For ample proof that even great artists tend to be poor judges of their work and their public images, take a gander at Sinatra. Given that this is a mini-series produced with Frank Sinatra’s blessing by his daughter Tina, featuring a script based in part on recent interviews with him, Sinatra offers a surprisingly unflattering portrait of the singer. The Ol’ Blue Eyes depicted over the five hours of Sinatra is a vulgar egomaniac who was compulsively unfaithful to his first wife, Nancy; consorted with the Mob; punched out photographers who bothered him; and in the late ’60s got really steamed at then wife Mia Farrow for playing her Yardbirds records too loudly.
This is pretty much what I’d always thought Sinatra must be like — if you also throw in the fact that he’s one of the most accomplished, revolutionary pop singers ever. Amazingly, this is the area that Sinatra skimps on.
Which is not to say that Sinatra admirers should pass this production by. For all its earnest, out-of-kilter efforts at authenticity, Sinatra is entertaining on any number of levels and showcases an extraordinary performance by Philip Casnoff, who plays Sinatra from ages 20 through 60. Skinny and hawk-eyed, Casnoff (North and South) embodies the singer from youth to middle age with an authority that never calls attention to itself. His speaking voice is uncanny: Casnoff captures perfectly the way Sinatra offsets his dense, nasal New Jersey accent with stiff, formal phrasing in conversation. Casnoff understands the self-consciousness of a poorly educated Hoboken kid and the way that self-consciousness vanishes when he lets loose and sings.
Sinatra is a typical TV biopic. As a young boy in the ’20s, little Frankie (played by Adam Lavorgna) gets beaten up by his school chums for being interested in singing, even as he knows it’s his true calling: ”Mom, I can do dis — I can be someone!” Mom is played by Olympia Dukakis in her now-patented Moonstruck Italian-mother mode. Sinatra reminds us that it was Dolly Sinatra who wore the pants in this family, depicting her as a midwife who did illegal abortions on the side and a political ward heeler who swayed votes for favors in return. (By contrast, Frank’s father, Marty, is portrayed by Joe Santos (The Rockford Files) as a mild, sickly fellow who fades from the movie early on, only to return near the end for an emotionally unconvincing deathbed scene with his son.)
Soon enough, cocky Frank is out there crooning in the Big Band era, caressing the microphone for Harry James’ band, becoming a star with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. There’s an inadvertently funny scene in which Dorsey (Bob Gunton) takes Sinatra aside and imparts the great secret of successful singing: ”Breath control!” murmurs Dorsey with awed intensity — it’s exactly like Dustin Hoffman being told ”Plastics!” in The Graduate.
Before you know it, Frank has left wife Nancy with a few squalling kids — Nancy, Frank Jr., and Tina — and is shacking up with Ava Gardner, who is presented as the great love of Sinatra’s life but who seems too petulantly pouty in Marcia Gay Harden’s portrayal to be worthy of such adoration.
Frank’s friendships with Sammy Davis Jr. (played by David Raynr) and Sen. John F. Kennedy (James F. Kelly), his Oscar win for From Here to Eternity, his generosity to mobsters like Sam Giancana (Rod Steiger) and Pres-idents like Franklin D. Roosevelt (”Send Eleanor Roosevelt $5,000 — more if she needs it!”) take up hours of screen time. The miniseries stops in 1974, with a heavier Frank bleating ”That’s Life.” What’s missing throughout is any sense of the full force of Sin-atra’s artistry, the unprecedented in-timacy, longing, and heartbreak he poured into his best performances. We hear a lot of music on the soundtrack — Casnoff lip-synchs to a mixture of Sinatra himself and hits covered by Frank Jr. and actor Tom Berlinson — but Sinatra reduces it to one endless greatest — hits parade, making no distinctions in quality. Classic albums like In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely flash by in a brief montage.
We needed to see and hear more of the way Sinatra made his finest music, because that’s what justifies all the boorish behavior detailed here. B-