Chairman of the bored

There is no romanticism left in the stories of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Too many biographies--good and bad, well-told and shoddily reported--have stripped away the excesses of glitz and glamour and revealed the tortured, often sad men who lived underneath the tuxedos and swam below the rye whiskey. It is impossible now to think of those men as larger-than-life heroes who ruled Las Vegas--if not America, if not the world--with songs in their hearts and drinks in their hands. Everything was not so ring-a-ding-ding out in the deserts of Vegas and Palm Springs. Frank and the boys were merely fragile icons at best, men one step away from falling off the lip of the stage and shattering into a thousand pieces. Hell, Frank was the most frail of the lot.

Those who want to wallow in an aura that has long since faded from fiery neon to dull gray should watch Ocean's 11 or Four For Texas and listen to Dean sing "Everybody Loves Somebody" or own the albums Sinatra cut for his Reprise label in the 1960s. In the end, Sinatra's Rat Pack (born out of Humphrey Bogart's Holmby Hills Rat Pack) lasted not long at all--from the late 1950s until Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963--or the very day that Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and the rest of their pallies were clowning around on the set of Robin and the Seven Hoods. The death of Kennedy--the man Sinatra most wanted to bed, if only in the figurative sense--put the kibosh on the live-fast era. Frank was partying hard while his friend, his idol, his partner in lechery was taking it in the throat in Dealey Plaza, and he would become a somber man after that.

That's the Sinatra that screenwriter Kario Salem tries to capture in his film The Rat Pack, which debuts on HBO this Saturday--the wounded beast who could never understand why, with all his fame and fortune, he was unable to buy just a little respectability. Salem portrays Sinatra (played, without an ounce of style, by Ray Liotta) as a pathetic superstar prone to hissy fits of rage when wronged by reporters or Ava Gardner or Bobby Kennedy, who wouldn't let his brother stay at Frank's place in Palm Springs because of Sinatra's ties to Sam Giancana and other mobsters. The Frank we're presented with is a man with no substance at all--just a lot of hurt beneath those fancy suits and that famous arrogance. You half expect Liotta to cry every few minutes, so casually does he wear that wounded look on his blank face. Liotta, in fact, plays Sinatra as though he were a shadow.

Now, all of this is, more or less, true. It may not fit as neatly on the time line as Salem and director Rob Cohen (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) would have you believe--the incident when Sinatra attacked a journalist took place in 1959, not in the '60s, and that's just one insignificant shifting of events--but the basic facts of The Rat Pack are indisputable. That is: Frank Sinatra was buddies with Dean Martin (Joe Mantegna, the only cast member actually doing an impression) and Sammy Davis Jr. (Don Cheadle, whose hairpiece and eye patch do the work for him) and Peter Lawford (the simpy Angus Macfadyen) and Joey Bishop (the uncanny Bobby Slayton). Sinatra wanted to get Kennedy (impersonated here by To Live and Die in L.A.'s William Petersen) elected and ride his coattails into Washington. Sinatra was buddies with Giancana (Robert Miranda). And Sinatra liked to get laid two chickies at a time.

Fine--the facts of this story will get you far. Few men in the history of show business lived such rich, fascinating, depressing lives, and there is no need to jigger with history when it is far more titillating than fiction. But Cohen manages to recount this tawdry tale without any style at all--it's like making a film about Picasso in black and white. Salem, who wrote the outrageously fun Don King: Only in America for HBO, can't seem to get his arms around the Rat Pack's story, so he turns the film into a thesis paper on Sinatra and his buddies, a phlegmatic run-though of the greatest hits and misses. The retelling is as dry as the desert in which it's set, bereft of any feeling for these men and their pleasures and pain--indeed, a large part of their history, together and separately, is told in the old newspaper headlines that stream over the action like subtitles. This feels like a TV movie.

The Rat Pack begins clumsily (with an old-man Frank standing in the wings, moaning, "I miss my guys" before cutting to 1960) and ends even more awkwardly (Sinatra is stood up by Kennedy, goes into a rage, then sings a sad song until the fade out). For the first 10 minutes or so, as the movie introduces us to the main characters, it's something of a lark, more like Ocean's 11 than any biopic. It hints at something far more entertaining than its final 110 minutes offer. We see Martin slinking through the crowded casino at the Sands, Mantegna doing his best Dino as he utters in that sly, half-drunk lounge-lizard voice, "How did all these people get in my room?" We see Davis on stage wearing his eye patch, blowing a trumpet, tap-dancing, clowning around with Sinatra, thanking people "from the bottom" (of his heart, baby). And we see Lawford, scared to death of Sinatra, cowering in his presence.

But Salem, who turned Don King into a larger-than-life dinosaur (thanks, in large part, to Ving Rhames' brilliant impersonation), reduces Sinatra and his cronies to bland caricatures. It's as though he feels that in order to humanize these men, he must turn them into cardboard. Never does he mention that, in fact, Sinatra and Davis had an often strained relationship. Davis had once said in a radio interview that Sinatra could be rude, and Sinatra responded by calling him a "dirty nigger bastard." Never does Salem show how little Dean Martin really cared about being part of Sinatra's little "Clan," as the Rat Pack was originally known till Sinatra became uncomfortable with the name. Sinatra was progressive, yes, but never quite so color-blind as it was said.

Much of the fault, perhaps, lies with Liotta's representation of Sinatra. He's too timid to go all the way with it; his voice is empty where Frank's was deep, his mannerisms small where Frank's were grand, his emotions trickling on the surface where Frank's boiled deep. On paper, Liotta playing Sinatra sounds good--he's an actor defined by the glint in his eyes as much as Sinatra himself, and he always seems so dangerous even when playing benign, soft-spoken characters. But he's dwarfed by the ghost that hovers over him, and all you can see is an actor trying not to get in the way of the legend. Anthony Hopkins may not have looked like Richard Nixon either, but at least he had fun chewing on the corpse.

Even worse, Mantegna reduces the far more complicated Martin to a parody, all accent and no charm. The Rat Pack was "Frank and Dean's consulship of cool," as Nick Tosches wrote in Dino, but Salem makes Martin a tangential figure at best, which isn't at all accurate. If anything, Martin was Sinatra's conscience, the right to his often very wrong; to him, the Rat Pack was all a big joke anyway, something he didn't need or want. "The Clan, the Rat Pack, the New Frontier," Tosches wrote in Dino, "it was all a bunch of meaningless shit [to Martin], a bunch of newspaper reporters and magazine writers and television commentators jerking off in a circle around a can of fucking Sterno."

Cheadle tries valiantly to give Davis a little life, to make him real. He's the most embattled of the bunch, forced to endure the racism of audiences and the constant watermelon jokes thrown at him by Martin and Sinatra and even that schmuck Joey Bishop. Davis tries to explain his role to his soon-to-be wife Mai Britt (Megan Dodds)--"I'm rounding the bases so that the people who come after me have an easier time, like Jackie Robinson did in baseball"--but the way Cheadle delivers the words, his eyes low and his voice defiant, it's clear he barely believes it himself. (And never does the film hint at the lost truth that Davis, the brunt of so many of Sinatra's jokes, was a far more soulful singer than his "leader." Perhaps Frank was just jealous.)

Tina Sinatra, Frank's daughter, hates this film so much, she sent Liotta a replica of a horse's head. She did not want the actor betraying her father, his history, his legacy. And Frank might have been mad about being shown nailing two women at one time in a hotel room; the man was nutso about his privacy. But Sinatra would have hated The Rat Pack because it makes him look desperate, pathetic, even drab. It's a film about style that has none, a film about tough guys that has no punch, a cocktail without the booze. Frank would have hated that most of all.

The Rat Pack.
Directed by Rob Cohen. Written by Kario Salem. Starring Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, and William Peterson. Airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on

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