Saturday, December 12, 2015

Quote of the Day (George F. Will, on Sinatra, ‘The Greatest Singer of American Songs’)

“Frank Sinatra should be celebrated for his craftsmanship. Of geniuses, we have, it seems, a steady stream. Actual craftsmen are rarer and more useful because they are exemplary for anyone with a craft, be it surgery or carpentry. Sinatra was many things, some of them — libertine, bully, gangster groupie — regrettable. But he unquestionably was the greatest singer of American songs.”— George F. Will, “The Frank Sinatra We Remember,” The Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2015

Today is the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra, baby. Forget it at your own risk.

One who seems to have done so, at least according to a good number of true believers, is columnist George F. Will, who came in for considerable flack from aficionados who perceived a slight of the Chairman of the Board in that sentence about “regrettable” failings.

Let’s grant right now that Will could have made more of Sinatra’s fierce opposition, early in his career, to racism, at a point when such a stance could have posed grave risks for his career, or of the singer’s legendary generosity, manifested publicly and privately (he came to the aid of a number of entertainers experiencing severe financial difficulties, including Woody Herman, Duke Ellington and Lee J. Cobb).

But—there’s really no way to get around it—Sinatra was a bully, someone who could not only turn on people close to him for years, but also capitalize on friendships with Mafia figures to order beatings of people who rubbed him the wrong way, including comic Jackie Mason and author Dominick Dunne.

Every one of us who has ever suffered or fought off a bully can never forget it. And when professional muscle is enlisted to do the bullying—well, I don’t see how you can look the other way, do you?

So, let’s grant that, too. We are still left with the Wills assertion--that Ol' Blue Eyes was "the greatest singer of American songs"--which makes so many people defend Sinatra no matter what, while making others regard the singer as an infinitely fascinating mass of contradictions.

You can certainly count me among the latter group. As I searched for past posts of mine about Sinatra, I was surprised to discover that the number of times I’ve written about him has probably only been exceeded by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Sondheim. Considering how I regarded him when I was a teenager in the '70s--a hopelessly square representative of everything the older generation stood for--that's quite a turnaround--and, of course, a tribute to his extraordinary talent.

For what it’s worth, below are links to my considerations of different aspects of his career and life:

*From Here to Eternity: The Godfather-propagated legend of how Sinatra landed his Oscar-winning, comeback role of Maggio—and what was the more likely, prosaic truth.

*Guys and Dolls: Why the singer hated, hated, hated that movie’s co-star, Marlon Brando.

*Carousel: Why Sinatra felt such an affinity with "Soliloquy," the epic centerpiece of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—and why he walked away from the role of Billy Bigelow onscreen.

*Billie Holiday: How the example of “Lady Day” (whose 100th birthday was also celebrated this year) proved crucial in Sinatra’s mid-career decision to refashion himself from youthful crooner to world-weary interpreter of song.

One last thing. You'll notice that to accompany this post, I haven't chosen one of his jaunty, "I've Got the World on a String"-style images, but one showing an infinitely more vulnerable side. This comes from another film for which he was Oscar-nominated, The Man With the Golden Arm, about a drug addict. 

The author of this post from the blog "More Stars Than in the Heavens" got it right in noting, "There’s real desperation in every second of his screentime here – the kind that, frankly, no actor can learn." It's the same type of desperation and pathos he mined in "saloon songs" such as "One More for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". 

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