Monday, 7 December 2015

Frank Sinatra: Voice of the Century (Part 3)

by Emma Bell

No second acts in American lives, my foot.

Sinatra in From Here to Eternity
In 1951, Sinatra read the publishing success of the year – a novel about the bombing of an American Airbase at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, and in particular, the lives of three soldiers on that base before and after the attack.  From Here to Eternity was that novel and when he read it, Sinatra knew he had to play the supporting character of Private Angelo Maggio: “I knew that if the picture was ever made I was the only actor to play Private Maggio, the funny and sour Italo-American. I knew Maggio. I went to school with him. I was ­beaten up with him. I might have been Maggio.”

He called Harry ‘King’ Cohn (Head of Columbia Pictures) endlessly. He lobbied and pressed for the role, and Harry Cohn, (who had a signed picture of Mussolini on his desk at the studio and was known throughout Hollywood as an outright bastard) smiled and smirked and made Sinatra wait.  "Cohn looked at me," Sinatra said, "funny like, and said 'Look Frank, that's an actor's part, a stage actor's part. You're nothing but a hoofer.'"

According to Sinatra, Cohn changed his mind about giving Sinatra the part, after Frank agreed to take the role for $1,000 a week, a substantial drop from his usual price of $150,000 a film, even though nobody in Hollywood was willing to pay him a fraction of that price. The other version of what happened was depicted in the film The Godfather when a decapitated $600,000 horse head ends up in the bed of a Hollywood producer named Jack Woltz, who refuses to hire Italian singer Johnny Fontaine, a Mafia don's godson, for a film that will put him back on top again:

The most probable story is that Ava Gardner who by now was the top movie actress of the day, used her clout to persuade Cohn to allow Frank to screen test for the role – and once Fred Zimmerman saw the test, he knew he had his Maggio:

Newspapers praised Sinatra’s unique qualities that he brought to the role: Sinatra is "simply superb, comical, pitiful, childishly brave, pathetically defiant" said the Los Angeles Examiner, commenting that his death scene is "one of the best ever photographed.”

Sinatra won the 1953 Best Supporting Actor Academy Award:

This was the greatest resurrection since Lazarus: Sinatra was back and he was jubilant. It was the beginning of a beautiful decade for Sinatra. The only blot on the landscape was his divorce from Gardner in 1953, after barely two years of marriage. Legend has it that Ava preferred him when he was down on his luck.

His films became very interesting: he was extremely good as a would-be presidential assassin in Suddenly (1954). He outshone Marlon Brando’s Sky Masterson in Guys And Dolls (1955. And, as if to prove his versatility, he portrayed a heroin addict in The Man With The Golden Arm the same year and picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He also made a number of great musicals such as Young at Heart, where he introduced the ‘saloon song’: 

Pal Joey:

and High Society, where he sang with his idol, Crosby:

This glittering film career reached a climax in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, a terrific paranoid Cold War thriller. As  Major Bennett Marco, Sinatra drew on all his troubled psychological complexity to deliver his finest performance since From Here To Eternity.

His best film roles are those in which he played the battered, troubled outsider. As film historian David Thomson put it: “Sinatra had a pervasive influence on American acting: he glam­ourised the fatalistic out-sider; he made his own anger intriguing and in the late Fifties especially he was one of our darkest male icons.” 

This darker, more melancholic character was very evident in Sinatra’s musical recordings of the period. He invented the first ‘concept album’ with the recording of In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning where the songs were thematically linked – songs of love and loss, of hard won experience and grief, of romantic hope dashed.

Sinatra was deathly serious about his craft, and on these records it shows in abundance; with Sinatra there’s less obvious technique on show and more personality. Except, what is most characteristic about that personality is how unshowy it is: how it often feels deeply submerged, and hard to touch. He can sound on the edge of something trance-like, ‘lost in a dream’. Just as he could mine exquisite sadness from superficially happy songs, he managed to suggest the ambiguities of love, compromise and incremental moments of sadness in these recordings.

Using the newly successful format of the two-sided forty-minute album, Sinatra explored life in themes: travel (Come Fly with Me, 1958), time and mortality (September of My Years, 1965, Moonlight Sinatra, 1966), and most of all, romance and its discontents. In lonely-guy collations like In the Wee Small Hours (1955), Sings Songs for Only the Lonely (1958) and (my personal favourite) No One Cares (1959), he made deep unhappiness seem like the height of enviable urbane glamour. Men wanted to be the rain-coated sad fool, sighing into a shot glass; women wanted to make it better for this rain-coated sad fool.

There are so many stand-out tracks from this period, but perhaps the song he recorded when he split from Ava says it best:

He grew into his voice: Songs for Swinging Lovers is perhaps the happiest of records, with each tone and orchestration pitch perfect in a joyful, insouciant communion of song: a record that sounds as fresh as a daisy even today:

But when he moved into the 1960s, these growing moments of disquiet punctuated his recordings still. Watch the live, one take recording of It Was a Very Good Year’ and marvel at the phrasing and understanding shown for the lyric – a lyric of a man reflecting on his life:

And that was Sinatra’s 50s and 60s all over: brash and showy in Vegas, ring-a-ding-ding-ing with all the broads and the booze and the adulation, alternately compared with the introspective and emotional recordings which showed a man uneasy in his own skin, frightened of the moment when the glitz and noise of the night might end – a fear of the shadows when time beats everything in its path.

By the end of the 60s Sinatra faced another low in his career; the films were drying up, the new youth music had nothing to do with him – Vegas still loved him – but he knew he was becoming an anachronism.

He recorded two really interesting albums at the end of that decade and the beginning of the next:  A Man Alone and Watertown, taking the concept album to its last point: songs about middle aged men in the city and suburbia respectively, who have lost everything in their lives and are staring into a stark and empty future. These albums manage to capture a quite extraordinary blend of wistfulness, sadness, melancholy and loneliness.  

They captured best perhaps, the loss of hope: and in a wider sense the loss of America: the deaths of President Kennedy, his brother Bobby Kennedy Dr King, of Malcolm X: a gilded America had become tarnished and his songs could no longer sound as breezy and carefree as once they did. He was a man had been drawn to expressing something light-filled and American and orderly in his youth, and now he allowed us to see something in him that was acutely aware of the dark chaos within, just below his well-groomed skin.

These albums were critically dismissed at the times, but have since found a new audience who appreciated the process behind Sinatra making these albums. A desire to tell a story – that’s all Sinatra ever wanted to do, in song, whether it was Kern, Gershwin, Webb or McKuen.

On June 13, 1971 – at a concert in Hollywood to raise money for the Motion Picture and TV Relief Fund – at the age of 55, Frank Sinatra announced that he was retiring, bringing to an end his 36-year career in show business.

But of course, there would be a third act in Sinatra’s life that solidified his legend forever. 

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