Some brief notes on: Frank Sinatra, Sandra Bullock and Deborah Kerr
Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998)
We of a certain age all grew up with Frank Sinatra. At least his music. He came after Bing Crosby and somehow somewhere in the late 1950s surpassed him as America’s most popular singer. By this time he had gone through several highs and lows that had not only deepened and matured him but left a residue of anger and bitterness as well. It was during this period that he recorded so many of his classic albums with Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins. Now he had been in movies for nearly a decade already but it wasn’t until his famous “comeback” in From Here to Eternity (1953) that anyone ever paid much attention to Sinatra the actor. But even earlier Frank was beginning to show his chops as an actor in films like Meet Danny Wilson (1952). And after his Oscar winning performance as Best Supporting Actor he quickly moved into playing dramatic leading roles with such distinction that Elia Kazan, arguably the best director of actors in America, selected him for the lead in On the Waterfront (1954) when Marlon Brando at first refused to play the role. Later when Brando changed his mind and accepted, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel had to financially settle with Sinatra out of court. My point being that Elia Kazan in selecting Sinatra was indicating how high in his esteem Frank was as an actor. Right up there next to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift who were then thought of as America’s finest.
I feel that this estimation is correct. At the time Sinatra was among America’s finest dramatic actors in the movies. One only has to revisit films like Suddenly (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Joker is Wild (1957), Some Came Running (1958) and of course The Manchurian Candidate (1962) which he also produced. But his skill was not just relegated to dramas he was as good at comedy in films like The Tender Trap (1955) and one of my favorites Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959). Then came the “Rat Pack” when he seemed to be mostly playing host to his friends rather than acting a role that he started giving lazy uninteresting performances. Apparently, for some reason he became bored and decided not to try anymore. (Note: Marlon Brando seemed to have fallen victim of the same malaise as well.) But at his best very few could match him. Today he is legendary as a singer/ interpreter of songs but he was also an actor of rare power and range. I would say unequivocally the best singer turned actor in the history of motion pictures.
She won the Academy Award as Best Actress in 2009 for The Blind Side but I still contend that she is an underrated dramatic actress whose skills have still not been fully appreciated. I have felt this way since films like Murder by Numbers (2002. It wasn’t much of a picture but she was terrific in it. Also Crash (2004), Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) and the Truman Capote film that nobody saw Infamous (2006). She plays in that one Harper Lee and does a very good job at it. Truthfully I liked this film a lot better than the more celebrated and critically acclaimed Capote that came out earlier the same year. And I sometimes wonder if the release dates on the films had been reversed would both the critical and box office response been the same.
Sandra Bullock came to the public awareness as the spunky young woman who drives the bus in the hit film Speed (1994). Everyone was won over by her energy, quick wittedness and sense of humor in that role and she quickly became type cast as that kind of character. But via other roles that she played I could tell that behind the winning smile and tough girl vulnerability there was an intelligent, sophisticated woman who had been through some of the rough patches of life and was drawing on some of that in her acting. And no, I’m not referring to the tabloid stories about her recent breakup and divorce. This was before all that. There had always been a edginess to her performances that was dramatically surprising and sometimes bracing too. Even in things like the popular Miss Congeniality (2000) it can be spotted. But my favorite role and performance by her thus far is in the film 28 Days (2000). Again nobody saw it. At least nobody I knew and I can’t think of seeing any review that praised or even acknowledged it. Portraying alcoholism is a very difficult task. Nick Cage[O1] nailed it in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and so did Ms. Bullock in 28 Days. Nailed it better than just about anyone in recent memory.
We have a tendency to mentally type cast actors in our minds and not support their efforts to change or expand their range. Hopefully this won’t happen with Ms. Bullock and she will get the opportunity to show us how much more she is capable of. I say this knowing that dramatic stories in movies are a rarity these days. Cable TV seems to be the outlet for these types of stories. But wherever Sandra Bullock has the chops let’s let her show them.
Deborah Kerr (1921- 2007)
Deborah Kerr was one of the great ladies of cinema. An actress of superior skills who also had poise, understated good looks and a quiet presence that complimented every male co star she appeared with. She was one of those women who didn’t have to compete with the male in order to be his equal. And co starred with just about every big male star of her time. Clark Gable (The Hucksters -1947), Robert Taylor ( Quo Vadis- 1951), Stewart Granger (King Solomon’s Mines-1950), Burt Lancaster ( From Here to Eternity – 1953), Robert Mitchum ( Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – 1957), Cary Grant ( An Affair to Remember – 1957),Gregory Peck (Beloved Infidel – 1959), Frank Sinatra ( Marriage on the Rocks- 1965),Gary Cooper ( The Naked Edge – 1961), Kirk Douglas ( The Arrangement – 1969), David Niven (Separate Tables -1958), Van Johnson (End of the Affair – 1955), James Mason ( Julius Caesar – 1953)and with Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956.She became famous for two iconic roles. The troubled wife in From Here to Eternity (particularly for the beach scene) and as the school teacher Anna Leonowens in the musical The King and I although she didn’t sing. Marni Nixon dubbed the musical numbers. She was also an actress of nearly all genres as well, appearing in Costume epics (Quo Vadis),Mysteries ( The Naked Edge), Classics ( Julius Caesar), Historicals ( Young Bess- 1952), Horror ( The Innocents – 1961), War stories (The Journey), Melodramas (The Arrangement), Musicals ( King and I),Comedies ( The Grass is Greener- 1960) a near western ( The Sundowners – 1960), Adventure ( King Solomon’s Mines), Biographical ( Beloved Infidel ), and multiple play adaptations as well. In fact the only genre she seems to have missed completely was science fiction.
She was nominated for the Academy Award six times but never received a competitive award. She was given an honorary award in 1994 for the excellence of her career overall.
I met Ms. Kerr in 1954 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands when she was filming The Proud and the Profane and remember her to be everything she seemed to be on screen. Gentle, thoughtful, considerate and very refined. I had met the entire cast of the film and interviewed most of the principals for the radio station I interned at. I was fifteen at the time and totally in awe of them all. I remember Ms. Kerr as being very approachable and easy to interview. But my most memorable encounter with her occurred a week later when I was going home from school. This was around two in the afternoon and they were filming at the central market place one block away from my school. A crowd had gathered to see what they were doing. So I joined the crowd behind the ropes to look at things too. I watched them do two takes and then break for another setup. As she was heading to her trailer dressing room Ms. Kerr looked over and saw me near the front. She quickly walked over, called my name and bid me to step under the rope and join her. I did and she invited me into her dressing room where we talked about the scene that had just been shot and how movies in general were made. When she was called for the next scene she invited me to sit on her chair so I could more closely see what was going on. I can’t tell you how special that made me feel. And to this day I still look back on it as one of the nicest days of my life. Years later I went to see her on Broadway in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Seascape. After the show I sent a note back stage sort of reminding her of that day in St. Thomas and thanking her for her kindness. I gave it to the guy at the stage door exit for delivery. I never heard from her but I hope she got it.
All this is to say that, from my point of view, Deborah Kerr was not just a great actress on stage and on screen. She was also a very lovely person as well.