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FRANK SINATRA: The Unsung Star

In roles that didn't require his vocal talents, Sinatra proved himself a natural actor.



Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)


Marlon Brando. Montgomery Clift. James Dean. A new breed of American male star emerged in the 1950s. Employing ‘the method’, a fresh style of acting that saw performers immerse themselves in their parts, often remaining in character for the entirety of a film shoot, these stars changed screen acting forever and are rightly remembered. Another actor was working at the time, and delivering performances just as realistic as those of his peers, but despite winning an Oscar, he rarely gets the credit he deserves. That actor was Frank Sinatra.
Since his 1941 screen debut as the singer of Tommy Dorsey’s big band in Las Vegas Nights, Sinatra had been delighting movie-goers. It wasn’t his acting however that attracted audiences - it was his voice, that voice! It hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind in Hollywood that Sinatra might have more to offer than his vocal prowess.
By the early ‘50s, Sinatra had fallen out of favor, both with moviegoers (he had outgrown his boyish good looks) and music fans (the bobby-soxers had moved on to the emerging Rock ‘n’ Roll scene). Sinatra needed to revitalize his dual career, and he did so through reinvention. In the recording studio, Sinatra the singer embarked on what most fans consider the most creative phase of his career, the Capitol era, and in Hollywood, Sinatra the actor would finally begin to land roles that didn’t require him to exercise his vocal talents. Between 1953 and 1968, Sinatra would deliver the best performances of his career, and some of the best of the era.
The first of what most would consider Sinatra’s ‘serious’ roles required him to step back from leading man to supporting character actor, taking a considerable pay cut in the process. 
While accompanying his then wife Ava Gardner on location in Africa during the shooting of John Ford’s adventure romp Mogambo, Sinatra read James Jones’ novel From Here to Eternity, set to be filmed by director Fred Zinnemann, and fell in love with the idea of playing not the lead, but a supporting character, the doomed Private Maggio.
There are two accounts of the story of how Sinatra landed the part. If you’ve seen The Godfather you’ll be familiar with the more salacious version. A subplot in the 1972 film, and Mario Puzo’s original novel, sees the Mafia help a fictional Italian-American crooner named Johnny Fontane land a coveted part in an upcoming movie by intimidating a studio head named Jack Woltz, severing the head of his favorite race-horse and placing it in his bed as he sleeps. Some claim this is a cheeky reference to Sinatra’s casting in Zinnemann’s film, believing the head of Columbia Studios, Harry Cohn, was strong-armed into giving Sinatra the Maggio role by mobsters.
The less interesting, but far more probable, version has Cohn convinced to cast Sinatra after pleading on the star’s part by Ava Gardner and John Ford. Sinatra received only $8,000 for his work on From Here to Eternity; surely if the Mafia had intimidated Cohn they would have insisted on a far better deal?
It’s a shame that this story has garnered so much attention, as it overshadows just how great Sinatra is in the role, which landed him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and there are some who will tell you his Mafia connections were similarly involved in the Academy’s decision). A tragic alcoholic, Maggio is the sort of character many actors would have used as an opportunity to go over the top with, but Sinatra is commendably dialed back in the role. On the outside, Maggio is a happy go lucky guy, but in Sinatra’s eyes we see a reflection of the tragedy that ultimately awaits him. A scene in which Maggio gets wasted while AWOL is one of the best pieces of drunk acting you’ll ever see. Where many actors would simply have acted drunk, Sinatra is clearly taking one crucial step further, playing a drunk trying his best to act sober. Having made an enemy of Ernest Borgnine’s bullying Sergeant ‘Fatso’, Maggio finds himself stood in front of his nemesis when captured for his AWOL discretions. As Borgnine rises menacingly from his desk, billy club in hand, the camera moves into a close-up of Sinatra’s face as his brashness is replaced by barely concealed terror. By merely repositioning a couple of facial muscles, Sinatra conveys more about his state of mind than any monologue could.
Watching From Here to Eternity today, it’s striking how timeless Sinatra’s performance is in comparison to those of his co-stars. We have classic Hollywood acting in the form of Burt Lancaster and ‘method’ acting from Montgomery Clift, and both feel dated in a way Sinatra doesn’t. Sinatra didn’t subscribe to any school of acting; he simply did it his way, rarely requiring more than a couple of takes. Sinatra believed a good actor should only require one take, “otherwise it’s like singing a song twice for the same audience.”
Continuing to shake off his matinee idol image, Sinatra’s next role was his most controversial, the first of three movies dealing with political assassination he would star in. 1954’s Suddenly sees Sinatra play John Baron, a soldier turned killer for hire who arrives in the titular small town with a plan to assassinate the President as he passes through the town. Along with a pair of henchmen, Baron commandeers the home of the Benson family, which provides a perfect vantage point for shooting his target. A group of locals, including Sterling Hayden’s Sheriff, is taken hostage, and slowly Baron’s cool exterior is broken down to reveal him as a violent sociopath who received a Section 8 from the military for enjoying killing with a disturbing enthusiasm.
Sinatra brilliantly takes his character on a journey from cold and calculated to sweaty and psychotic. Provoked by the incessant needling of his hostages, Baron launches into a wild rant which sees Sinatra stare directly into the lens, his famous blue eyes rendered a shark-like silver by the monochrome cinematography. The effect is intense and uncomfortable, as though we’ve been singled out of the crowd by a particularly aggressive stand-up comedian.
With rumors that Lee Harvey Oswald had viewed the film, Suddenly was withdrawn from circulation in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy. A popular legend states that it was withdrawn at Sinatra’s request, but no evidence has ever surfaced to support this. As the copyright was never renewed, the film is now part of the public domain and can be viewed legally for free on streaming sites like YouTube.
Following a successful return to musicals with movies like Young at Heart and Guys and Dolls, Sinatra would deliver what many consider his finest work in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Once again, controversy cloaked the role. Sinatra’s character, Frankie Machine, was a heroin addict, something which didn’t sit well with the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), at a time when the restrictive Hollywood Production Code forbade screen portrayals of drug addiction. Director Otto Preminger argued the case to the MPAA that his film was a cautionary tale with an inarguable anti-drugs message, but his plea fell on deaf ears. United Artists were forced to withdraw from the MPAA, releasing the film without its seal of approval. It was a gamble that would test how much stock audiences put in the MPAA, but the film proved a commercial success and spelled the beginning of the end for the Production Code.
That the MPAA believed the movie might encourage drug use is baffling, thanks in no small part to Sinatra’s tortured performance, which is difficult to watch at times. As he had done for alcoholism in From Here to Eternity, Sinatra delivered the definitive portrayal of a drug addict, not through any showboating but rather by keeping his pain concealed, yet betrayed in his eyes. At the start of the movie, Frankie Machine arrives home to his working class Chicago neighborhood, newly sober after a stint in prison, during which he became a skilled drummer. Frankie plans to go straight, setting up an audition with a big band, but his former heroin dealer Louie (Darren McGavin) is determined to win back his custom. Increasingly goaded by Louie, Sinatra’s quiet desperation as he battles with temptation is palpable. When Frankie finally gives in and takes an injection from Louie, Preminger’s camera tracks into a close-up of his face as Sinatra chillingly conveys a mix of instant relief and terror at the path he’s set himself on, despite his verbal insistence that it’s his “last fix.” 
A year later, the MPAA would amend the Production Code to allow for responsible portrayals of drug addiction.
More iconic musicals like Pal Joey and High Society followed before Sinatra returned to dramatic acting in 1958 for arguably the finest movie of his career – Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. Again adapted from a James Jones novel, Some Came Running may have teamed Sinatra up with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine, but it couldn’t be more different in tone to the later lightweight ‘Rat Pack’ movies of the ‘60s. 
Sinatra is Dave Hirsh, a soldier who makes a reluctant return to his hometown in Indiana and finds himself in a doomed love triangle involving Martha Hyer’s prim schoolteacher, who admires his potential as a writer, and Shirley MacLaine’s tragic good-time girl, who doesn’t understand his writing but falls for Dave regardless. Though Hirsh is the lead role, it’s the movie’s least showy part, and much of Sinatra’s performance requires him to react to the various inhabitants of the town of Parkman. Minnelli shoots the film in a series of long takes, a perfect fit for Sinatra’s natural style of acting. Sinatra was obsessive about memorizing his scripts, which allowed him to perform Minnelli’s extended scenes with ease. Watching Some Came Running with your eyes trained only on Sinatra is an exercise I recommend any budding actor undertake; Sinatra is always reacting in a natural manner, and never appears to be simply awaiting his next line.
In 1962, Sinatra returned to the theme of political assassination with John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Captured by communist forces while serving in the Korean War, an American platoon is eventually released back to the States, but one of the men (Laurence Harvey) has been brainwashed by his captors to kill a Presidential nominee. A fellow platoon member (Sinatra), plagued by nightmares, begins to unravel the conspiracy.
Once more, Sinatra takes the less bombastic of the two male leads. Harvey’s role of the would-be assassin requires much external exertion, but Sinatra is required to spend most of the movie quietly processing his internal thoughts. The finest piece of acting takes place on a train - a simple interaction between Sinatra and romantic interest Janet Leigh. Sinatra remains stationary throughout the scene, but his face projects his inner turmoil. As with many of his movies of the period, Sinatra’s performance holds up considerably better than his co-stars’, with Harvey coming across particularly hammy next to the under-stated Sinatra.
As with Suddenly, The Manchurian Candidate was taken out of circulation following the assassination of President Kennedy, albeit not until 1972 when the copyright reverted to Sinatra, at which point he withdrew the film until a 1988 theatrical re-release. In a chilling footnote, director John Frankenheimer drove Robert Kennedy to the Ambassador Hotel on the night of his assassination. Despite the controversy over Suddenly and The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra would complete a loose political assassination trilogy with the 1967 British production The Naked Runner.
Between 1967 and ’68, Sinatra made three movies with director Gordon Douglas. Tony Rome and its sequel, Lady in Cement, were fun romps featuring Sinatra as a wise-cracking, cynical, gambling obsessed private eye. Sandwiched in between those movies was a more interesting, if not entirely successful, thriller – The Detective, the movie most consider Sinatra’s last worthwhile role.
As New York detective Joe Leland, Sinatra finds himself confronting corruption within the police force, and is torn between keeping his mouth shut and accepting an overdue promotion, or doing the right thing and kissing his career goodbye. The recent abolition of the Production Code saw Hollywood free to explore previously forbidden subjects, and The Detective sees Sinatra investigating a killer targeting homosexuals.
The most interesting aspect of the film is how it explores, through flashbacks, the doomed romance between Sinatra and his cheating wife, played by Lee Remick. The contrast between Sinatra’s young, confident beat cop and his older, embittered detective is played with conviction by the actor. The movie doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny, thanks to a problematic third act, but it’s worth watching for Sinatra’s performance alone. At the age of 73, Sinatra was offered the chance to reprise the role for a 1988 sequel. He declined, and the reworked role went to a much younger Bruce Willis in a movie that would become one of the decade’s biggest hits - Die Hard!
Soon after, Sinatra would unofficially retire from acting, appearing in a mere handful of films before his final screen role as the guest star of ‘Laura’, a 1987 episode of Magnum P.I. In a departure from the show’s breezy tone, the episode cast Sinatra as a retired cop out to kill two men responsible for the rape and murder of his grand-daughter. Thanks to his committed performance, it’s one of the most memorable episodes of ‘80s TV.
Annoyingly, Sinatra’s IMDB.com page considers his major achievement as appearing on the soundtrack of the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, a reflection of how overlooked his contributions to cinema have now become. His fans know, however, that for a long time, Sinatra was much more than just a pretty voice.


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