We're celebrating Frank Sinatra's centenary year with a century of song, but between now and December we'll also find time to explore some of his other professional endeavors. So for this week's Saturday movie date here's a look at Sinatra's film career. He was a memorable actor - and, as Sammy Cahn liked to say, that isn't even what he does:
When he died in 1998, the Italians came out for Frank. Robert De Niro said not a day passed when he didn't listen to Sinatra, Martin Scorsese that Sinatra made it possible for all the rest of them - the guys with vowels. In the early years of the last century, when a scrappy cobbler's apprentice called Martin Sinatra was minded to try his hand at prize-fighting, he changed his name to "Marty O'Brien", a reinvention that tells you everything about which ethnic identities were commercially viable back then. As late as the late Forties, Dino Crocetti and Anthony Benedetto felt obliged to follow Marty's example and anglicize themselves to Dean Martin and Tony Bennett. Even the one arena of American life where being Italian was an asset - the mob - was reserved on screen for fellows with handles like Cagney and Bogart. The real fighter in the Sinatra family turned out to be Marty O'Brien's only child, and his first act of defiance was his determination to keep his name. It's because of Sinatra that Hollywood had stars called Pacino, Stallone and Travolta.
Beyond the vowel crowd, his prototypical non-pliant celebrity had a more pervasive influence on American screen acting than almost anyone else. He was the guy who disdained to fit in, no matter how much they wanted him to. After Sinatra sang at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, went up to him and put an embracing arm on his shoulder. Frank snarled - to the second most powerful man in the nation - "Hands off the threads, creep." On screen, such moments of cocksure virtuosity were balanced by episodes of painfully exposed vulnerability. Without the vulnerability, you end up with De Niro in New York, New York, a young Sinatra-like 1940s band musician high on his own genius, riddled with self-loathing: the result is a performance almost too obnoxious to watch.
The young Sinatra himself never got a chance to show that side of himself. In the Forties, he played characters called Glen Russell (Step Lively), Danny Miller (It Happened in Brooklyn) and Clarence Doolittle (Anchors Aweigh), but no matter the name Sinatra, a sunken-cheeked hipless cadaver, was always the same boyish, girl-shy naif seeking advice from worldlier types like Gene Kelly. The advice was mostly unnecessary since Frankie spent most of these pictures trying to out-run ravenous dames like gal taxi-driver Betty Garrett. Even in those early days, it was a false and limiting persona. In film musicals, Sinatra could have done for song what Astaire did for dance. Instead, he left no personal stamp on the genre.
On the other hand, maybe MGM & Co did him a favour. Many of his greatest recordings are of songs he only did because he'd been deprived of the chance to do them on screen: Rodgers & Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind", slung out of Higher and Higher; Leonard Bernstein's gorgeous "Lonely Town", which Arthur Freed promised him he could sing in On the Town before changing his mind and getting Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write a standard-issue charm song - "You're awful - awful nice to be with . . . You're boring - boring into my heart", and so on - which the authors told me made them cringe whenever they saw the movie; and, above all of them, Frank Loesser's "Luck Be A Lady". Sinatra resented the way Brando got all the best songs in the film of Guys and Dolls and so turned "Luck" into a dice-rolling crowd-pleaser that stayed in his act till the end.
It's weird to see Brando and Sinatra together. Sinatra was a two-take actor: it wasn't going to get any better. Brando liked to take all day. As Frank told Guys and Dolls' director Joe Mankiewicz, "Don't put me in the game, Coach, until Mumbles is through rehearsing." Forty years on, Brando's reading of Sky Masterson is a big bland nothing, whereas Sinatra's Nathan Detroit is about what you'd expect - and in its own shrugged-off way much closer to the spirit of Damon Runyon. Later, Sinatra turned down The Godfather, so the role went to Mumbles: I'm inclined to think it might have worked out twitchier, more dangerous with Frank. In 1955, Brando desperately wanted The Man with the Golden Arm, but Otto Preminger went with Sinatra: as Frankie Machine, a drummer hooked on heroine, he's one bitter, raw jolt of authenticity, the sort of performance Brando's too considered to give.
But by now Frank was frustrated by film. Sinatra was a true collaborator: he enjoyed pitching in on arrangements and orchestration, and liked the give and take of a recording session. But, in film, collaboration means leaving your reputation in the hands of directors, editors, producers, marketing men and studio heads whose ratchet of small betrayals begins long after the film's wrapped and you're a thousand miles away. It's no coincidence that Sinatra's most satisfying screen work comes in films that he initiated and presided over: Suddenly (1954), a taut little thriller in which he gives the most intense performance of his career as a presidential assassin; and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a Cold War classic with Frank as a nightmare-haunted veteran. On both occasions, Sinatra invests his roles with the care he gives to a performance of "Angel Eyes" or "I've Got You Under My Skin".
My favorite Sinatra movie line? Tony Rome, from 1967. Sinatra, a soured Chandleresque gumshoe, eyes the punks as they pour chloroform on a dish-rag obviously intended for him. He says:
Heel, hipster, loner, loser: the complexities Frank Sinatra projected on album were too much for most films, which must, in the end, say something about the relative merits of each form. Not long before he died, a friend alerted me to the casting on a proposed Rat Pack biopic: Sinatra? John Travolta. Dino? Tom Hanks. Sammy Davis? Denzel Washington. Peter Lawford? Hugh Grant...
~Mark's original 1998 obituary of Sinatra, "The Voice", appears in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
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