Screening Room #1: My Favorite Year

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My Summer Wednesdays are finished for the year, I think. The original idea always revolved around seeing films together, just because I miss the community aspect and could dream of interesting discussions after the lights came back on.

And we had a little of that. Two years ago, when I showed Groundhog Day, we had a fun talk for a few minutes afterward. It’s hard not to talk about that film, especially in a church.

But mostly we’ve gathered, had some snacks or a light dinner, and then settled in to watch. We then pick up the trash, put the tables and chairs back, and head home.

And it’s summer, you know. We’ve had 20 or so people before. Last night there were 5 of us. It was great, but the hassle of this mid-week busyness is producing diminishing returns. There’s a better way to gather mid-week, a little complicated but doable, and I want to figure that out. Live and learn.

But the movie. I thought more about my idea yesterday, and talked it over with my son (who has his own list, which he got excited about, which I’m not going to encourage because I have a limited tolerance for anime). The idea was just to reconnect with an art form I particularly enjoy, learn to disappear into a story for a bit, and see if I gain any new insights or opinions. Not necessarily to share with anyone, although maybe something interesting will pop up.

I’m not fully committed as of this morning, although it’s still early and caffeine is still working. One of my main strategies when getting things done is to Not Break The Chain, a concept popularized by Jerry Seinfeld, who believed that having a visual cue (like a calendar with days marked off after completing a task) helped keep us going, and that surprises often wait at the end of a period of time doing one thing consistently. Much of the positive in my life that came about from personal change was based on this.

That said, sometimes I don’t compulsive about it. I can miss a day of exercise, and I can miss a movie night. The point is to keep going. Although I think it’ll work better if I marathon my way.

Looking through my list, I now figure there are about 150 titles I could watch at this minute, a click away. Some of them are favorites. Some I’ve always wanted to see. Some could be surprises.

Again, I may change my mind before I really get going. All sorts of things can come up. And, also again, I’m not promising readers anything at all, except maybe a paragraph or two of my thoughts on a film you may or may not be interested in. But let’s see what happens.

And start now.

My Favorite Year had a personal connection. Julie and I saw it before we were married, and while we’re a little hazy on what films, in what order, we watched together back then, this may have been some sort of first date kind of thing. In any case, we loved it, and held it in a special place, the memory of seeing it and how we felt.

It’s a loosely based on (LBO) film, which actually I prefer to those shooting for historical recreations. Those films always are problematic, with compressed events, fictional scenes, and just generally missing parts by necessity.

An LBO film, on the other hand, sets the stage and then let’s us wander around. My Favorite Year is based on a story Mel Brooks used to tell (maybe he still does), about a week in 1954 he spent babysitting Errol Flynn in a hotel room, trying to prepare him for an appearance on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Flynn was a lush and a womanizer, and just generally a handful, and his career had long faded into doing schlock horror films in Europe and, as it turned out, a few appearances on live television in the 50s (he died in 1959, at the age of 50, from a heart attack).

The problem with this story is that Your Show of Shows went off the air in 1953, eventually replaced by Caesar’s Hour. Possibly Brooks was thinking of that, although records show no evidence that Flynn ever appeared with Caesar on any show. So this may be a myth shrouded in decades and the inventive memory of Mel Brooks.

But it’s loose, right? And so we get an enjoyable film without having to fact check. The Brooks stand-in, Benjy Stone (played by Mark-Linn Baker in his film debut), has to shepherd this swashbuckling has-been, Alan Swann, through rehearsals while keeping his more adventurous side in check. This would not work.

As a recreation of how a live TV show in 1954 might be produced, there’s probably some accuracy there. The various characters are stereotypes but amusing. Jessica Harper, who made something of a splash in the 1980s, is perfectly cast as a skeptical but charmed love interest for poor Benjy. Baker is very good in his first film role, fleshing out two dimensions into a fairly complicated young man when he wasn’t trying to keep Swann from missing his performance.

There’s plenty of sentiment, although held at bay by solid jokes, a couple barely making it into the range of questionable taste, most of this simple and just fun. It runs 90 minutes and feels faster, the pace always pointing us to the big finish, which doesn’t disappoint.

And nothing about this small, delightful little movie would make it remarkable at all, at least after all these years, without the casting of Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann. I’d be tempted to believe backstage stories about how he was relaxed and not at all concerned about this film, able to walk through the part without energy, because it was an effortless portrayal of a larger-than-life character (on many levels), and I’m not sure who else could pull it off.

He made us recognize his character’s limitations easily (“I’m not an actor!” he says at one point. “I’m a movie star!”), by demonstrating them in every scene. He likes his booze. He’s an unrepentant womanizer. He’s a distant, absent father to his beloved daughter. He takes interest in Benjy, and massages the young man’s love interest in Jessica Harper’s character. It all works out. It has to.

But it’s definitely Peter O’Toole’s movie. Only a few years following a powerful performance in The Stunt Man, showing his chops once again, he strides through this light comedy, owning the screen and everything on it. I saw it last night for perhaps the sixth time, and it reminded me why I watch.

Chuck SigarsComment