Bigger than life: Sinatra’s image at 100

McNallyToday our 1915: Whatta Year! series turns to pop culture colossus Frank Sinatra, born on December 12 of that storied year in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Ol Blue Eyes” made his name with his voice, but he was a fixture on the silver screen beginning with the 1944 film Higher and Higher. Karen McNally’s When Frankie Went to Hollywood takes a look at the cinematic career of the pop icon. Recently, McNally answered a few questions about Sinatra’s movie roles and public persona for the UIP blog.

Q: As you note in When Frankie Went to Hollywood, the postwar era saw an ongoing negotiation of what it meant to be an American Man. While it’s easy to how Sinatra’s Danny Ocean-esque roles appealed to audiences, how did he influence that negotiation in other directions through his emotionally nuanced portrayals of vulnerability—say, in Some Came Running and even The Manchurian Candidate?

Karen McNally: Emotional vulnerability is something that’s essential to Sinatra’s post-war image. It’s very clearly evident in a number of the concept albums he recorded with Nelson Riddle and Capitol Records in the 1950s, for example In the Wee Small Hours (1955) and Only the Lonely (1958), through which Sinatra masters what he terms the ‘saloon song’. The album covers are a visual representation of the male loss and vulnerability Sinatra expresses musically and are also extremely cinematic. The cover for In the Wee Small Hours, for example, presents an image of Sinatra alone in a dark urban street with a lamppost in the background, cigarette in hand, as though he were in a 1940s film noir. So Sinatra develops an image across a variety of performances and characterizations which conveys a highly masculine sense of vulnerability.

In his film roles this often relates to the post-war theme of the returning veteran and his emotional damage. Hollywood films of this era often addressed the World War II veteran’s sense of alienation from post-war America due to the emotional impact of their war-time experiences and the unwillingness of American society to acknowledge how those experiences might have changed them. In Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958) Sinatra plays World War II veteran and author Dave Hirsch, whose creative sensitivities and failure to conform to the mores of upper middle-class small-town America see him rejected by his family and the schoolteacher he falls for. Dave’s carousing and womanizing with the town gambler, played by Dean Martin, therefore set him apart from post-war America’s idea of ‘the conquering hero’, as they term him, just as the vulnerability he displays marks him out as an unsuitable marriage prospect for a repressed middle-class society.

In The Manchurian Candidate (1962) we see Sinatra’s Korean War veteran Bennett Marco experience an emotional breakdown, observed by Janet Leigh on a train. Ben’s nightmares are central to the film’s narrative, but his obvious vulnerability is equally what attracts Leigh’s character to him. In the same way, in the musical Young at Heart (1954) Doris Day’s sheltered middle-class suburbanite falls for Sinatra’s alienated working-class outsider as she watches his yearning performance of ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ in a downtown club. What distinguishes Sinatra’s screen image from those of male stars such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who similarly represented a new version of masculinity in the post-war era, is the ideas of feminization and immaturity which frequently circulated around their star images. Sinatra’s image instead suggests that this combination of hypermasculinity and emotional vulnerability is the essence of mature male identity in the post-war era.

Q: Before Sinatra’s comeback role in From Here to Eternity, Italian-Americans suffered negative stereotyping in Hollywood films. How did Sinatra’s portrayal of Angelo Maggio project an identity and attitude that rejected the all-too-typical gangster/criminal stereotype?

McNally: Sinatra was extremely eager to play the role of Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953). Having read the James Jones novel, he related very much to the character and bombarded the director, Fred Zinnemann, with letters signed ‘Maggio’ asking that he be considered for the part.

Sinatra had a strong sense of his Italian-American identity and was defiant in proudly displacing his ethnicity, perhaps most obviously by refusing to change his surname, unlike most other Italian singers of the period. The 1950s, in particular, was an era during which American culture was dedicated to a specifically WASP vision of itself, and Sinatra was often critiqued in the press in relation to what was viewed as his overt demonstration of his Italian-American identity. He therefore felt a close affinity with Maggio’s sense of alienation and resistance.

The character’s ethnicity is represented in favorable ways. For example Maggio shows his family photographs to the other servicemen, demonstrating his strong sense of family. In addition, he is fiercely loyal to fellow private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, played by Montgomery Clift, who becomes the subject of a bullying campaign by the unit’s officers. This characterization counters the less positive conclusions often drawn in the press regarding Sinatra’s sense of loyalty to his Italian-American background. Maggio often masks his alienation with humor, but when confronted by his own bully in the form of Sergeant of the Guard ‘Fatso’ Judson, played by Ernest Borgnine, who refers to him as a ‘little wop’, Maggio rails against this blatant bigotry. Maggio becomes the heroic underdog of the film, fighting back against Judson’s physical assaults, even though he eventually succumbs and is killed by his nemesis when sent to the stockade. The impact of Sinatra’s slight physical frame against Borgnine’s bulk, as well as his own resistance to assaults on his ethnicity bring his star image into play, and add to the image of an Italian-American character and a star asserting his ethnic identity and confronting discrimination.

Q: Sinatra played damaged vets, show business charmers, a troubled addict, even a presidential assassin. How does the breadth of his range of parts compare with that of contemporaries like Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, and Humphrey Bogart? Does Sinatra deserve more respect as an actor?

McNally: If Sinatra had not established such an iconic place within American popular music, it would seem undoubtedly the case that he would have received greater recognition than he has as an actor. His film career spanned five decades and cut across musicals, melodramas, film noir, and political thrillers, with Sinatra starring in some of the most important films in Hollywood history. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), for example, represents a high point for the Cold War political thriller, and The Man with the Golden Arm, directed by Otto Preminger in 1955, was a highly significant film in its exploration of drug addiction on the screen, challenging the Production Code which disallowed screen depictions of illegal drug-taking. Sinatra was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the latter film, and consistently cited it as his favorite of his own acting performances. Nelson Algren, author of the original novel, was additionally an admirer of Sinatra’s performance in the role, commenting: ‘I was afraid nobody out there could play it. . . . But Sinatra was Frankie Machine. Just the way I wrote him in the book.’

Sinatra’s Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for From Here to Eternity (1953) is often bound up in his career comeback story, but it is as much an indication of the dramatic acting abilities that he was beginning to demonstrate at that point and would reveal further across his career.

Sinatra’s contribution to the musical genre is just as significant. Even though the early RKO and MGM musicals failed to capture the essence of Sinatra’s combination of romantic vulnerability and sexually provocative style of musical performance, he formed an irresistible partnership with Gene Kelly in these films that included On the Town (1949), one of Hollywood’s most successful and critically well received musicals.

Sinatra also added complexity to the screen musical, bringing with him the kind of dramatic performances and accompanying imagery developed across melodramas and film noir. In Young at Heart (1954), therefore, Sinatra provides a dark and dramatic performance that acts as a stark contrast to Doris Day’s sunny optimism. Aiding this characterization are Sinatra’s performances of songs including ‘Just One of Those Things’ and ‘Someone to Watch Over Me,’ which in themselves become mini-dramas and illustrate again Sinatra’s abilities as a screen actor.

Q: Like all movie stars, Sinatra at times played an exaggerated version of his well-groomed public persona as a swinger. How do you see Sinatra moving this 1950s playboy stereotype into more complex territory in certain roles? Did that public persona ever eclipse the real character being portrayed on the screen?

McNally: Sinatra’s swinger persona was constructed through a number of means and appeared in the climate of Playboy magazine, which published its first issue in December 1953, famously with Marilyn Monroe as its first centrefold. Albums such as Come Fly with Me (1958) and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956) projected a sense of a carefree, jet-setting lifestyle that seemed mirrored in commentary on Sinatra’s private life.

Playboy wrote a number of articles about Sinatra, referring to him in 1958 as a ‘love god.’  At the same time, however, the magazine undermined his physical appearance and style of dress, suggesting Sinatra didn’t quite fit its definition of a playboy, which was decidedly middle-class. Similarly, Sinatra’s screen performances which define his swinger persona consistently indicate the extent to which this identity is wrapped up in male performance. In The Tender Trap (1955) Charlie Reader is an Indiana migrant to New York aware that a lifestyle in which he juggles a variety of women is due not to his sexual allure but to the lack of single men in the city. Pal Joey’s (1957) nightclub M.C. Joey Evans already has a reputation by the time he arrives at the Barbary Coast Club where he seduces most of the women in the chorus. However, he ultimately becomes a gigolo to Rita Hayworth’s society hostess in order to finance his own nightclub, and his working-class roots, which restrict him to this limited role in her life, alienate him further from a status of power.

Can-Can (1960) most explicitly points to the performed aspects of the swinger persona as Louis Jourdan presents a deft caricature of Sinatra and the playboy French lawyer he plays in the film, with a chorus of ‘It’s All Right With Me’ dressed in an angled fedora. Each of these films draws effectively on Sinatra’s image as the epitome of the 1950s swinger, and at the same time reveals the extent to which this is a constructed and performed identity. By highlighting and drawing on ideas of class and vulnerability that are essential elements of Sinatra’s star image, the roles as expressed by Sinatra point again to a much more complex notion of masculinity which contests the idea of the sexually powerful male promoted by Playboy.

Q: A lot of people remember Sinatra as an Establishment icon—supporting Ronald Reagan, chiding the Beatles, and all the rest. Yet your book shows how Sinatra bucked the mainstream to support African American civil rights in the 1950s. How did his words and actions in real life dovetail with his film work in regards to civil rights issues?

McNally: Sinatra was a committed and highly public advocate of Civil Rights, using his fame from the 1940s onwards to support racial tolerance and the Civil Rights Movement as it developed across the post-war period. His experiences of discrimination as an Italian-American meant that he felt an affinity with the outsider in American society, which is very evident in his screen persona.

When World War II makes explicit the inequities of racial politics in the United States and the issue of Civil Rights becomes pressing in the aftermath of war, Sinatra’s readiness to address the topic in a variety of ways works as a significant intervention. Visiting schools in the 1940s where racially motivated disputes were occurring and writing articles promoting tolerance were ways in which Sinatra attempted to reach his young audience at that point with a Civil Rights message. He also starred in the short film The House I Live In (1945) written by Albert Maltz and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, which addressed the same theme. Sinatra was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition and received a Special Academy Award alongside LeRoy and producer Frank Ross.

He returned to the topic on screen in 1958 with the feature film Kings Go Forth, in which he co-starred with Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. American racism transported overseas during World War II was still a provocative subject for a film in the 1950s, and Kings Go Forth deals with it directly in a number of scenes, despite the use of Wood to depict a mixed-race French woman and the cuts that were made to the film by censors in the American South.

Sinatra went on to organize a Carnegie Hall fund-raiser for Dr Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961 when the Civil Rights Movement was in full force. Such activities were often obscured by press interest in the Rat Pack. However, even the films created around these performers and, moreover, their stage performances, represented a bold statement in the climate of Civil Rights. Just the appearance on stage of two Italian-Americans, an African-American Jew, an English aristocrat and an American Jew said much about the ideal of American democracy. In addition, jokes around race and ethnicity were a constant feature of the shows and suggested in a quite brazen manner the need for America to address the fundamental issue of Civil Rights.

Sinatra returned to the issue of equality and Civil Rights throughout his career, notably with his sole directorial credit, None but the Brave (1965). This first American-Japanese co-production set on a Pacific island during World War II celebrates the differences and similarities between two alternative cultures in a potent anti-war film. Even through his famous shift to the right in his support for presidential candidates, Sinatra continued to comment publicly on racial equality, suggesting his continued commitment to this political issue.

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