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My Favorite Year

Richard Benjamin

My Favorite Year is a film of comic redemption. Too pretentious for my own good, I can't, at the moment, think of any other films that fall under my that rubric, but I'm sure that I shall, because I don't think that I'd understand this one so well if it were truly unique. My Favorite Year is delightfully and easily funny right up to the moment, minutes from the end, when Alan Swann, the Hollywood hero played by Peter O'Toole, appears on the balcony of the theatre in which Comedy Cavalcade, a stand-in for Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, is being filmed, live. Then it gets serious. It remains funny, but you're overwhelmed. The washed-up guy who used to play heroes in the movies finally becomes one.

At the beginning of the movie, Swann is an unreliable drunk. Charming, yes, but empty. His Wildean adages sound clever but add up to nothing worth hearing. He is wise enough to admit that he himself is the principal victim of his own appeal, and he manages to convey the confession without a trace of narcissism. Alan Swann has become somebody who, thanks to celebrity, gets away with everything but murder. He hates his own want of connection to the world, but remains too insecure to open up. Until, that is, he's lectured by a mother-and-son team from Brooklyn. Wherever the book of My Favorite Year originated, it was certainly with one or the other member of that team. But the author knew how to stand to one side and let the real star stand forth. Unreliable drunk or not, Alan Swann is still a star.

Superficially, My Favorite Year is one of those amusing movies that don't take your breath away until the very end, and then not to laugh; so you don't remember it as one of the great comedies. But it is a perfectly constructed jewel. Always building on itself, always flattering its audience's showbiz savvy, the story needs to devote almost no time to explanations. All of the characters become familiar the moment they're introduced, and they ; this allows for made plain upon introduction, the better to let them interact thereafter. Every scene plays into all that follow. An early scene, in which Joe Bologna's King Kaiser skirmishes with a mobster named Rojeck while the show's producer, played by Adolph Green, tries in vain to keep the men from throwing valuables out the window of his 30 Rock office, throws off enough lunatic swagger to make us hope that there's more where that came from - and there is. What could have been merely a funny episode - the dinner, chez Steinberg, in 'our humble chapeau', presided over by the romantic hero's mother (played to the hilt by Lainie Kazan) and attended by half of Ocean Parkway - works instead as a pivotal moment. "Shame on you, Swannie," says Belle Steinberg Carroca when she learns that the big movie star hasn't seen his daughter in Connecticut in over a year - and this shames him into trying to change his life. (Peter O'Toole's face in the next-morning scene, when he watches the girl from his limo but doesn't speak to her, makes for one of the great takes in movie history, one nicely followed by a close-up designed to tell us that the little girl - all right, not so little -  innocently circling on her bicycle, knew all the time who the man in the car was.) What might have been a divertissement in a lesser film here subtly produces a change in climate.

There's an appealing love story going on in the foreground, nicely played by Mark Linn-Baker and Jessica Harper, and a finely-tuned ensemble act involving the Cavalcade writers, headed by Bill Macy with a great assist by Anne De Salvo, but nothing gets in the way of Peter O'Toole's prodigious sweep, which completely controls the climax. King Kaiser (German for 'Caesar'), the host of the show that has given Alan Swann a last chance at retaining his fame, has infuriated a mobster with a satirical skit. Warned off, King only becomes more obstinate. He really believes that he can take care of this threat. His insouciance is so engaging that we almost agree with him. But the moment comes when, on live television, he's being hammered by the mob. The audience thinks it's all scripted and funny, but we know that it's not. Suddenly Alan Swann, who had fled the set moments before air time because of stage fright - he hasn't performed in front of a live audience in twenty-eight years, and nobody had bothered to tell him that Comedy Cavalcade works without the luxury of takes - suddenly Alan Swann is there on the balcony, right next to a cable that looks like great swashbuckler material. He rises to the occasion and leaps to King Kaiser's aid. What follows is pure Derring Do. By the time Alan takes his bows, waving his sword distractedly on camera, I can hardly see the picture. Not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, I do both.

The movie's one flaw is its ending right there, on a dime. Ouch. (August 2004)

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