Wednesday, 8 September 2021

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bombastic Ego

This blog post is the fourth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

On September 19, 1964, Harlan Ellison invited a group of fans over to watch an episode of television
Although Harlan Ellison was denied a Hugo nod
for his Outer Limits episode "Soldier," it remains
an influential classic. In retrospect, its omission
from the Hugo ballot seems questionable.
(Image via UltimateActionMovies.com

he had written: The Outer Limits season premiere “Soldier.” Although Ellison had written a handful of television episodes in the preceding two years, only one of those had been science fiction (an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that he’d regretted).

Ellison told his Los Angeles-based fandom peers that “Soldier” was a milestone in his quickly growing fame, and that it would advance the reputation of science fiction on television. It was an episode of which he was proud, and one that he would spend much of the year promoting to Hugo voters as being worthy of recognition.

“The tension from a high-pitched show (and a higher-pitched host) was terrific. And at the end I felt I had spent a valuable hour even though I’m not yet a TV-watcher,” Ron Ellik wrote in his fanzine Starspinke.

Although Ellison would later have a large collection of Hugos, in 1964-65 he had yet to receive even a single nomination, and was hungry for the recognition.

In the January 1965 progress report of that year’s Worldcon (which was to be held in London) the convention’s organizing committee announced that they would present Hugos in the categories that had been recognized at the previous year’s convention. And as it so happened, Best Dramatic Presentation had been omitted in 1964, due to a lack of interest.

So there was to be no Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award that year, and “Soldier” would be denied the nomination that Ellison believed he was due.

The young Harlan Ellison 
already had a reputation for
bombast and temper. 
(Image via ElpasoPost.com)
Well-known for his level head and cool demeanor, Ellison responded to the omission of this category with good grace. He contacted a number of fans across the Western United States, suggesting that the Worldcon be stripped of their right to hold the Hugo Awards, with the possibility that the awards would instead be handed out at a North American convention. He went so far as to call Worldcon chair Ella Parker at 5 a.m. one morning in late January, and told her that Ben Jason would not be sending the Hugo trophies to the UK convention (though this was easy to disprove, as Jason had quit being the manufacturer of the trophies two years previously).

“When [Harlan] did finally phone-me, I lost no time informing him of his colossal blunder and, in no uncertain terms, advised him to write a letter of apology,” Jason wrote.

Though he backed down from that attempt, Ellison was adamant that there should be a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1965, and encouraged other fans to write in nominations for the category … with the apparent belief that if the category was being considered that year, his Outer Limits episode would be a shoe-in.

But the 1965 Hugo Awards operated under a unique set of rules that have not been used since; as per the convention committee, the shortlist was created via “nomination by a panel of experts, selecting from suggestions offered by the membership at large.” In practice, this meant that no matter how many voters included “Soldier” on their nominating ballot, the Hugo Committee could omit it if they so chose.

In the final tally, this nominating committee chose to include only two names on the shortlist for the
At least one fan believed that
Disney classic Mary Poppins
deserved to be on the Hugo
ballot. We're inclined to agree.
(Image via EW.com)

Best Dramatic Presentation category in 1965; the only instance in any Hugo category of a shortlist that brief. As recorded in fanzines, it is clear that there were at least some nominating ballots submitted for “Soldier,” for Mary Poppins, and for The Last Man On Earth. But the Hugo Committee determined either that there weren’t sufficient nominations for these, or that the works listed weren’t appropriate for the Hugos.

It is a puzzling decision, particularly in light of one of the works they did include: The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. Glacially directed by George Pal, and starring lilly-white Tony Randall as the racially stereotyped title character, it was agreed by most of our cinema club to be among the worst works ever shortlisted for a Hugo Award in any category. To compound the movie’s abhorrent racism, the dialogue spoon feeds the audience a series of simplistic moralist messages delivered with acting that is exceptionally exaggerated and broad. This is a movie that drips with condescension for its audience. The question of why The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao ended up on the Hugo shortlist remains baffling to us and leaves us wondering what Ellison’s emotional reaction might have been.

Best Dramatic Presentation was the last award handed out on the evening of August 29, 1965. “And we have a remaining category, for Best Drama. It goes to Dr. Strangelove,” presenter Robert Silverberg said. “We do not have Dr. Strangelove himself here to accept the award, but we do have Peter George who wrote the novel on which the movie was based.” 

The extent of George’s acceptance speech (as far as we are aware, the shortest Hugo acceptance speech on record) was: “Thank you very much. This is lovely.”
Dr. Strangelove author Peter George
accepts a Hugo Award in 1965.
Sadly, the author died of a self-inflicted
gunshot wound within the year. 
(Image via Fanac.org)

Dr. Strangelove is only marginally science fictional; the only element of the movie that is clearly speculative is the doomsday weapon, although there had long been a tradition of nuclear war fiction without any speculative technologies being considered for the Hugo — The Long Loud Silence by Wilson Tucker had been the runner-up for the very first Hugo Award in 1953. Still, for at least one of our bloggers this deficit of clearly science fictional elements in Dr. Strangelove was enough to bring into question whether it should have been recognized at all.

The shortlist from 1965 was probably too short, as there were numerous works that year whose omissions are puzzling. Matheson’s classic I Am Legend had been adapted as The Last Man On Earth, an effective and moody Hammer Horror movie starring Vincent Price. Later remade as The Omega Man, the original version hews more closely to the novel than later adaptations, and features a superb performance from Franca Bettoia who imbues her vampire character with enormous humanity. The intense loneliness conveyed in the movie is a more moving form of horror than any of the jump scares of Will Smith’s later I Am Legend.

We might also suggest that the Hugo shortlist might have done well to find room to honour The Earth Dies Screaming; a quirky low-budget British movie about an alien invasion. Despite its low budget, the film’s robots and zombies are often an effective storytelling device as the tension ratchets up. It’s difficult not to note the more economical pace of this low-budget movie, and how tightly edited it is, in comparison to the high-budget but soporific Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.

Overall, it is hard to question the decision of Hugo voters that year; Dr. Strangelove despite its paucity of obvious science fictional elements was the right work to recognize. The decisions of the nominating committee are less transparent (how did this committee work? What did they leave off and why?). Though some of us might have preferred to see Ellison’s “Soldier” receive the honour, as it was a far more science fictional story, his bad behaviour may have prevented him from snagging his first Hugo in 1965.

6 comments:

  1. Cool head and Ellison in the same sentence did make me laugh.

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  2. We really liked Dr. Lao. I felt like the racial stereotypes were a statement against them, not an endorsement. I could have done without the romantic subplot, though. The fellow was really greasy.

    You can take Tony Randall away from The Young Traveler's cold, dead fingers...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

      Like I'm still fuming about that movie.

      Delete
  3. The episode of Voyage was aired under the byline "Cordwainer Bird." It was *really* bad. Interestingly, we even saw the episode where Cordwainer Bird was born -- he was a character from an Ellison-penned episode of "Burke's Law", played by Sammy Davis Jr.

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  4. Ellison used the names C. Bird and Cortwainer Bird on stories in Fantastic Universe and Super Science Stories in 1957.

    ReplyDelete