Films on Stars: My Favorite Year (1982)

31 08 2010

It’s with great pleasure that I include My Favorite Year in my Films on Stars series, as it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I have no idea how old I was when I first saw it, but the movie, and its hilarious lines, were a mainstay in my house as a child. I have probably seen it dozens of times and could probably recite most of it from memory. I recorded it on Turner Classic Movies the other day not because I immediately thought of it for this series, but just for the pleasure of revisiting a favorite of my youth. Imagine my surprise when I realized it is clearly about stardom and fame damage, albeit from a comedic rather than melodramatic perspective. It also works well as an example of a film about stardom that centers on a male star, which does not seem to be the norm.

For those of you unfamiliar with this film, you can read a more detailed plot summary here or watch the trailer on TCM’s site here. Set in the early days of television, freshman comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, better known as Cousin Larry to fans of 80s sitcoms) must ensure matinee idol Alan Swann (played by the superb Peter O’Toole) shows up for his guest star appearance on a popular sketch/variety comedy show. Swann is a thinly veiled reference to movie lothario Errol Flynn, down to the heroic swashbuckling roles he plays in his films and this scandalous reputation as a ladies man off-screen. But he is also an unreliable drunk, so Benjy must babysit him to make sure he shows up, sober, to all rehearsals and for the live broadcast of the show.

Swann’s on-screen persona, like Flynn’s, is the epitome of masculine movie star glamor. He is handsome and debonair in an innate and natural way. He simply doesn’t even have to try to charm people. Female audiences swoon over him and male audiences, especially super-fan Benjy, look up to him as a courageous and heroic ideal of manhood. This sort of fame and devotion has allowed Swann to, as he himself says, “get away with murder” in certain contexts. Here’s a moment that encapsulates that movie idol charm and how it relates to his off-screen ladies man persona:

Fame seems to have given him everything he could possibly want. This is actually presented as the “problem” with fame because it ultimately robs him of the “real” things in life: real relationships and family. His life is a series of meaningless flings with women who want the Alan Swann they see on the screen, and, he says, “no matter what I do, I never fulfill their expectations.” He is keenly aware that he is a facade created by the studios. Late in the film, he tells Benjy his real name is Clarence Duffy and that his whole life, from his name to his lifestyle, was created by the studio. He is an image, and is increasingly lost in that image without any connection to his “real” self. To cope, he drinks and cavorts with women, simultaneously living up to his image and distancing himself even more from his real self. He tells Benjy he “can’t tell where the bogus [self] ends and the real one begins.” He’s sick of everyone allowing him to get away with whatever he wants (including his boorish behavior when he’s drunk) simply because he is famous, but doesn’t see the way out of it. He doesn’t know how to NOT be Alan Swann and just be Clarence Duffy.

His loneliness and fear of his real self is most evident in his (seemingly self-imposed) estrangement from his daughter, Tess. In his life as Alan Swann, everyone wants a piece of him, and he is usually more than happy to oblige. But when he goes to Connecticut to see Tess, he can’t even get out of the car because he is afraid of what she thinks of him. O’Toole’s face conveys so much in this scene:

This is all very serious, but I swear this is a comedy! And, as a comedy, the treatment of Swann’s fame damage and loss of “real” self to his “reel” self is not quite as serious as in, say, A Star Is Born. Swann’s drunken escapades are certainly played for humor, like when he tries to help Benjy win the heart of co-worker K.C. Downing by rappelling into her parents’ apartment on a fire hose. This move is straight out of his swashbuckling movies, as he can’t separate himself from them, and he nearly kills himself in the process. The contradiction between “real” life and “reel” life in this scene pure comedy gold, not a crushing melodramatic moment. This is clip is a bit long (6 minutes) and not the best quality, but the scene is hilarious and a good example of Swann’s fame damage in action.

I also think that because this is a comedy, we get a solution to the fame damage problem in the form of a happy ending. We are left with the sense that Alan Swann, though his experiences with Benjy, finally finds his real self, reconnects with his daughter, and generally becomes a happy (and presumably sober) person.

After having a breakdown at the thought of doing live television (the sketch show is, after all, live and Swann is used to the multiple takes of Hollywood movie making), Swann finally admits that he is scared. He says, “I’m flesh and blood, life-sized! I was never the silly goddamn hero!.” But Benjy refuses to let him get away with it, for once, saying “I can’t use you life-sized! I need my Alan Swann’s as big as I can get them…You couldn’t have convinced me the way you did if you didn’t have that courage inside.” Okay, a little schmaltzy, but that’s comedy wrap ups for you. Regardless, it is this realization that he DOES have an innate courage and specialness that makes Swann recognize that he is more than “just” a silly goddamn hero and that his “real” self matters too. He saves the day on the show and, as we learn in a voice over, goes back to see Tess and “this time, he knocked on the door” and is greeted with open arms.

As a side note, Swann’s breakdown is also makes a distinction between talent-based stardom and media-based stardom. He is afraid to do live television and perform in front of an audience and says “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” Any talent he may have believed he had has been overshadowed by his persona, leaving him unsure of his ability to actually do the work of acting. Being a movie star is not the same sort of work, from Swann’s perspective. It sort of happens to him, rather than him being an active agent in creating it.

Though I chalk this happy ending up to the fact this film is a comedy, I think there are also some gender implications here. The male star can overcome fame damage and rediscover his true self in ways we haven’t seen in the other films I’ve discussed. His daughter, apparently, instantly forgives him for being an absentee father and he goes right back into a happy family life. Compare that with the failed attempt to forge a real family or relationship in A Star Is Born or The Rose.

The male star’s fame damage, in this case his drinking and womanizing, are played off as essential, if not endearing, elements of his appeal as a star. His private life exploits help elevate his star status, not diminish it. Though there is clearly still damage, he is never abandoned by others (like Rose is) nor does his damage alienate people (he can always smooth talk his way back). It’s a much more private failing compared to the public downfall we saw in The Rose, for example. He is never humilitated and shamed by his behavior, and even frankly answers Benjy’s uncle’s question regarding a paternity suit and laughs off a newspaper report of him swimming naked in a fountain with a girl he met at the Stork Club. Compare that to the “brave face forward” of Vickie Lester after her husband’s suicide in A Star is Born.

Of course, maybe Swann gave up the public life to become a father, we don’t know. But I think the film leaves us with the sense that fame can be a problem and can make one lose sight of what is really important for a false sense of entitlement and attention. But fame and movie stardom also gives audiences (personified by Benjy) something to aspire to and dream about. It also can enable the star (Swann) to find his true inner strength by appealing to the very star image that seemed to trap him. He can still be “Alan Swann from the movies” because he always was that courageous person on the inside…he just lost track of it for a while. In other words, some people are still destined to be stars, but may need a little help staying grounded.




4 responses

31 08 2010

I think I disagree about the movie’s happy ending promising a full redemption for Swann. We close on Swann bowing before an ecstatic crowd, and the voice-over from Benjy tells us that the next day he went and made it up with his daughter. But Benjy also says something more equivocal–I’m going to paraphrase, but it’s something like this: “I think if you asked the Alan Swann of later years what had been the most gratifying moment of his career, he would have said this one.” He even qualifies the statement by preambling with “Whatever you think of Alan Swann…” and “Whatever else happened in his life…”. The guy’s only in his 40s at the end of the film, and Benjy thinks this moment of ridiculous real-life heroism perceived by audiences as part of his star myth was the high point of his career. To me, that makes this ending bittersweet–and more pragmatic about the inevitable career trajectory of an aging star. And I actually like that a lot.

That feeling of nostalgia for past (and lost) achievement is built into the title too, isn’t it? My Favorite Year–and nothing after that was ever quite as great.

31 08 2010

Good points. But I think this moment is a highlight of his career, as you say, precisely BECAUSE it’s the moment when Swann realizes he is more than just his movie star image, yet also embodies the good parts of it. Those people who derided his films as “crap” in the beginning (and I should have acknowledged that he did have some haters who pointed out that he was just a matinee idol and not to be taken seriously) would, from Benjy’s perspective, have seen he was a real star, inside and out, at that moment.

In his 40s? I think he’s older. But you are right, the aging idol thing is approaching, and he certainly wasn’t making any more hero movies when he came to be on the comedy show. So the coming to terms with the self audiences believe him to be and who he ACTUALLY is (he is that courageous hero) is a high point. Which could allow him to continue to be that persona in an even more authentic way and a way that won’t cause him anymore personal damage. But we don’t know what happens after this, which makes both our readings right.

It’s also worth pointing out that for male stars aging is not quite as dire as for female stars (stay tuned for my All About Eve post which will be next in this series).

3 09 2010
An Admirer

Great companion post to The Rose one, and the gender analysis was really interesting. It’s still true now, right? that male celebrities can get away with alcohol and sex indulgences in a way that female ones can’t (to the same degree).

On a different note, I’m struck by how dated what I guess I could call “debonair masculinity” is; Swann seems so fey (if not outright gay), but I suppose it could also partly be a British thing. But you know what I mean?

4 09 2010

I think you are right. Male stars drug/alcohol is not as big of a deal in gossip…until you get to Mel Gibson levels, I suppose.

On the debonair masculinity, I think that’s partly a nod to Errol Flynn (as I said, Swann is a thinly veiled reference to Flynn, who was Australian!). Watch any of his movies (I recently saw The Adventures of Robin Hood) and thought the gay reading just jumped off the screen, but it really wouldn’t have been read like that by most audiences at the time. But you are right, he doesn’t exhibit the same sort of masculinity as we see in contemporary male movie stars. Even British ones…for example, Daniel Craig can be read in a queer way, but not in the same queer way as Swann here.

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