This is my entry in CMBA’s Fall Blogathon Laughter is The Best Medicine!
In the old days, if you wanted to see actors, you’d go to the stage. Hollywood was the place for movie stars. Lucille Fay LeSueur was given a new name (and a new birth date) only to become one of the most luminary stars of all time: Joan Crawford. Publicity columns were milked for all they were worth and scandals hushed up in equal measure. Archibald Leach donned the much more becoming pseudonym Cary Grant. In fact, he famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”
Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole) is a creation born of the same dream factory. He is a larger-than-life figure with a fictitious biography and a stage name befitting a gargantuan figure such as himself. He’s entered the twilight years, fading away, and still living off the laurels of his illustrious career. It allows him to maintain mythical stature in the present.
However, he’s allowed himself to become a carousing idol, who’s let himself go. He used to be big. Or maybe it’s the pictures that got small. Because in 1954 everyone is watching TV.
Is this too much like Peter O’Toole already? Although he’s cast more in the image of Errol Flynn or maybe a John Barrymore. Lest anyone misconstrue something, Peter O’Toole was an actor first and a personality second, though he is admittedly an indelible one on par with some of his most prominent predecessors.
My Favorite Year is the kind of movie that plants its flag with nostalgia and if you don’t like it, it’s not going to win you over. For everyone else, there’s time enough to drift back into yesteryear for an hour and a half. It’s altogether contented with its sentimental sense of antiquity be it Buicks or Milton Berle. Because in 1982 and certainly now, there’s a romantic patina about the times. Far from realism, it is most importantly an affectionate send-up.
It imagines a story at the crossroads of the newfound TV generation and the swashbuckling serials of old. When television, as a medium, was still in its infancy and live — more like the theater and radio than film — and you had personalities that existed in people’s living rooms. Comedy Calvacade could be any of a number of shows that were popular at the time most obviously Sid Caesars’ Your Show of Shows.
This is a writer’s room at 30 Rock decades before Liz Lemon. Two of its resident denizens are Alice and Herb. She acts as his comic mouthpiece. Their target is always that eminent tower of jello, Cy Benson, who more than deserves their continual ribbing. Lowest on the staffing totem pole is Benjy Stone and, fittingly, he becomes our willing surrogate.
He’s living the dream in the middle of all the magic, picking up the lunchtime bear claws, and romancing the pretty production hand K.C. (Jessica Harper), who rebuffs all his grandiose come-ons. But he’s not one to give up easily. It’s at the heart of his character.
He wouldn’t be working here rubbing noses with the likes of resident prima donna King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) or program stalwart Leo Silver (musical legend Adolph Green). You have to believe in the power of entertainment to be there on the ground floor of such an operation.
Thus, when the iconic screen icon Allan Swann agrees to guest on the latest episode of Comedy Calvacade, it seems like the perfect task for Benjy. The bet he has going with Sy makes it personal. He will act as attache — the notorious talent’s constant companion — making sure he makes it to rehearsals and telecasts in one piece.
Swann famously evokes another actor when he says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Regardless, this is a part made for O’Toole to fill up and make his own, bringing his Shakespearian bravado and genial wit to a world that otherwise feels twee and conventional. He positively bursts forth with all sorts of magnanimous energy.
The triumphant return of Swann is befitting his reputation. He takes his young guardian under his wing, as it were, returning to the old haunts like the Stork Club. It doesn’t matter that he once got thrown out of the place. He’s shameless enough to grab his old table and pick out the prettiest girl in the place. However, he still finds time for the public, graciously dancing with the lady (Gloria Stuart) enchanted by his romanticism.
It’s this kind of urbanity that sweeps Benjy off his feet as well, informing his own lackluster attempts to woo K.C. And yet over a humble dinner of Chinese takeout in the projection room, there is a chemistry in the air. Watching them watch O’Toole in what very easily could be a scene plucked out of Robin Hood, there’s a light in their eyes. We can sense the suspension of disbelief and the kind of awe movies could engender in a different, simpler time.
There are the travails of Brooklyn where Benjy takes America’s great hero to meet his unequivocally Jewish family (along with his Filipino step-father Rookie Carocca). It has all the trappings of an awkward evening and yet somehow it’s yet another showcase of people forming connections — of a man coming off the screen and being allowed to be among the hard-working people who love him.
That’s not to say there are no instances where we see the man’s faults laid bare. As a man always good for a quote he says, “You can depend on Allan Swann. He will always let you down.”
In the final act, it threatens to be true as the actor plays out his worse narrative. He is a man notorious for going AWOL at a moment’s notice. Still, while he’s not impervious to scandal or drunkenness, womanizing, or any number of shortcomings, there’s an inherent decency he carries about himself.
His greatest shortcoming is fear. He’s crippled by stage fright — being thrust into the arena of live television where his image cannot be monitored — even as he’s too fearful to speak to his estranged young daughter. Really, he’s a shell of a man. Could it be that the mills of Hollywood were lying all the time? For all these years, he was merely an imposter, done up to be extraordinary.
The live taping is best seen without comment. Just know Allan makes his triumphal entry onto the stage, and it’s a cathartic moment; he is allowed his audience and he lives up to their expectations in the most sincere ways. Many of us know the fictions of Hollywood. Benjy Stone is hardly oblivious to them, and yet for a sparkling minute, they are realized for anyone who was ever enraptured by the silver screen, not least among them Allan Swann.
The reason this was Benjy’s favorite year is obvious. He met his boyhood hero. Not only that but for a few fleeting moments the myth became real and the man was alive and in his life as not simply an idol but also a friend. He lept off the screen and he was real and charming and human, but moreover, he made us believe in the dreams of our childhood for the briefest of moments.
Watching him swoop down from the balcony — cutlass in hand — to vanquish the enemy, affords us the fairy tale ending and deservedly so. What a lovely performance it is for O’Toole, and he turns out in spades.