January 29, 2007

The Rat Pack (1998)

The HBO production The Rat Pack is a fairly good dramatization of the events swirling around Frank Sinatra's inner circle at the dawning of the 1960s. It was a time when Dean Martin's famous quote "It's Frank's world, and we're just living in it," was at its most accurate. While Sinatra and pals were making Ocean's 11, they were also entertaining crowds at the Sands with their historic "Summit" performances.

Talk about burning the candle at both ends! The members of the Summit would awaken in the late afternoon, walk through a few scenes for their abused director (don't ask Sinatra for a second take!), Lewis Milestone, grab a steam in the Sands steam room (to sweat out various toxins), and then head for the stage in the Copa Room. After their performance, they'd stay up until the wee small hours of the morning, finally go to bed, sleep until late afternoon, and repeat it all over again. While all of this was occurring, Sinatra (and Sam Giancana) even managed to help John F. Kennedy get elected to the presidency of the United States. These are the events portrayed in The Rat Pack.

As the opening credits roll, the backstage routine of a much older Frank Sinatra is depicted:

Sinatra tells someone backstage that he "misses his guys."

The viewer gets a brief glimpse of Ray Liotta in old age makeup:

And during the performance (of "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die"), we are transported back to 1958, when Sinatra was in many ways the sun around which much of the entertainment industry orbited:
Liotta is good as Sinatra, but I never for one moment believed he was Sinatra. I suppose he was cast due to his being Italian, and the volatility he displayed through characters he has portrayed, such as Ray Sinclair or Henry Hill. I guess the film's makers wanted to emphasize the menacing component to Sinatra's personality.

A montage of newspaper headlines make it seem as if the formation of the Summit was inevitable:






Joe Mantegna makes his first appearance in the "role" of Dean Martin. At certain angles, he does in fact resemble Dino. I think he may even be doing his own singing in some scenes.

The following scene provides a glimpse of what it might have been like to enter Sinatra's inner sanctum, as Sinatra calls Dean in order to convince him to make Some Came Running (1958 - sort of the first Rat Pack film):

I love that scene, particularly how the screenwriter suggests that Sinatra could have laid his crown hat on his two Oscars (The House I Live In [1945] and From Here to Eternity [1953]) from time to time.

Don Cheadle portrays the "merry negro," Sammy Davis, Jr. Cheadle may have had the most work to do preparing for his role, in that he had to learn to sing, tap dance, play drums, play trumpet and twirl six-shooter pistols like Davis did.
Angus Macfadyen does a great Peter Lawford imitation. The film depicts Sinatra and Lawford burying the hatchet at a high society party hosted by Patricia Kennedy-Lawford. In real life, Lawford and Sinatra appeared in It Happened in Brooklyn in 1947, and they were acquaintances until rumors of a Lawford - Ava Gardner affair in the late '40s put him on Sinatra's sh*t list and possibly jeopardized his very existence.

This scene shows the members of the Summit/Clan (only reporters called Sinatra's group "The Rat Pack"; to Sinatra, the actual Rat Pack was the group of friends organized around Humphrey Bogart, which included Sinatra) committing to Ocean's 11 while having dinner at a favorite Sinatra haunt. Sinatra spots a reporter who said something about him he didn't like, and a scene repeated several times in reality unfolds:

And, voila!:

Mantegna portraying Martin preparing to play the role of "Dean Martin" as he pours a tall glass of apple juice

Senator/presidential candidate John F. Kennedy (William L. Petersen) is in attendance for a Summit performance. Kennedy is rumored to have said that the only person in the world he would want to change places with was Frank Sinatra.
I'd like to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy

And so, the Clan falls together and is unleashed upon the Las Vegas of the late '50s, early '60s. A generation of older Americans goes along for the ride. I would argue it is exactly this aesthetic and lifestyle the counterculture would rebel against some five years later. What seemed so unimaginably cool to Tiki-culture audiences of the early '60s would seem painfully square and corny after the arrival of The Beatles in North America on February 6, 1964. But while it lasted, those guys were on top of the world (WARNING: video contains explicit conduct; may be NSFW):

What is interesting about that montage of Rat Pack dalliances is obviously Dean's scene. I think that scenario is pretty accurate, and it demonstrates the complexity and contradictictions of Dean Martin. There is a great biography that dives into that complexity, called Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. It's a fascinating read I highly recommend, and I believe the depiction of Dean Martin in The Rat Pack is based upon its interpretation of Martin's life.

Sinatra did in fact have a shrine to Gardner as depicted in this scene

With the election of Kennedy to the presidency, Sinatra was riding high. It is around this time that the love of his life, Ava Gardner, even made a reappearance. But as was reportedly the norm with Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, as soon as the lovemaking ended, they were fighting with the same levels and depth of passion. The actress portraying her does a much better imitation of Gardner than did Kate Beckinsale (she was no doubt cast because her beauty rivals Gardner's) in The Aviator.

The film does a good job of portraying the dismantling of the Clan, which fell apart as personal issues and personality conflicts floated to the surface (for one thing, Sinatra blamed Lawford after Kennedy decided to stay with Bing Crosby, a Republican(!), instead of Sinatra during a visit to California; Sinatra had an entire wing added on to his Palm Springs estate for Kennedy and his entourage, including a helipad for the presidential helicopter). And just in general, the times, they were a-changin'. The Rat Pack's act was beginning to seem stale. As it was done at the beginning of the film, the filmmakers rely on a newspaper headline montage (set to someone imitating Sinatra singing his ultimate saloon song, "One For My Baby," from his "suicide album" Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely):

"Marilyn Monroe Dead at 36"
"Barbituates Suspected in Apparent Suicide"

"RFK Deports Mob Boss Carlos Marcello"

a place in the sun


SamuraiFrog said...

I love this movie. I remember watching the premiere on HBO when one of my local radio stations was having a contest to go to a screening in Las Vegas. I didn't win (my impression of Dino sucks, and that was the contest, impersonate Dean or Sammy), but I loved the movie. Joe Mantegna needs some more recognition for it.

dino martin peters said...

Hey pallie, like a great blog of the Rat Pack flick. Dino is the greatest entertainer this ol' world has ever seen. Never was, never will be anyone as cool as Dino. Oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth!

Chris said...

samuraifrog, it is a good movie. By "screening" do you mean you saw it on a big screen? If so, you were lucky! I guess the contest organizers assumed nobody could do Sinatra?? I agree about Mantegna - he is very good in the part.

How's your bird, dino martin peters? Dino was the coolest of the cool. Even Sinatra admired Dean. I assume you read the Nick Tosches biography? It's excellent.

Becca said...

This really was a great movie that got too little recognition. When Rob Cohen is good he's good...when he's not he's directed XXX. So sad.

Chris said...

Heh, I noticed that, becca, when I IMDb-ed the movie. He does appear to be directing The Mummy 3.

Palm Springs Savant said...

nice job with this post...I liked the flick too. Oh the good ole days! I just did a post on the best crooners...stop by and say hi sometime

Chris said...

thanks, palm springs savant. I'll check it out. Sounds cool.