Frank Sinatra: How Frankie Came to Hollywood
The July/August 2002 issue of Movieline magazine was dedicated to the marriage of music and Hollywood. In between articles about pop singers who were making their bid for movie stardom was a retrospective on the acting career of iconic performer, Frank Sinatra. Just when it seemed that the singer-turned-actor was stuck in a rut, he campaigned for an won a supporting role in a movie that would earn him an Oscar.
When Frank Sinatra died in 1998 at the age of 82, he was hailed by the world press as the 20th century’s greatest entertainer, “The Voice” whose legend had dominated pop and nightclub singing for six decades. His Hollywood career was duly noted, but his presence in music so overshadowed everything else he did that his accomplishments on the big screen were given short shrift. In reality, few movie careers lasted as long or soared as high as Frank Sinatra’s. Over a period of 40 years, he made a remarkable number of outstanding movies and won an Oscar for one of them. He costarred with everyone from Gene Kelly to Grace Kelly. As with his music career, though, Sinatra’s longevity in movies was not a matter of serendipity. He was willful and deliberate, and his Hollywood strategy involved everything from glamorous affairs to (if rumors are to be believed) Mafia muscle. The young singer from Hoboken, New Jersey, who, as part of the famous Tommy Dorsey Band, sent teen girls into frenzies in the early ’40s, was blessed with more than a great set of pipes. Though gangly and not conventionally handsome, he had a sex-charged charisma so potent the press dubbed its effect “Sinatramania.” But Sinatra knew he wanted to be more than just another “band singer” and he knew that, ultimately, the movies were the medium that could make him that big star he wanted to be.
One of the most clever decisions Sinatra made as he plotted his Hollywood campaign was what not to do. He refused to cash in on his heartthrob singing image and rejected the idea of big-buck swoony romances. Instead, he took it slowly, knocking out a couple of low-profile musicals in which he sang uncredited with the Dorsey band and said not a word. Las Vegas Nights in 1941 and Ship Ahoy in 1942 functioned largely as screen tests, demonstrations that the camera liked him. In 1943, he once again merely sang–Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”–but this time in a movie promoted as “The First Film Starring Frank Sinatra.” The modest wartime musical Reveille With Beverly put him alongside the most popular crooner of the day, Bing Crosby. That led RKO Studios to summon him west to shoot another movie that would inaugurate a nonexclusive multipicture contract. Never one to miss a publicity opportunity, Sinatra had his promoters alert fans in advance of his arrival at the Pasadena Station in 1943, and the melee that resulted was dutifully reported by the very newspapers movie studios bosses monitored for signs of The Next Big Thing.
Sinatra kept things simple at RKO, again playing himself in the lightweight romantic comedy Higher and Higher, then taking on the role of a young singer in Step Lively. The fast, easy B-movies did the trick–Sinatra’s record sales boomed and attendance at his personal appearances swelled. Had Sinatra’s goal been merely to use Hollywood to enhance his singing career, he would have coasted along this way for years. He had different ideas. First he got himself out of his $100-a-week contract with bandleader Tommy Dorsey. (Though he always maintained that his legal team managed the feat, it was famously rumored that mobsters personally “persuaded” the bandleader.) Second, he pulled out of his deal with RKO. Louis B. Mayer, the mighty head of MGM–which had an unmatched roster of gilt-edged stars like Clark Gable, Lana Turner and Gene Kelly–had tempted him with a five-year contract, and Sinatra knew if he was going to make a name for himself in the film racket, he was going to need the A-level budgets, directors and costars that RKO could never provide.
MGM was canny at zeroing in on a potential star’s essential appeal, then grooming and promoting it. With Sinatra they decided to play on his contradictions. He was shy, but a ladies’ man. He was arrogant, yet insecure. He was happy-go-lucky, but also prone to melancholy. With the late ’40s musicals Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town, MGM successfully presented him as likable but naive. But MGM and Sinatra fumbled badly when he was shoved front and center in a lead role in the Western musical The Kissing Bandit. Sinatra was growing frustrated with the movie business–it was taking longer than he realized to make it to the level that interested him. When he mouthed off to a reporter that “Most pictures stink and the people in them, too,” and said he was thinking of quitting, his relationship with MGM soured. Sinatra had come to see himself as an actor who could be taken seriously; Mayer saw him as a troublemaker who flouted his authority, baited the press, brawled in nightclubs and refused to do retakes.
During his MGM years, Sinatra remained married to Nancy Barbato, whom he’d wed in 1939, but he couldn’t help but notice that few things boost a career higher than a strategic relationship with a red-hot star. He’d had a series of extracurricular affairs, most notably with reigning sex symbol Lana Turner. When he embarked on a highly-publicized affair with the extraordinary-looking Ava Gardner, things were more emotionally charged. Gardner was as freewheeling as any woman who ever hit Hollywood, and she had men falling at her feet. She was also free-speaking, and she boosted Sinatra’s lover-boy image by famously boasting, “Frankie only weighs 120, but 100 pounds is cock.” MGM, which prided itself on its wholesome image, grew more disenchanted with Sinatra and finally let him go.
Sinatra’s relationship with Gardner, whom he proceeded to marry, marked both a perilous downward spiral in his career and a new, more successful phase. Studio press releases had announced that Sinatra was being let out of his contract to pursue TV in New York, but the 1950 debut of TV’s “The Frank Sinatra Show” on CBS met delay after delay, then disappeared fast. Nothing was going well: his screen comedy Double Dynamite was tanking; he was suffering from severe throat problems; his marriage to Gardner, whose career was soaring as his slipped, grew increasingly troubled. He signed a deal with Universal in 1952, but nobody much cared for Meet Danny Wilson, in which he was cast all too believably as a foul-tempered singer. The studio let him go. Then, in a stunning domino effect, his agency dropped him and Columbia, the record company for which he’d been making hits for a decade, bounced him, too.
Sinatra’s career needed a flat-out miracle at this point, but in a state of desperation, he found a fix that proved not only a survival strategy, but also a means of reinvention. From Here to Eternity, James Jones’s scorching WWII bestseller about Army life in Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor, was going to be one of the year’s most prestigious films, and he wanted the role of Maggio, a sad, doomed soldier. No one involved with the movie wanted any part of him; Eli Wallach seemed about to get the part. Ava Gardner, who now had clout Sinatra no longer had himself, placed calls around town and even mentioned Sinatra for the role in interviews. It worked. Tail between his legs, Sinatra screen-tested and re-screen-tested for the part, cut his asking price from $150,000 to $8,000, and landed the role. He was now part of a cast that included Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed. When the film was released, critics loved it and they loved him in it. The bruising Sinatra had taken from past years was visible in his face, making him all the more touching. When the picture received 13 Academy Award nominations, one was for Sinatra’s performance. And he won.
Overnight, Sinatra obliterated his bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed ’40s screen image and turned around his career. The movies he chose during the ’50s (including Young at Heart, The Tender Trap, Guys and Dolls, High Society, Pal Joey) fine-tuned his image as a swinging, slightly melancholic, likably disreputable womanizer. That persona was reinforced by a string of albums he made under a new contract with Capitol Records, work that stands to this day among the greatest made by any American artist.
Sinatra used his re-established cachet to expand his range and staying power by venturing off into trickier screen territory. He was so compelling as a heroin junkie in director Otto Preminger’s 1955 taboo-busting The Man With the Golden Arm that he was nominated for an Oscar. In 1957, in The Joker Is Wild, he played a real-life entertainer who runs afoul of gangsters. Then, for director Vincente Minnelli in Some Came Running, he was unusually persuasive as a novelist who returns home from the war to find his hometown a stranger place than he remembered it. These were brave choices for a performer who’d started out as a callow band singer. In fact, in an era of big smiles and Technicolor, his screen image was one of the angriest of any American actor. On this unlikely track, Sinatra finally became a Top 10 box-office attraction.
Fully armed and confident again, Sinatra the star began to throw around his weight. He became infamous for refusing to do retakes that he felt killed his spontaneity. He walked off the set after a single day of shooting the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s prestigious stage musical Carousel when he grew impatient at the prospect of having to shoot scenes first in widescreen, then again in a super-widescreen format. But the turn Sinatra’s career took had more to do with what he liked than what he disliked. Just when it appeared he was on a great Hollywood roll, he took a bizarre detour with fellow Rat Pack cronies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, and began to make a series of larky, in-joke ensemble comedies. The Vegas heist flick Ocean’s Eleven in 1960 was the first of them, but the decade continued with Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas and Robin and the 7 Hoods. At first, the public loved these movies, though Sinatra came off in them as surly. At their best, they gave off a voyeuristic charge as the glamorous Rat Pack guys drank, gambled and mistreated women in a sanitized version of what we all imagined happened offscreen.
It isn’t as though Sinatra completely sidestepped opportunities to perform on-screen at the level to which he originally aspired. He redeemed himself by playing a haunted Korean War veteran in director John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate. He was reportedly considered by William Wyler to star as the ne’er-do-well gambler in Funny Girl, and by Vincente Minnelli to play the shrink in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. But when Sinatra wasn’t killing time with the Rat Pack, he was cashing checks for working in movies like the godawful Left Bank musical Can-Can (1960). He scored a massive box-office hit with Von Ryan’s Express in 1965, and he looked surprisingly at ease in a series of neo-Bogart roles, playing morose detectives in Tony Rome (1967), Lady in Cement (1968) and The Detective (also 1968). The self-indulgent Rat Pack movies, though, had alienated critics. Movies began to look like something Sinatra did to jolly up his dead time between carousing with his friends.
The ’60s had, of course, with the advent of the Beatles and all that followed, moved Sinatra permanently out of the cutting-edge music mainstream. By the ’70s, he was an internationally revered show business institution–anything he touched was a major event–but he didn’t have the kind of active following that box office is made of. So, after the 1970 comedy Western Dirty Dingus Magee bombed, Sinatra announced he was retiring from show business. The international headlines that resulted only made people want him more. He came out of retirement in 1973, and continued performing to huge audiences and turning out records. As for movies, many were reportedly offered to him–including an original musical version of The Little Prince. He played a cop in The First Deadly Sin as late as 1980, and four years later did a cameo in Cannonball Run II. But by then, he had basically cashed in his chips.
Sinatra could always be counted on to stop shows with his swaggering approach to the hit “My Way,” and in his singing career the self-aggrandizing sentiments of that song rang true. In Hollywood, that individualistic bravado is harder to bring off, and Sinatra had to have realized that the major turning point in his Hollywood success was when his wife, Ava Gardner, got her way and got him his role in From Here to Eternity. But more than any other singer who’s tried to parlay music success into movie stardom, and more than most actors who spend their whole lives in Hollywood, Sinatra did indeed do things his way.