The Voice, The Spark, The Image
Frank Sinatra never gave a better performance as an actor than he did in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) as Frankie Machine, a hot-shot poker dealer and junkie who emerges from prison hoping to kick all his bad habits (heroin included) and earn a living as a drummer. Everything Sinatra does in this movie is electrically nuanced, as if he had hot-wired his vocal chords and facial muscles to the circuitry of Frankie Machine's brain. And Sinatra isn't just putting on a one-man show--he adjusts persuasively when Machine moves between two women, acting wary and solicitous with the antihero's agitated, wheelchair-bound wife (Eleanor Parker), naked and yearning with his sympathetic downstairs neighbor (Kim Novak). The movie rests on Sinatra's ability to pull off the terrifying cold-turkey sequence, where he alternates adrenalized frenzy with physical collapse. Sinatra taps the same raw power that fueled (but rarely entered so directly into) his musical genius.
All of his memorable acting jobs had that instinctive verve and spontaneity. On records he was The Voice; in movies he was often The Spark. Watch him again as the goodhearted, high-spirited Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953) and there's no mystery why it spurred his first comeback. As he goes from saloon buddyhood to chair-breaking brawling in half-a-second, he's like an emotional quick-change artist, except his hallmark is honesty, not trickery--you believe in his every altered mood. His next movie was named Suddenly (1954); his enactment of a presidential assassin who starts out happily sadistic and then blows his cool is the most sudden thing about it. No screen idol sweated more eloquently than Sinatra did in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In the subsequent downward slide of his movie career, when his insistence on speedy, convenient shoots took irrevocable tolls on his productions, he was still a master of low-key charisma. His last box-office smash, Von Ryan's Express (1965), was accurately reviewed as a canny Sinatra-ized knock-off of The Great Escape. See it today, and what's appealing is how magnetic Sinatra can be as an action hero without special effects or a Body by Jake. It's understandable that the singer who revolutionized phrasing would be a virtuoso of line-readings, but Sinatra is also able to inflect his eyes; his dynamism generates more energy than muscle-flexing and cuts deeper than lasers.
Sinatra has been such a pervasive influence in pop culture that his long-past work keeps producing pleasurable surprises. Thirty-one years ago, in her first New Yorker essay, Pauline Kael wrote about "the small discoveries or rediscoveries we make" watching movies on television; she compared them to "putting on a record of Ray Charles singing 'Georgia on My Mind' or Frank Sinatra singing 'Bim Bam Baby' or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing operetta, and feeling again the elation we felt the first time." Ever since I read that sentence I've scoured the bins for the obscure "Bim Bam Baby." When Columbia put out the boxed set called The Voice in '86, it wasn't there; it didn't show up in 1990 in either The Capitol Years or The Reprise Collection. Then, in '93, came The Columbia Years, 1943-1952: The Complete Recordings. And on the next-to-last track of the last disc in the whole twelve-disc collection, Sinatra growls out, with a heart-boosting zip:
HEY NOW --
Take a mip-map-mop and a brim-bram-broom
And clim-clam-clean up your rim-ram-room
Because your bim-bam-baby's coming home tonight...
In the guidebook to The Columbia Years, music critic Will Friedwald dismisses Sinatra's "aggressively nasty sound" on the number, when to this listener it's unadulterated exuberance. That encapsulates what's wrong with the swelling pool of literature on Sinatra, including the pamphlets and treatises accompanying each reissued set of records. Sinatra may have had genius, but it was the kind that communicated--still communicates--with a smack-like immediacy, without the need of interpreters who get in the way.
The level of connoisseurship that's sprung up around Sinatra has gotten ridiculous. Much of the Sinatra writing loses the elating unchanged present-ness of the man's acting and singing. It tends to get swamped in scholarship or nostalgia. After citing "Bim Bam Baby," Kael went on to ask, "Why should we deny these pleasures because there are other, more complex kinds of pleasure possible? It's true that these pleasures don't deepen, and that they don't change us, but maybe that is part of what makes them seem our own--we realize that we have some emotions and responses that don't change as we get older."
The most useful Sinatra book I've read--one that, despite many flaws, matches his eclecticism with an apt mixed-bag quality of its own--is The Frank Sinatra Reader (Oxford University Press, 280 pages). Edited by a pair of Penn State academics, Leonard Mustazza and Steven Petkov, it avoids drowning in minutiae and sentimentality simply by paddling fast. With entries dated from 1944 to 1995, it draws on journalism as well as books on Sinatra and popular song--and the newspaper and magazine accounts give much of the collection a tension and a you-are-there provocativeness usually missing from commemorative tomes.
In '86, Wilfrid Sheed counted five acts in Sinatra's real-life epic. Now, at the epic's close, seven acts seem more like it. Act I: The Hoboken boy determines to break through like Bing Crosby, apprentices with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey (who teaches him breath control and complicated phrasing), then makes the gutsy split from Dorsey and becomes his own performer. Act II: He arouses Frankie-mania with cunning eye contact, an unprecedented intimate sound, and some shrewd publicity. Act III: In Hollywood, his philandering upsets his supposedly picture-book marriage with Nancy, while his movie tally sheet registers more downs than ups. Act IV: He becomes torturously obsessed with soon-to-be-second wife Ava Gardner; his throat hemorrhages at the Copacabana, and when's he's beset by trashy material and weary vocal chords, Columbia Records dumps him. Act V: From Here To Eternity triumphs. At Capitol Records, he develops a throatier song mode that wows audiences and critics. He inherits Bogey's Rat Pack with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.; becomes the uncrowned czar of Las Vegas, complete with enigmatic Mob friendships; and helps elect JFK, only to be ultimately snubbed by Camelot. Act VI: He upscales into tycoonhood, marries then divorces Mia Farrow, lets his movie career slide into oblivion; but also jazzes up his elder statesman image with "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life," and "My Way." Act VII: He retires in 1971 but quickly resurfaces. He bops in and out of the public eye, punctuating road trips with recycled and new recording events (the Trilogy album in 1980, Duets and Duets II in '93 and '94), gathering accolades and, increasingly, entreaties to keep his aging voice in the recording studio and out of live, unprotected venues.
In 1963, Sinatra told a Playboy interviewer, "I don't know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an 18-carat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradiction, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation." That's one of the most revealing statements ever to issue from a pop supernova. In The Frank Sinatra Reader, the accounts of Sinatra as a romantic balladeer are fresher and more informative than the ones of his hard-swinging style and tough persona. (Audiences used to the huskier and more powerful and individual Sinatra voice of the 1950s and on would not recognize the reed-like instrument that made bobbysoxers swoon.) E.J. Kahn Jr.'s New Yorker study of Sinatra, "The Fave, the Fans, and the Fiends," begins with this dry assessment: "Frank Sinatra is a professional singer with an extremely pleasant voice." There's something neat about an unsigned Time item from 1954, despite the dubious judgment that "his style remains pretty much the same." Sinatra talks candidly about the bad taste of Columbia Records' artist and repertory chief Mitch Miller, whom he blames for the near-demise of his singing career between 1949 and '52: "Instead of a real interest in the lyrics or the melody, all Miller cared about was gimmicks." Later, you can picture him snapping his fingers when he says, "Everything's ahead of me, man. I'm on top of the world. I'm buoyant."
The Reader includes the most famous piece ever written about him, Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" (1966), which epitomizes a sub-genre that could be called "Sinatra mood prose." It frames a consideration of the singer in his Chairman of the Board phase (roughly from the late '50s to mid-'60s) with a look at an eight-day period when the taping of the TV special, Sinatra--A Man and His Music had to be postponed because of...a cold. Though overwritten and erratically reported, the piece contains a terrific vignette of Sinatra hassling writer Harlan Ellison at a private club and mercilessly telling him that the 1966 film he scripted (and Sinatra appeared in), The Oscar, is "a piece of crap." Joe Morgenstern's 1965 Newsweek story presents the clearest picture of how much authority Sinatra wielded at the top of his game--it reports on the rumor that Jack Warner was grooming him to inherit the Warner Bros. studio.
If you want some visual aids while listening to the albums or poring through The Frank Sinatra Reader, you might pick up Lew Irwin's Sinatra: The Pictorial Biography (Courage Books, 120 pages) and disregard the error-laden text. You can't trust the photos in Irwin's book, either, but they have wonderful stories to tell--whether fact or fiction. Most often, Sinatra is fiddling with a piano, jabbing at a music stand, or seducing a mike. But we also see him hugging daughter Nancy with first wife Nancy at his side, and then cutting wedding cake with his enduring love Ava Gardner. Hopscotch over the decades, and there he is at Kennedy's inaugural, then yocking it up with the Reagans. In the coming weeks, movie channels will replay the Hollywood pictures; TV specials will portray Sinatra as a figure who helped set the American beat for half a century. But it all goes back to the music. "The Song Is You," he sang in a number he loved so much he recorded it four times. At the end of the December of his years, his songs are us.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.