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), in which he starred as Frankie Machine, a 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 cords and facial muscles to the circuitry of his character's brain. And he adjusts persuasively when Machine moves between two women, acting wary and solicitous with his agitated, wheelchair-bound wife (Eleanor Parker) and naked and yearning with his sympathetic downstairs neighbor (Kim Novak). The movie's success rests on Sinatra's ability to pull off a terrifying cold-turkey sequence in which he alternates adrenalized frenzy with physical collapse. He taps the same raw power that fueled (but rarely entered so directly into) his musical genius.

All of his memorable roles had that instinctive verve and spontaneity. On records he was the Voice; in movies he was often the Spark. Watch him as the goodhearted, high-spirited Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953). Like an emotional quick-change artist, he goes from saloon buddyhood to chair-breaking brawling in a half-second -- except his hallmark is honesty, not trickery. You believe in his every altered mood. And 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 the 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 most appealing is how magnetic Sinatra can be as an action hero without special effects or a Body by Jake.

Sinatra has been such a pervasive influence in pop culture that his work -- even when it's decades-old -- 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." After I read that sentence I looked for the obscure "Bim Bam Baby." When Columbia put out the box set titled The Voice in 1986, it wasn't included; it didn't show up in 1990 on The Capitol Years or that same year's The Reprise Collection. Then in 1993 came The Columbia Years, 1943-1952: The Complete Recordings. And on the next-to-last track of the last disc in the whole twelve-disc collection Sinatra growls out, with a heart-boosting zip:

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 sounds like unadulterated exuberance. That encapsulates what's wrong with the swelling pool of literature on Sinatra, including the pamphlets and treatises accompanying each reissued set. Sinatra had genius, the kind that communicated -- still communicates -- with a smacklike immediacy, without the need of interpreters, who just get in the way.

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."

In 1986 essayist and novelist Wilfrid Sheed counted five acts in Sinatra's real-life epic. Now, with the close of that epic last week owing to a heart attack at age 82, seven acts seems more like it. Act I: Hoboken boy determines to break through like Bing Crosby, apprentices with bandleaders 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 II: Arouses Frankie-mania with cunning eye contact, an unprecedented intimate sound, and some shrewd publicity. Act III: In Hollywood his philandering upsets his supposedly picture-book marriage with Nancy, while his movie tally sheet registers more downs than ups. Act IV: Becomes torturously obsessed with soon-to-be-second wife Ava Gardner; his throat hemorrhages at the Copacabana; Columbia Records dumps him. Act V: From Here to Eternity triumphs. At Capitol Records he develops a throatier voice that wows audiences and critics; pals around with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., in the Rat Pack; becomes the uncrowned czar of Las Vegas, complete with enigmatic Mob friendships; helps elect JFK only to be ultimately snubbed by Camelot. Act VI: Upscales into tycoonhood; marries then divorces Mia Farrow; lets his movie career slide into oblivion; jazzes up his elder-statesman image with "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life," and "My Way." Act VII: Retires in 1971 but quickly resurfaces; bops in and out of the public eye, punctuating road trips with recycled and new recordings (the Trilogy album in 1980, Duets and Duets II in 1993 and 1994), gathering accolades and, increasingly, entreaties to keep his aging voice in the recording studio and out of live, unprotected venues.

In 1963 Sinatra told a Playboy interviewer, "I don't know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an eighteen-karat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradiction, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation." That's one of the most revealing statements ever to issue from a pop supernova.

In the coming weeks, movie channels will replay the Hollywood pictures, and TV specials will portray Sinatra as a figure who helped set the American beat for half a century. But it all goes back to the music. "The Song Is You," he sang in a number he loved so much he recorded it four times. At the end of the December of his years, his songs are us.


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