Swooning for Sinatra
A door is opened to reveal a man standing on the porch of a happy suburban home with white picket fences in the blurry distance. His back turned to us, we cut to a close-up of his head just as it turns, revealing a lined face with hollowed cheeks and a pair of captivating blue eyes and dark, unkempt hair. Without even saying a word, it feels like the whole world is on his slumped shoulders. He doesn't fit into this place and he knows it.
Frank Sinatra's entrance in Young at Heart represents so much about the man himself: his anger, his loneliness, his intensity... To hear Barney Sloan crooning about lost love in a dive bar is to see Sinatra exploring his own emotional wounds. The pain is palpable, and yet it is conveyed with a voice so gorgeous that it is easy to lose yourself in its richness and strength.
When Young at Heart was made, Sinatra was in peak form. The previous year he had staged his infamous comeback in From Here to Eternity, winning him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and a revived career that would last until his death in 1998. Young at Heart helped cultivate his new image as the forlorn crooner, the guy who would sit at a piano with his hat tilted and a lit cigarette waiting for him in an ash tray while he sang about heartbreak. But that was just one of many evolutions that comprised Sinatra's career.
As the bobbysoxers' dream man, Sinatra was boyish, sweet, and romantic in a wholesome, gee-whiz kind of way. With his thin frame and eager smile, he was someone to mother or to guide, like the dynamic he shared with Gene Kelly in their three '40s musicals. But then, in the early '50s, Sinatra grew up. After experiencing the turmoil of divorcing his first wife, beginning a stormy marriage with Ava Gardner, almost losing his voice, and becoming persona non grata in Hollywood, the smitten boy-next-door role no longer fit.
What emerged instead was a fighter, someone who knew the highs and lows of life and seemed to decide that authenticity was the answer. With every performance and every song, Sinatra imbued his work with an honesty and intimacy that draws you in as you are made to feel like a confidant, lover, or friend. This gift, however, also made it glaringly obvious when he was phoning it in, as he did in the occasional film or TV appearance.
The magic of Frank Sinatra is hard for me to describe. I've been under his spell for half of my life now and it's a spell that I hope never breaks. Whether he is singing a ballad as agonizing as "I'm a Fool to Want You" or swingin' a tune like "Just One of Those Things," his voice makes my heart soar like nothing else. All I have to do is hear the first line of "Dream," "The Last Dance," "I Will Wait for You," or "All My Tomorrows" and I'm immediately enveloped in an emotional haze that forces me to close my eyes and let myself sink into his divine tone.
As if being a legendary singer wasn't enough, Sinatra also became one of Hollywood's best actors, albeit an inexcusably underrated one. Just like I'm mesmerized by his singing, I'm glued to Sinatra whenever he is onscreen. His presence is so undeniable, so immensely confident. And yet there is a vulnerability, too. It's the same quality he had during his bobbysoxer phase and it is essential to the Sinatra persona. Without that sense of desperation and yearning, we wouldn't be able to sympathize with him, to root for him.
I also can't ignore the eroticism of his film work, particularly his post-1950 performances. Did any leading man look at a leading lady with as much carnality as Sinatra did? A prime example, for me, is Pal Joey. Throughout the film, George Sidney's directing emphasizes Sinatra's gaze as it illustrates lust, love, and all the confusing feelings in between. It's a wonderful performance, one that demonstrates how the combination of his acting and singing could achieve the powerful feeling of being bewitched, bothered, and bewildered, to borrow a phrase from one of the film's best songs.
There is so much more I could say, but it all adds up to the same thing: I adore this man. His acting and his voice have transported, comforted, and awed me so many times over the years. He was such an exceptional artist, as well as a fascinating, complex person, and I could never thank him enough for all he has brought to my life.
Happy birthday, Francis Albert.
This is my entry in the First Annual Frank Sinatra Blogathon, hosted by KN Winiarski Writes. Read the other tributes to this magnificent man here.