I’ve had Frank Sinatra on the brain (and on the stereo) of late. I’ve just finished reading a fascinating 2010 biography by James Kaplan. Called Frank: The Voice, it does a remarkable job of focusing on the man’s evolving singing style. (An upcoming sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, is due out this fall.) First and foremost, Frank Sinatra was a musical genius. But of course he was many other things too: a husband, a son, a father, an unrepentant philanderer, a power figure, a movie star.
I’m focusing here on a low point in his career. In the early 1950s, life was no longer going his way. His longtime record label dropped him: the bobby-soxers who had once swooned over his romantic ballads were now devoted to Eddie Fisher. Though he’d made big box-office musicals under contract to MGM, Louis B. Mayer was no longer in his corner. He’d traded in a doting wife and family to marry the tempestuous Ava Gardner. With nothing better to do, he’d accompanied her to a movie set in Kenya, where she was to play opposite Clark Gable in Mogambo. On their travels, says Kaplan, “Ava was now the star; Frank, the consort.” It didn’t help that they fought constantly, nor that Ava conceived (and then secretly aborted) his child.
En route to Africa, Sinatra carried with him a battered copy of James Jones’ blockbuster World War II novel, From Here to Eternity. Always a voracious reader, he had fallen in love with the character of Maggio, a cocky buck private from Brooklyn. As Jones describes Maggio, he’s “a tiny curly-headed Italian with narrow bony shoulders jutting from his undershirt.” Both feisty and vulnerable, he can never resist a fight or a crap game. Sinatra reasoned that he was born to play this role. He saw it as his best opportunity to get new respect in Hollywood and to resurrect his fan base. That’s why he bombarded decision-makers like Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures with telegrams begging for the chance to audition.
Finally he took Cohn to lunch and insisted that, though in the past he’d earned $150,000 per film, he’d be willing to take the part for a mere grand a week. But it was not until he landed in Kenya that he was finally invited to test for the role. Since he was flat broke, Ava had to stake him to the cash to fly 13,000 miles to Culver City. There he performed two drunk scenes that encapsulated what Montgomery Clift’s character, Prewitt, says of Maggio: “He’s such a comical little guy and yet somehow he makes me always want to cry while I’m laughin’ at him.”
Others were testing too. The one who seemed to have the inside track was the great character actor Eli Wallach. Many felt Wallach’s test was far superior, but director Fred Zinnemann believed that Wallach’s burly physique was not right for this role. Says Kaplan, “The minute the director saw Sinatra’s small frame and narrow shoulders and haunted eyes, he was intrigued. When Frank condensed all the pain of the last two years into ten minutes of screen test, Zinnemann was floored.”
Kaplan strongly refutes the Hollywood legend that Sinatra, like singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, won his dream role because of mob interference. Harry Cohn, a highly practical man, okayed the crooner who was willing to settle for low pay over the expensive Wallach. In return, Sinatra -- helped by his budding friendship with Monty Clift -- turned in a highly disciplined performance. Then came an Oscar, and a new lease on life.