Thursday, March 10, 2011

Frank–the Making of a legend

There’s been a lot written about Frank Sinatra over the years – and there’ll be a whole lot more in the years to come no doubt. How many true superstars were there in the 20th Century? Today we live in an age when we give the adjective “Great” to all too many Tom, Jude, and Julia’s – transient “stars” who twinkle a little but who will surely be forgotten when “Hello” magazine finally loses interest and moves on. But nobody loses interest in Frank Sinatra and nobody ever did. When he plumbed the depths in the early 1950s (he hardly had a record release between 1950 and 1954) he was still a source of fascination for the gossip writers of Hollywood and New York City. He was a tall poppy who had not been trimmed but completely uprooted. But the roots weren’t dead – quite - and if his fall from grace was exceptional his comeback was more so. And so he became, with Presley and Streisand and Garland and Brando and a very few others a Superstar recognised only by his Surname - and one of the most famous people in the world. James Kaplan in “Frank - The Making of a Legend” tells Sinatra’s story from his birth through his meteoric rise, decline, fall and rebirth - the latter marked by the beginning of the link with Nelson Riddle and the winning of an Oscar for “From here to Eternity” in 1954. The definition of a Star has to be that they are bigger even than their exceptional talent – that they have a quality that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Frank fits the bill.

James Kaplan’s book is long, detailed, helpfully chronological - and unputdownable. His research is impeccable and he does not make one claim or statement without giving the source. He applies as rigorous academic standards as if he was in the History Department of Oxford or Yale and writing a biography of Washington or Bismarck! Sinatra was driven nearly mad, and to a suicide attempt, by the hold that the terrifying Ava Gardner had on him. This passion is almost Shakespearean – Frank loved her not wisely but far, far too much. She lusted after him and loved him in her way but she was so skittish and unruly that marriage with a romantic and emotional Italian was never going to work. The Gardner/Sinatra story is one of the central themes of the book and rightly so. Sinatra was a driven man - he wanted it all and he wanted it now. He’d buy a house even if he didn’t have the money to do so – it happened more than once in the darker years. If he wanted a woman (and he wanted them all the time) he’d just go for it and he nearly always succeeded. From a constant flow of Teeny Boppers in his early years to Lana Turner and the rest when he moved on – and, of course, to Ava; the most beautiful girl in the world. Then with the women came the wine – or the Jack Daniels and the Martinis and the rest. That Frank lived to be 82 must be in part attributable to his physicians but mainly to his liver. I don’t think he’d have given up the wine or the women just to live a few years more anyway! And then there was the song. Not his own song, he never wrote a note of a melody or a word of a lyric - but the great American Songbook - Frank was its master interpreter. Kaplan tells one or two song stories in considerable detail and describes how Frank worked with the arrangers and the conductors and the musicians to make a song work in his unique style. He was soon more than a crooner, more than a pretty voice. He was the man that surely any song-writing team wanted - and if that team had delivered a potential classic then Frank would see it, and know how to make it so. Kaplan’s description of the work with Nelson Riddle on the Johnny Mercer/Rube Bloom “Day in Day Out” takes three pages and we see how this was a seminal event right at the beginning of the Sinatra/Riddle partnership. Fascinating!

Frank Sinatra, later in his career, had a show “The Man and his Music”. Whether in that show or elsewhere he ever truly revealed “The man” I doubt. There were too many myths and too many events over which the older Sinatra would wish to draw a very thick veil! Kaplan doesn’t duck presenting these events but this is not in any way a demolition job on its subject. The paradox of Sinatra was the mixture of genius and dysfunctionality and Kaplan details both sides on the man. Frank was a womaniser on a prodigious scale not just with the girls that threw themselves at him, - of which there were hundreds - but also with his fellow artists, like Turner, and with the tarts that gathered in the places he visited for his early rat pack type male frolics – especially Las Vegas. He drank heavily, he was occasionally violent and he had a pretty poor taste in some of his friends – including the hoods and hoodlums who got him into trouble from time to time. Through all this there was Sinatra the consummate artist who at his best was unquestionably the greatest male popular singer of the Twentieth – and even at his worst, with poor material and less than imaginative direction, he was pretty good. And there were some recording turkeys and some poor shows – notably in the dark years when he struggled to get any bookings at all.

The biggest surprise, at the time and even in retrospect, was Frank Sinatra’s extraordinary talent as a movie actor. Remember this man had no training in the theatre, he never went to drama school, he never learned his craft from the bottom up. He starred in the first movies he appeared in because they were musical vehicles to exploit his fame as a singer. But when he appeared as Private Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” he proved what had been apparent to a few for a while – he could act. Kaplan describes Frank’s hustling for the role at a time when his stock was at rock bottom and how he buckled down on the set where on previous movies he had been petulant and unreliable. He also tells how Sinatra learned on the job from Montgomery Clift – and how Clift helped him to get the best out of a role that was made for him. The Oscar that Frank won for this film was the turning point and his career bounced back almost immediately. Kaplan finishes the book at this point in time a period which also saw the beginning of the partnership with Nelson Riddle at Capitol Records. The rest of the story will be told in the second and final volume of this comprehensive, detailed and engagingly written biography. Something to look forward to.