Sinatra: The Voice, the Spark, the Image

Frank Sinatra never gave a better performance as an actor than he did in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) as Frankie Machine, a hotshot poker dealer and junkie who emerges from prison hoping to kick all his bad habits (heroin included) and earn a living as a drummer. Everything Sinatra does in this movie is electrically nuanced, as if he'd hot-wired his vocal chords and facial muscles to the circuitry of Frankie Machine's brain. And Sinatra isn't just putting on a one-man show -- he adjusts persuasively when Machine moves between two women, acting wary and solicitous with the anti-hero's agitated, wheelchair-bound wife (Eleanor Parker), naked and yearning with his sympathetic downstairs neighbor (Kim Novak). The movie rests on Sinatra's ability to pull off the terrifying cold-turkey sequence, where he alternates adrenalized frenzy with physical collapse. Sinatra taps the same raw power that fueled (but rarely entered so directly into) his musical genius.

All of his memorable acting jobs had that instinctive verve and spontaneity. On records he was the Voice; in movies he was often the Spark. Watch him again as the good-hearted, high-spirited Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953) and there's no mystery why it spurred his first comeback. As he goes from saloon buddyhood to chair-breaking brawling in half-a-second, he's like an emotional quick-change artist, except his hallmark is honesty, not trickery -- you believe in his every altered mood. His next movie was named Suddenly (1954); his enactment of a presidential assassin who starts out happily sadistic and then blows his cool is the most sudden thing about it. No screen idol sweated more eloquently than Sinatra did in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In the subsequent downward slide of his movie career, when his insistence on speedy, convenient shoots took irrevocable tolls on his productions, he was still a master of low-key charisma. His last box-office smash, Von Ryan's Express (1965), was accurately reviewed as a canny Sinatra-ized knockoff of The Great Escape. See it today, and what's appealing is how magnetic Sinatra can be as an action hero without special effects or a Body by Jake. It's understandable that the singer who revolutionized phrasing would be a virtuoso of line readings, but Sinatra is also able to inflect his eyes; his dynamism generates more energy than muscle-flexing and cuts deeper than lasers.

Sinatra has been such a pervasive influence in pop culture that his long-past work keeps producing pleasurable surprises. Thirty-one years ago, in her first New Yorker essay, Pauline Kael wrote about "the small discoveries or rediscoveries we make" watching movies on television; she compared them to "putting on a record of Ray Charles singing 'Georgia on My Mind' or Frank Sinatra singing 'Bim Bam Baby' or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing operetta, and feeling again the elation we felt the first time." Ever since I read that sentence I've scoured the bins for the obscure "Bim Bam Baby." When Columbia put out the box set called The Voice in '86, it wasn't there; it didn't show up in 1990 in either The Capitol Years or The Reprise Collection. Then, in '93, came The Columbia Years, 1943-1952: The Complete Recordings. And on the next-to-last track of the last disc in the whole 12-disc collection Sinatra growls out, with a heart-boosting zip:

HEY NOW --
Take a mip-map-mop and a brim-
bram-broom
And clim-clam-clean up your rim-
ram-room
Because your bim-bam-baby's
coming home tonight ...

In the guidebook to The Columbia Years, music critic Will Friedwald dismisses Sinatra's "aggressively nasty sound" on the number, when to this listener it's unadulterated exuberance. That encapsulates what's wrong with the swelling pool of literature on Sinatra, including the pamphlets and treatises accompanying each reissued set of records. Sinatra may have had genius, but it was the kind that communicated -- still communicates -- with a smacklike immediacy, without the need for interpreters who get in the way.

The level of connoisseurship that's sprung up around Sinatra has gotten ridiculous. A lot of Sinatra writing loses the elating unchanged presentness of the man's acting and singing. It tends to get swamped in scholarship or nostalgia. After citing "Bim Bam Baby," Kael went on to ask, "Why should we deny these pleasures because there are other, more complex kinds of pleasure possible? It's true that these pleasures don't deepen, and that they don't change us, but maybe that is part of what makes them seem our own -- we realize that we have some emotions and responses that don't change as we get older."

The most useful Sinatra book I've read -- one that, despite many flaws, matches his eclecticism with an apt mixed-bag quality of its own -- is The Frank Sinatra Reader (Oxford University Press, 280 pages). Edited by a pair of Penn State academics, Leonard Mustazza and Steven Petkov, it avoids drowning in minutiae and sentimentality simply by paddling fast. With entries dated from 1944 to 1995, it draws on journalism as well as books on Sinatra and popular song -- and the newspaper and magazine accounts give much of the collection a tension and a you-are-there provocativeness usually missing from commemorative tomes.

In '86, Wilfrid Sheed counted five acts in Sinatra's real-life epic. Now, at the epic's close, seven acts seems more like it. Act 1: The Hoboken boy determines to break through like Bing Crosby, apprentices with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey (who teaches him breath control and complicated phrasing), then makes the gutsy split from Dorsey and becomes his own performer. Act 2: He arouses Frankie-mania with cunning eye contact, an unprecedented intimate sound, and some shrewd publicity. Act 3: In Hollywood, his philandering upsets his supposedly picture-book marriage with Nancy, while his movie tally sheet registers more downs than ups. Act 4: He becomes torturously obsessed with soon-to-be-second wife Ava Gardner; his throat hemorrhages at the Copacabana, and when's he's beset by trashy material and weary vocal chords, Columbia Records dumps him. Act 5: From Here to Eternity triumphs. At Capitol Records, he develops a throatier song mode that wows audiences and critics. He inherits Bogey's Rat Pack with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.; becomes the uncrowned czar of Las Vegas, complete with enigmatic mob friendships; and he helps elect JFK, only to be ultimately snubbed by Camelot. Act 6: He upscales into tycoonhood, marries then divorces Mia Farrow, lets his movie career slide into oblivion; but he also jazzes up his elder statesman image with "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life," and "My Way." Act 7: He retires in 1971 but quickly resurfaces. He bops in and out of the public eye, punctuating road trips with recycled and new recording events (the Trilogy album in 1980, Duets and Duets II in '93 and '94), gathering accolades and, increasingly, entreaties to keep his aging voice in the recording studio and out of live, unprotected venues.

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