My Favorite Year (1982)
August 24, 2014 9:52 AM - Subscribe

A dissolute matinee idol is slated to appear on a live TV variety show.

A good summary from TV Guide:
A delightful film presenting a poignant portrait of television in the early 1950s. Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is a fledgling writer for a live comedy television show hosted by zany, tough, yet soft-hearted King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). Benjy is assigned to chaperone the unpredictable, boozing, onetime Hollywood swashbuckler Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), who is to appear on television in a Kaiser skit. Arriving in Manhattan drunk and uncontrollable, Swann begins to lead Stone in a wild night of revelry, and over the next several days, the famous guest is involved in a series of escapades. On the show itself he staggers about with the near-DTs, forgetting his lines and getting into a fight with a bunch of union goons invading the set over Kaiser's past insults. O'Toole is superb as the former matinee idol, and Bologna is outstanding as the brusque and brawling comic. Linn-Baker, who would later go on to his own television series in 1986, is excellent, playing out a real-life incident where novice comedy writer Mel Brooks was assigned to chaperone the colorful Errol Flynn before he appeared on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows." Cameron Mitchell plays a union crime boss with lead-foot accuracy and deadpan deadliness. Richard Benjamin's direction surprisingly provides a dizzy pace and inventive set-ups, aided greatly by cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld and editor Richard Chew.
The shift in the entertainment industry from New York to the Los Angeles hadn't occurred yet, and NYC was the center of power for the "Golden Age of Televsion".

There are many aspects of this film we could discuss, from the direction and casting, to the costumes and set designs that take you back to the '50s, to the music, to the physical humor. The film also highlights screwball comedy, language comedy, surreal comedy, quirky stuff, great set-pieces, and excellent timing by a cast well-versed in comedic delivery.

Major themes: hero-worship, identity vs. manufactured identity; family as a grounding bedrock when faced with the falseness of modern life; gender roles and restrictions; fame (and sex appeal) and how it screws you up - yet also has rewards; the chaos of "putting on a show" in the era of live TV in the 1950s and how it was a proving ground for actors ("I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"). Alcoholism and how it affects relationships. Courtship and how it is "scripted" along clearly defined gender roles. Also Jewish themes of integration and 'otherness' in a largely WASPy 1950s American cultural landscape.
  • The stories of Sid Caesar's physical intimidation (and neuroses) is deftly handled in the treatment of Joe Bologna's character ('King Kaiser'), largely based on Caesar.
  • Peter O'Toole was Nominated for an Oscar for the category of "Best Actor" for his performance (he lost to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi) .
  • This was one of the films from Mel Brooks' production company, Brooksfilms
  • Bill Macy (known for "Maude") stands out for his humorous portrayal of a despicable character.
  • Mark Linn-Baker went to star in his own TV sit-com, "Perfect Strangers", with Bronson Pinchot
Bonus links

You Tube clip - 'Benjy' makes a big reveal to 'Alan Swann'.
Alan Sepinwall: Mel Brooks Looks Back on Sid Caesar, "Blazing Saddles," and More
Susan Doll: I'm Not An Actor, I'm a Movie Star: Notes on 'My Favorite Year'
Neil Simon recreates the writer's room of Sid Caesar's 'Your Show of Shows'
Your Show of Shows at Wikipedia
Roger Ebert: An Uncommon Man: Peter O'Toole, 1932–2013
Peter O'Toole" Man, Bad, and Touched by Genius: An Appreciation"
Teens @JUF (Jewish United Fund): My Favorite Year
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (8 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I just want to drop a note to say that I love this film, and when I first saw it in the theaters, when I was a boy, I found the climax to literally be screamingly funny.

I once had a band named the Peter O'Tooles, and I think it was, in part, because he is so very, very good in this film, and that has stayed with me my entire life. Nobody could show you why you didn't want to be the man that everybody wants to be quite like O'Toole.

I watched a few of his films again recently, and tweeted my feelings about them, which are, basically, that I don't understand how we share exactly the same ethnic makeup, but he looks like a Greek God while I look like a potato sculpture.
posted by maxsparber at 8:39 AM on August 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

A few weeks ago I rewatched this at the behest of a friend.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to book a Boston-area show for an artist whose work was the soundtrack to my adolescence. It didn't go as well as I'd hoped, mostly due to my own ineptitude and disorganization. Meeting someone I thought of in my formative years as an ersatz older brother/cool uncle and seeing that he was human -- not just a crusty and avuncular figure, but a real person with sharp edges and right angles and fraying nerves -- was a humbling and intimidating experience. (I made one sizable fuckup when he arrived here, and spent the next 36 hours worrying that I'd dragged him east only to have him watch me empty a round of ammunition into my foot. So really, I have no one to blame but myself for the frayed nerves.)

Not long after he departed from South Station, I got this out of the library. Part of me laughed, because how can you not laugh when Peter O'Toole is attempting to buckle swashes with nothing but a firehose and a whole lot of liquor? But at times I cringed on Benjy's behalf. Even though he was more or less an audience stand-in and didn't play an active role in the film's more embarrassing moments, I identified with the mistakes he made and the expectations he had for Alan Swann, vs. who Alan Swann actually was.

In light of my recent experience, I did kind of wish that the film let Benjy off the hook a bit to make mistakes and to fail Alan Swann, the way Alan Swann inadvertently failed Benjy. But the film wouldn't have worked if Benjy wasn't "just" the audience surrogate/voice of reason, and sometimes it's best to just let a force of nature do what he needs to do.

The closing scene, with Swann redeeming himself and Benjy's voiceover, made me tear up a bit. I eventually got closure, when my Alan Swann and I talked about Joseph Conrad (of all things) over email. I still regret and feel ashamed of the mistakes I made as a small-time rock promoter, but sometimes fictional characters can give us the grace notes we could never hit in real life.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:41 PM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

The scene that always stays with me is when Swann dances with the older lady at the nightclub. So beautiful.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:51 PM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think Alan Swann is beneath us!
posted by Naberius at 6:15 PM on August 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Of course he's beneath us. He's an actor.
posted by pxe2000 at 6:19 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


(had to)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:36 PM on August 26, 2014

This is from the Roger Ebert tribute linked above:
Many of his middle-aged parts tapped into his aging bad boy image, notably 1980's "The Stunt Man," in which he played a Satanically wicked director toying with the title character's body and soul; and 1982's "My Favorite Year." The latter was perhaps the first semi-official "Peter O'Toole as himself" role: Alan Swann, a soused troublemaking star-in-decline, was modeled on Errol Flynn but spiked with bits of seemingly personal brio. Proposing the Stork Club as a dinner option, Swann declares, "It's been a year and a half. Surely they've repaired the wall of the bandstand by now." The lines echoed O'Toole's own instructions for a New Year's Party at his house in Hampstead: "Fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping, polite conversation and the breaking of bones: such jollities constitute acceptable behaviour, but no acting allowed."
His role in My Favorite Year was very, very meta.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:39 PM on August 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

So I went ahead and rented this. O'Toole -- maybe everybody -- is obviously having a lot of fun and there's some really effective re-creation of 1950s live television in this. Perhaps my favorite detail is how muted the colors of the set were -- just enough color but not too much. The Swann character is a force of nature and the center of everything, the way you imagine the man would be. I didn't feel the angle with his daughter got resolved, though, and Mark Linn-Baker is both as nebbishy as a nebbish can be yet somehow not real, not inhabiting his role to quite the same degree, so a bit of a weak link. Joseph Bologna, unfortunately, is another one, in that while he can do some of the physical comedy well enough, his slow burns are too cartoony and he simply doesn't have the sort of charisma that would go with having a hit variety show. Jessica Harper, too, is someone who is adequate for the task but doesn't make the role sing in the way that would elevate the film.

On the other hand, I think the movie story makes sense in a way as the sort of thing that would become, in the movie universe, an "Alan Swann story" (modern equivalent, perhaps, a "Bill Murray story") where the embellishments are part of the fun of the retelling. I mean, nobody could believe that he could swing down from the rafters on a convenient rigging rope and defeat some mobster's goons just because they were so goon-like they had no idea they had wandered onto a TV stage, right? There is farce and there is also ha-ha-aren't-we-funny-for-doing-farce, a line I feel this movie treads not always successfully. The actors are generally, however, even the bit players at times, so effective that the creakiness doesn't matter.

For my money, TBH, if you want a later O'Toole performance you go with his mad director in The Stunt Man, which has its own authenticity issues but seems more fully grounded in what it's depicting. I'm also a big fan of his performance in The Ruling Class, which is both of its time and seems more real by the day. And as I mentioned in the administrivia thread, I recently discovered the delights of How to Steal a Million.

As to Baker, I thought Perfect Strangers was the most hilarious thing the first year it was on, and now I have no idea what I was thinking.
posted by dhartung at 1:02 AM on August 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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