Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann, self-destructive screen swashbuckler
New York City, Fall 1954
Film: My Favorite Year
Release Date: October 8, 1982
Director: Richard Benjamin
Costume Designer: May Routh
Today would have been the 90th birthday of Peter O’Toole, legend of stage and screen. Though he was ultimately presented with an Academy Honorary Award, O’Toole holds the dubious distinction of having received the most Academy Award nominations without a win. One of his eight nominations was for the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, Richard Benjamin’s directorial debut written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo, set behind the scenes at NBC’s famous studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza during the Golden Age of live television.
“1954. You don’t get years like that anymore… it was my favorite year,” begins the narration by Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), a junior comedy writer reportedly based on Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had both written for Your Show of Shows in the early ’50s. The story was inspired by Errol Flynn’s real-life guest appearance on Your Show of Shows, with Flynn reimagined as the erratic Alan Swann. Benjy describes Swann as the greatest screen idol of all time, despite his boss dismissing Swann’s performances as no more than “kissing and jumping and drinking and humping.”
Richard Benjamin explained in an interview with Donald Leibenson that “in the original script, there’s a scene which I shot that would have played after what’s in the movie. It took place in a Hollywood cemetery, and Benjy is walking past the gravestones. He says in voiceover that Alan Swann made him promise he would do something on his birthday every year. Alan has passed away, and Benjy comes to his grave, kneels down and pours a bottle of Courvoisier over the tombstone. That’s what’s on the last page. Peter asked me to read the date that was on the tombstone. It was Aug. 2. He said, ‘Aug. 2 is my birthday; did you know that?’ I asked Norman if he knew that, and Norman said no, he had made it up. And Peter says, ‘Therefore, I must do the film.'” Continue reading
Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, smooth gambler
Havana to New York, Spring 1955
Film: Guys and Dolls
Release Date: November 3, 1955
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Costume Designer: Irene Sharaff
On the traditionally unlucky day of Friday the 13th, we could all use a dash of lady luck, the concept popularized in the standard “Luck Be a Lady” that Frank Loesser had composed for the musical Guys and Dolls. Five years after Robert Alda had originated the song on stage in 1950, Marlon Brando overcame his own insecurities about his singing voice resembling “the mating call of a yak” to perform the song in Mank’s cinematic adaptation… much to the likely chagrin of his co-star Frank Sinatra, who would record it twice for his own Reprise Records label in the ’60s.
But before Sky Masterson asked lady luck to show him just how nice a dame she can be, he sets his sights on another doll, specifically the prim and pretty Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) of the Save-a-Soul Mission, whose organizational goals could not be more antithetical to all Sky holds dear. To win a bet with fellow gambler Nathan Detroit (Sinatra), Sky invites her to dinner in Havana, where Sister Sarah’s uncharacteristic Thursday night results in plenty of Bacardi and barfighting. Continue reading
Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito, volatile and violent Mafia associate
New York, Spring 1970
Release Date: September 19, 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Designer: Richard Bruno
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Happy Mother’s Day! One of my favorite cinematic sequences depicting the relationship between a son and his mother comes by way of my favorite movie, in which master auteur Martin Scorsese cast his own mother Catherine as the charming Mrs. DeVito, mother to the psychotic gangster Tommy (Joe Pesci) who brings his cohorts Henry (Ray Liotta) and Jimmy (Robert De Niro) seeking a shovel in a covert night-time stop to fetch a shovel… only to be sweet-talked into an early breakfast.
Catherine Scorsese endearingly embodies the familiar archetype of the aging Italian-American matriarch with her plastic-covered furniture, the gift to effortlessly slip between American English and Italian dialects, and the fierce desire to feed her children and their friends… regardless of whether they’re hungry or not. Continue reading
Roscoe Lee Browne as Philippe Dubois, smooth-talking Martinican-American sleeper agent
New York City, Fall 1962
Release Date: December 19, 1969
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Following last month’s look at a “hero costume” from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller Saboteur, I want to continue exploring style from the lesser-known entries in the Master of Suspense’s oeuvre. Loosely based on the “Martel affair” and events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Topaz was Hitch’s final movie centered around espionage, though I consider it to lack much of the spark that fueled his earlier successes like North by Northwest.
The single exception in Topaz may be a brief scene made more memorable by the appearance of Martinican agent Philippe Dubois, portrayed by Roscoe Lee Browne, the multi-talented star of stage and screen born 100 years ago today on May 2, 1922. Continue reading
Robert De Niro as Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, tough Mafia enforcer
New York City, Spring 1972
Film: The Irishman
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Design: Sandy Powell & Christopher Peterson
Fifty years ago tonight, Mafia violence shook the streets of New York City when dangerous mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo was shot and killed while celebrating his 43rd birthday with his family at Umbertos Clam House on Mulberry Street.
The most widely accepted facts attribute the slaying to four associates of the Colombo crime family, in retaliation for their suspicions that Gallo had ordered the attempted assassination of boss Joseph Colombo during an Italian-American Civil Rights League rally the previous June. Gallo’s widow recalled multiple men of short stature and likely Italian descent storming the Mulberry Street restaurant, where more than 20 shots were fired at her husband, who staggered onto the sidewalk and died shortly before 5:30 a.m. on April 7, 1972.
However, Charles Brandt’s nonfiction best-seller I Heard You Paint Houses includes an explosive claim by labor official and mob hitman Frank Sheeran that he alone was responsible for the hit. Continue reading
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, aka “Joker”, disturbed and disgraced ex-party clown
Gotham City, Fall 1981
Release Date: October 4, 2019
Director: Todd Phillips
Costume Designer: Mark Bridges
Could there be a more appropriate character to focus on for April Fool’s Day than the Joker?
When I was growing up, the only two actors who had prominently portrayed Gotham City’s psychopathic prankster were Cesar Romero in the classic ’60s series and Jack Nicholson, who received top billing despite not playing the title role in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Since then, we’ve seen a handful of actors cycle through the iconic role, beginning with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008), a few appearances by Ben Affleck and Jared Leto, and most recently a smaller part performed by Barry Keoghan in The Batman (2022).
Joaquin Phoenix received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the eponymous role in Joker, a reimagined origin story that pays significant homage to Martin Scorsese’s character studies like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983)—both starring Robert De Niro, who would appear in Joker—as well as twists of social commentary and themes from Death Wish (1973) and Fight Club (1999).
Many loved it and many hated it, but there’s little doubting Phoenix’s effectiveness intensity chronicling the troubled Arthur Fleck’s transformation from a desperate wannabe stand-up comedian who feels let down by society into a chaotic killer who unintentionally inspires anarchic revolution and class warfare. Continue reading
Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly, shrewd British agent and anti-Bolshevik
New York City and Berlin, Fall 1924
Series: Reilly: Ace of Spies
Episode: “The Trust” (Episode 10)
Air Date: November 2, 1983
Director: Martin Campbell
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Waller
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Although there’s little consensus on the details of his life—including his birth name—the famous adventurer who would eventually known as Sidney Reilly is said to have been born on March 24, though even the year is a question of debate; he may have been born Georgy Rosenblum in Odessa in 1873, or he may have been born Sigmund Rosenblum to a wealth Bielsk family in 1874. His escapades as a British agent during the Russian Revolution cemented his self-aggrandized reputation as the “Ace of Spies”, establishing a legend that would inspire no less than Ian Fleming when developing the character of his fictional agent James Bond.
The opportunistic Reilly—as he had rechristened himself during his initial service for Special Branch in the late 1890s—never missed a chance to build his wealth or reputation, crafting a legend during his lifetime that would live well beyond his ostensible execution by the Soviets in 1925. A household name by the end of the decade, Reilly was the subject of multiple books, including Ace of Spies, written by the son of R.H. Bruce Lockhart, the Scottish-born diplomat who had worked with Reilly in the infamous “Ambassadors’ Plot” attempt to overthrow the fledgling Bolshevik government in 1918 and resulted in both men being sentenced to death in absentia. Robin Lockhart’s book was adapted into Reilly: Ace of Spies, a stylish twelve-part miniseries that originally aired in ITV across the fall of 1983. Continue reading
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Marine hero-turned-mob boss
New York City and Sicily, Summer 1945 to Summer 1955
Film: The Godfather
Release Date: March 14, 1972
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
The Godfather premiered 50 years ago tonight at Loew’s State Theatre in New York City, forever changing the cultural landscape. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, the saga to bring the mob-centric epic to the screen could have been a plot within the story itself, but eventually the massive reception to The Godfather cemented its enduring significance, reviving Marlon Brando’s career and making stars of its cast of relative newcomers—including Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall—as well as its determined director, Francis Ford Coppola.
Spanning the decade following the end of World War II, The Godfather follows the rise of Michael Corleone, a reserved war hero, as he follows the inevitable path of his father’s footsteps to Mafia leadership. Continue reading
Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, aspiring writer based on future Beat icon Jack Kerouac
Queens, New York, Winter 1947
Film: On the Road
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Director: Walter Salles
Costume Designer: Danny Glicker
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Jack Kerouac was born 100 years ago today on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His 1957 roman à clef On the Road became a defining work of what would be called the Beat Generation, chronicling the author’s wanderings in the late 1940s with contemporaries like William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg, all thinly disguised in the novel with pseudonyms.
Kerouac had started work on the novel almost immediately upon returning from his travels, the original draft being a continuous, single-spaced 120-page “scroll” that he typed across three weeks in April 1951. This free-flowing stream of consciousness has been called the ideal medium that captured the mad impulses that drove his adventures with Cassady, represented by the larger-than-life character Dean Moriarty. Continue reading
Jack Lemmon as Stanley Ford, comic strip artist and dedicated bachelor
New York City, Summer 1964
Film: How to Murder Your Wife
Release Date: September 20, 1965
Director: Richard Quine
Wardrobe: Izzy Berne & Marie Osborne
On what would have been the birthday of one of my favorite actors—Jack Lemmon, born February 8, 1925—I want to revisit his style in the first of his filmography that I had ever seen, the swingin’ ’60s comedy How to Murder Your Wife which, as the title implies, balances black comedy with classic screwball elements.
Lemmon stars as Stanley Ford, a successful newspaper cartoonist whose spun his success writing the daily adventures of super-spy “Bash Brannigan” into an enviable bachelor lifestyle, complete with a swanky Lenox Hill townhouse and his devoted valet Charles (Terry-Thomas), whose daily duties include cleaning up after Stanley’s latest romantic conquests, providing reassurance and advice, and ensuring that a “properly chilled” vodka martini awaits Stanley at the end of each day. Continue reading