Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “there are no second acts in American lives” but he clearly reckoned without the indomitable will of one Francis Albert Sinatra. It was 25th March 1954 at the Academy Awards and Frank Sinatra had just, against all the odds, scooped the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his memorable performance as Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity.
Just one year earlier Sinatra’s entire life had been on a downward spiral that was swiftly accelerating. Dropped by his record label after a vocal cord injury damaged his voice, publicly tarnished by a tumultuous private life that involved a sizzling affair with Ava Gardner and deemed a box- office failure after a string of unsuccessful films he seemed to be heading, if not for oblivion, then certainly for career mediocrity as he made a living performing at smallscale engagements nationwide. The man who had once been the idol of the bobby- soxers was desperate for a chance to redeem himself. Sinatra may have lacked many things at this period in his life but confidence in his own ability was not amongst them. “The big lesson in life, baby, is never be scared of anyone or anything,” he once remarked and it’s a creed which he certainly put into practice.
Redemption came in the shape of James Jones’s war novel which he heard about whilst accompanying then- wife Gardner on location for Mogambo ( 1953). Touted as a potential film project Sinatra had read the book and closely identified with the character of Angelo
Maggio, a wisecracking army private targeted for persecution by a sadistic sergeant played by Ernest Borgnine. No one wanted him for the role though and so he began an intensive charm offensive, getting Gardner to put in a good word for him and volunteering to take the part for the nominal payment of just $ 8,000. His persistence ( and suitably scrawny physique) eventually paid off and, with acting coaching from leading man Montgomery Clift, Sinatra gave one of the finest performances of his career.
“The best revenge is massive success” Sinatra once said and nothing epitomised this more than his Oscar triumph of 1954, a moment that American trade magazine Variety called nothing less than “the greatest comeback in show business history.” Like the mythical phoenix from the ashes he had vanquished all those who had doubted his ability and the moment was one to savour. Ahead lay what would become one of the most professionally fruitful decades of his life and it heralded a completely revitalised film career which would effectively allow him to call the shots until he left films behind in 1980.
But how had Sinatra, a singularly gifted singer and peerless entertainer, first begun an acting career? Well, he was always intensely ambitious and realised from an early age that being in films would significantly boost his reputation as a global superstar. He’d initially made his name as a big band singer with the Harry
James band in 1939, subsequently working with Tommy Dorsey and then branched out to establish himself as a very successful solo performer, allowing Hollywood to capitalise upon his singing stardom with musical roles which were enjoyable if not particularly onerous.
His film debut was Higher and Higher ( 1943) in which he essentially played himself and he’d then ( with the exception of 1945’ s ten- minute short The House I Live In, a plea for racial harmony) been cast in a succession of RKO and MGM musicals — the best of which was On The Town ( 1949) with Gene Kelly — capitalising on his status as a musical heart- throb but offering nothing designed to give him proper credentials as a serious actor.
From Here to Eternity radically transformed this, giving him access to challenging projects he could only have dreamed about beforehand. Firmly expanding upon his Oscar success Sinatra next tackled a dark role as a presidential assassin in 1954’ s Suddenly and then tried even murkier territory with The Man with the Golden Arm ( 1955), a controversial film which delved into the world of
heroin addiction and earned him another Oscar nomination as a reformed addict trying to make it as a jazz drummer.
From 1956 to 1962 Sinatra was one of the top box- office stars in America, creating an indelible screen persona, one that often oozed swagger for sure but concealed considerable vulnerability too. His best roles would always be those that tapped into his own complicated and intensely volatile temperament. He could completely convince as a troubled outsider, a man grappling with potential failure, disappointment or all- consuming frustration because, despite his phenomenal success, he was still essentially the Italian- American boy from Hoboken, New Jersey, who felt marginalised and who could project these feelings of alienation most persuasively.
In the next decade success allowed Sinatra to wisely alternate lighter vehicles like Pal Joey ( 1957) or the delightful High Society ( 1956), in which he happily shared screen time with his childhood idol Bing Crosby, and the enchanting Young at Heart ( 1954) with meatier fare like Some Came Running ( 1958) and perhaps best of all The Manchurian Candidate ( 1962), a superb and enduring Cold War thriller in which he played a brainwashed major to chilling and superlative effect. As his musical career at Capitol blossomed in a new direction under the guidance of arranger Nelson Riddle so he built
a parallel screen career that reflected the more reflective mood of his increasingly sophisticated albums.
Despite the gloss it lent his career Sinatra loathed the long delays on a film set and disliked rehearsing, infamous for his ability to be pitch- perfect on one take and impatient of those like Marlon Brando whose more laborious Method acting requiring multiple takes forced Sinatra to eat copious pieces of cheesecake when filming Guys and Dolls ( 1955), something which triggered one of the singer’s notorious outbursts.
Sinatra was a larger- than- life character in all respects and it’s often difficult to discern the real man’s character from the many rumours surrounding him. Whatever his mix of combustible qualities, his liberal credentials, evinced by his support of the Civil Rights Movement and his generosity were rarely in doubt. Actor David Niven paid tribute to the man’s essential humanity when he once commented “so much has been written of Sinatra that I can contribute nothing except to say he is one of the few people in the world I would instinctively think of if I needed help of any sort. I thought of him once when in a bad spot; help was provided instantly.”
Later in his career Sinatra’s time at the forefront of the Rat Pack led to amusing if self- indulgent capers like 1960’ s Oceans Eleven, then followed urbane detective roles with his film career eventually tapering off with a part in 1980 as a conflicted policeman in The First Deadly Sin. Considering that he’d been effectively written- off as finished 27 years earlier his screen roles represented an impressive body of work and one which enhanced the reputation of “The Voice” as an actor of significant stature.
Frank Sinatra’s film career was revived by his role in From Here to Eternity for which he won an Oscar ( below).
In the 1955 film version of Guys and Dolls Sinatra played Nathan Detroit.
The wonderful High Society was released in 1956 and brought together a host of Hollywood stars.
One of Frank’s early film roles was alongside Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh ( 1945).