Friday, October 17, 2008

My Favorite Year

"My Favorite Year" (Richard Benjamin, 1982) Surely one of the best jobs during the early 1950's was being a writer for "Your Show of Shows,"* broadcast live Saturday nights on NBC. Starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, the writing staff contained such wits as Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, his odd couple brother Neil Simon, Lucille Kallen, and Mel Brooks.** The work environment was so fondly remembered it has consistently been used as comedic inspiration. First, Reiner used it as the work environment for "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Neil Simon wrote the stage-play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."*** And Brooks took the kernel of a script by Dennis Palumbo about a going-to-seed celebrity and his "minder" and morphed it into his remembrance of "Your Show of Shows," "My Favorite Year."**** Brooks served as neither writer, nor director, but as Executive Producer, he completely re-imagined the film as this sunny, hilarious remembrance, dripping with nostalgia, of being a cocky kid in New York in the '50's working for a hit comedy show.

"King" Kaiser (
Joseph Bologna) is the high-strung, neurotic star of a network variety show, and one week it falls to writer's assistant Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) to "manage" movie star Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole) through the rehearsals and broadcast. Two problems: Swann's a perennial lush, and he's never acted before a "live" audience. Fortunately, Benjy is Swann's biggest fan and forgives a lot of bad behavior, but Swann's "bad boy" behavior, insecurities and inebriation keep throwing up barriers.

O'Toole was initially hesitant to take on the role of the Errol Flynn-like Swann (he was convinced by an odd coincidence--the date of Swann's death inscribed on a tombstone--in a scene cut from the film--was also O'Toole's birthday. He was, again, nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Richard Benjamin solidified his transition from actor to director with this film, which also featured Jessica Harper as the apple of Benjy's eye, Bill Macy, Anne De Salvo and Basil Hoffman as the show's writers, legendary composer Adolph Green as a producer, Lainie Kazan as Benjy's mother, Cameron Mitchell as a mobster unhappy with his portrayal on the show, and even former "Show of Shows" performer Selma Diamond in a small role.

But the highlight is O'Toole's swashbuckling star. Looking gaunt and rheumy-eyed even when he's not plowed, Swann benefits from O'Toole's charm, crack timing and physical comedy--O'Toole can do a prat-fall and make it look deadly--but the actor makes the drama work as well. Swann's freak-out at being told he's performing "live" ("I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!!") is both comic and tragic. And he plays off well with a sharp cluster of East Coast character actors. The all-pervasive air of nostalgia begins immediately with the opening of Nat King Cole's "Stardust" over animated credits, and continues to the last frame with a joyous semi-sadness. "My Favorite Year" works on so many levels--as a drama as well as a comedy, as a fond rememberance as well as a fond farewell. And any movie that has a decent role for O'Toole to show how good he is, dramatically or comedically deserves a place on any list of 'favorites."

* To give you a glimpse of "Your Show of Shows" here's Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Howie Morris and Louis Nye performing a sketch called "This Is Your Story." It's in two parts.

** And Woody Allen became a writer for the 60 minute version of the show, "Ceasar's Hour."

*** Coincidentally, when "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" was video-taped for PBS, it was directed by "My Favorite Year" director Richard Benjamin, and featured its star, Mark-Linn Baker.

**** The original screenplay took place in the early 1900's, and Wyatt Earp was the personage to be "minded."

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