He embodied our most wholesome ideals and our darkest impulses in one single, stylish glissando. Frank Sinatra, who started as what he off-handedly called a "saloon singer," surprised them all when he began a serious acting career: Like everything in show business to which he turned his prodigious talents, he succeeded at movies, too, at least some of the time.
After making his feature film debut in 1941 with the Tommy Dorsey band in "Las Vegas Nights," Sinatra went on to make nearly 60 movies, which described an arc as paradoxical as the man himself. There were the musicals, which were to be expected: the MGM classics "Anchors Aweigh," "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "On the Town," as well as "Guys and Dolls" and "High Society." In these films he was the dependable second banana, the pro who could hit his mark, hit the notes and know better than to try to act.
In the 1960s came the boozy, rambunctious canon of Rat Pack comedies -- "Ocean's 11," "Sergeants 3," "4 For Texas," "Robin and the Seven Hoods" -- that exploited the myth surrounding the clique that included Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
Here Sinatra was playing himself, a character who was already larger than life; the swinging Alpha male who invented a style and a language that is still imitated and has never been equaled. The Rat Pack films are pop-culture curios, but as films they were exercises in smug self-indulgence.
And there were many forgettable films before, in between and after.
But there were some notable films during Sinatra's 39-year career in which he was very good, and these are the appearances for which he deserves to be remembered as an actor and not just a pop phenomenon.
It was his performance as the feisty, put-upon Private Maggio in the 1953 film "From Here to Eternity" that first convinced audiences that he could not only sing and crack wise, but act.
When he read the James Jones novel, he became convinced that Maggio was the role he was born to play, and he mercilessly lobbied Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn for an audition. When Eli Wallach declined the role, Sinatra was granted a screen test. He won an Oscar for best-supporting actor for his depiction of Maggio, and his career was resuscitated after it had nearly foundered.
Sinatra rarely equaled his performance in that film, but he went on to deliver a few compelling, sometimes highly nuanced portrayals: He brought shocking, sweating verisimilitude to the role of a relapsing heroin addict in Otto Preminger's "The Man with the Golden Arm" (for which he was nominated for another Oscar); and he quieted his flamboyant image as the Army sergeant haunted by memories of the Korean War in John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate."
In the overlooked melodrama "Some Came Running," the first film in which he appeared with fellow Rat Packers (Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin), he turned in a surprisingly affecting dramatic turn as a writer trying to come to terms with himself as an artist.
Sinatra was never anything other than a singer who occasionally acted. He refused to abide by the early-morning calls typical of Hollywood shooting schedules, instead keeping "French hours" -- late morning to evening -- when he filmed. And he insisted on shooting in one take, knowing that, unlike more technically precise actors, his performances would not get better with repetition.
But when the material, director, mood and timing were right he became a formidable screen presence. His uncanny instinct for phrasing and his innate sense of time served him just as well on screen as it did in his singing. At his best, his performances were music made tangible: intuitive, rhythmic, dynamic and delicately modulated.
No scene stands out as Sinatra's best; no moment defines his strengths as an actor. Indeed it was when he was the most understated that he was at his best. He inhabited Maggio -- as well as his characters in "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "The Manchurian Candidate" -- with quiet focus, tamping down his native charisma and energy to give them life.
The cinematic legacy he leaves is one of tantalizing contradiction. The man of MGM musicals and cute romances ("A Hole in the Head") would also choose markedly subversive material to work with, from the bizarre sociopathy of the B-noir thriller "Suddenly" to the weird sexuality and nihilism underlying "The Detective."
He was the all-American boy with the heart of an assassin. Perhaps no one before or since has combined scrubbed amiability and stone cold menace with such ease. (Central Casting could not have invented a more glamorous or appalling man to be the linchpin in a shadowy matrix where the Mafia, Hollywood and the Kennedys met.)
Sometimes it seemed as if his career was a protracted challenge to the audience that would never lose faith in their spiritual avatar, no matter how many boneheaded moves he pulled (the ill-advised costume drama "The Pride and the Passion" springs to mind).
Sinatra's screen legacy never quite lived up to his promise in films like "From Here to Eternity" and "The Manchurian Candidate." Celluloid could never quite capture the "casual" cool of a man who carefully calibrated the tilt of his hat and the break of his pants. But no one can say that Frank Sinatra stank up the screen -- and a few times he really lit it up.
Pub Date: 5/16/98