My Favorite Year
1982/ 1.85:1 / 92 min.
Starring Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Joe Bologna
Directed by Richard Benjamin
Nat King Cole’s shimmering version of Stardust, Rockefeller Plaza surrounded by wide-brimmed hats and two-toned Buicks – the first three minutes of My Favorite Year invoke the past with such ease that Proust might applaud.
Sentimental as they are, the sights and sounds of 1954 foreshadow something more significant in the zeitgeist – the era when television was on the rise and Hollywood’s star system was headed in the opposite direction.
Richard Benjamin’s 1982 comedy opens with the camera gliding by the sleek deco marquee of Radio City Music Hall where Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was the summer showcase – on Broadway the Rivoli was flogging the “right at you” thrills of House of Wax. One film in CinemaScope and four track stereo, the other in 3-D – each designed to lure audiences back to the movie house and away from the boob tube.
The fledgling comedy writer Benjy Stone straddles both worlds – he’s obsessed with Hollywood’s golden age while churning out gags for Stan “King” Kaiser, the powerhouse funny man who rules the airwaves (Kaiser’s outsize personality leads us to assume he inserted the “King” himself).
Mark Linn-Baker plays the baby-faced Benjy and Joe Bologna is the bigger-than-life Kaiser, a broad-shouldered, brilliant and deeply insecure comedian. In any other circumstance he might be the object of Benjy’s adulation but the young writer’s sights are trained on his movie-star role model Alan Swann, soon to be a guest on Kaiser’s weekly variety show Comedy Cavalcade. Benjy is so invested in Swann’s celluloid mystique he uses the actor’s films as aphrodisiacs for potential sweethearts.
Swann, played by Peter O’Toole, is based on the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Errol Flynn – and though the role of desiccated boozehound comes naturally, O’Toole rages against the dying of the light with a lionhearted performance that takes slapstick to its painfully funny conclusion (including an Olympics-worthy somersault into full body slam). O’Toole is also the reason that the waves of nostalgia that drive this film don’t consume it.
This being the 50’s, movie stars still had an otherworldly cachet and Benjy is not the only staffer flustered by the great man’s presence. The writers room, set dressers and even Kaiser himself are flummoxed by their ultra-suave visitor – but not for long. The cagey star is merely playing the role that’s expected of him and it takes a night out with Benjy’s mother to understand the man behind the mask.
Giving new meaning to the phrase, “the bosom of his family”, the lucious Lainie Kazan plays Belle Carroca, an eternal vamp built like the Venus of Willendorf. She greets Swann with “Welcome to my humble chapeau” and things go downhill from there. Swann suffers through the evening with a smile but his narrowed eyes tell a different story – Belle’s insights into his playboy persona have cut too close. Once he breaks free he’s off the wagon and into his limo for some fast relief – “My medication!”
Swann’s insatiable taste for the wrong kind of adventure recalls a time before 1954 – the screwball films of the 30’s. He thrives on bigger and better catastrophes – anything to escape the pain – including a little after dinner fun like barging into a hotel suite by swinging from one balcony to the other (for once, a movie’s poster art does not exaggerate.)
Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo‘s ingenious script, both warm and raucously funny, uses the canny notion of a conflicted narrator – in this case Benjy as an innocent on the bumpy road to adulthood. He’s abetted by a wisecracking Greek chorus whose voices include Bill Macy, Anne De Salvo and Basil Hoffman – a streetwise crew based on the writer’s room of Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows.
As Benjy’s part-time girlfriend, a thankless part in any other hands, the superb Jessica Harper shares O’Toole’s effortless movie-star magnetism – her scenes with the great actor give off real sparks (if this were a different movie, Benjy would be worried).
That’s a lot of co-stars and though the film might seem to flaunt too many characters and too many subplots (including a sublime Cameron Mitchell as a perpetually simmering mob boss), it pays off in a hellzapoppin’ finale – Swann panics at the thought of a live broadcast (“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”) and bolts the studio. Chaos ensues.
Like so many farces, My Favorite Year culminates in redemption and Swann gets his in spades – along with a ratings spike for Kaiser and a triumph for the screenwriters; all the seemingly unmatched puzzle pieces – movie stars, TV comics and gangsters – come together in a perfectly satisfying curtain call.
None of that would be possible without Richard Benjamin (an NBC page in 1956) who directs what could be an out-of-control circus with the aplomb of a plate spinner on that other variety hour, The Ed Sullivan Show.
Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein, Fail-Safe) views New York in 1954 through rose-colored glasses and tees up production designer Charles Rosen’s pitch perfect sets and May Routh‘s costumes – exemplified by pink sweaters, saddle shoes and poodle skirts.
Warner Archive’s beautiful new Blu ray is a bare-boned affair though it does bring over Benjamin’s commentary from 2002’s dvd release.