil for this journey, Hymie — HYMIE! The performance is sadly squirm-inducing, but Tony is smart enough to know where his talent lies. He never acted again. Also of interest is none other than Milton Berle as Boyd’s agent, one Kappy Kapstetter. People are apt to call this Berle’s first serious role, forgetting the not dissimilar Always Leave Them Laughing (1948), in which he played a character roughly as unsympathetic as Boyd does in this one. Hedda Hopper, Edith Head, Merle Oberon, and Frank Sinatra play themselves, the latter in a delicious moment where he accepts the Oscar that Boyd’s character (whose name is Frankie Fane) believes is meant for him. Lots of other star power in the cast as well: Ed Begley, Walter Brennan, Broderick Crawford, James Dunn, Peter Lawford, and Jack Soo (fresh off of Flower Drum Song).

At any rate, over and above the over-the-top melodrama (like Peyton Place, it also has an abortion subplot), like almost all films in this subgenre, the movie suffers above all by having a thoroughly unlikeable, unpleasant protagonist. You’d think it would be a no-brainer. Shakespeare wrote tons of evil, scheming characters, Richard III, Iago, Shylock, but he made them fun, enjoyable, and even let you walk in their shoes a little. This movie offers none of that, though a better actor (a Richard Burton, say) might have found ways to transcend the writing and give us a more three-dimensional ride. But Boyd is both rotten AND boring, forcing audiences to trudge through swampland between occasional islands of unintentional hilarity. How ironic that most of those are supplied by Bennett and not Berle, who is just as subdued as he could be here: no future for him as a deep, cinematic thespian proved forthcoming.

Whether or not it was the fault of The Oscar, Boyd’s career ebbed afterward. He kept working steadily, of course, but mostly in Italian films and now-forgotten minor Hollywood pics. Having appeared in many war and action movies over the years, he was reportedly to have been cast in that classic of machismo The Wild Geese (1978), but he was felled on the golf course by a fatal heart attack at age 45. And, as Red Buttons might put it, he “never got an Oscar”.