Allegedly based on Errol Flynn's appearance on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, this is a film chock-full of wonderful performances. However, the film rises and falls on Peter O'Toole, who he is wonderful as the conflicted actor. He manages to give the character just the right amount of pathos (his lack of interaction with his young daughter is a source of embarrassment and regret to him), but never wallows in it. Albert Finney was also considered for the part (AFI catalog).
This was Mr. O'Toole's seventh (of eight) Oscar nominations (he lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi). I suspect even Mr. O'Toole didn't expect to win this one - despite the fact that "dying is easy, comedy is hard" (attributed to Edmund Kean on his deathbed and repeated by Alan Swann), actors just don't win for comedies (TCM article). The role for which he should have won - T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (you can see him discussing the film in this TCM commentary) - was released in the wrong year. Mr. O'Toole lost to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (and it's hard to argue that selection). That he lost the Golden Man to Cliff Robertson (for Charly) the same year his co-star, Katharine Hepburn, won for The Lion in Winter, is doubly sad. He was enthralling as King Henry II, a role for which he'd been nominated four years earlier in Becket. Ultimately, the Academy tried to make up for his record of most nominations by an actor without a win (Entertainment Weekly) by awarding him an honorary Oscar in 2002. You can see him accepting the Award here, (and let me just add how furious I am that the Academy no longer gives due credit to the Honorary Award winners, relegating them to a separate ceremony and allowing them no opportunity to share their win - usually one long overdue - with their fans and colleagues). Robert Osborne provides a very lovely overview of Mr. O'Toole's impressive here in this video which introduces an interview at the TCM film festival.
The film boasts an amazing ensemble of character actors. Selma Diamond as Lil, the costume designer is a beyond funny, especially in her one scene with Mr. O'Toole (in which they discuss his presence in a Ladies Room. Her reaction to him is spot on). Ms. Diamond had been a comedy writer on Your Show of Shows and was the inspiration for Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show (Jewish Women's Archive).
While one spends a lot of time shaking one's head (and laughing) at Belle Steinberg Carroca (Lainie Kazan), it's clear that Alan Swann admires her honesty. They clearly like one another, and Swann is both impressed and humbled when Belle scolds him for avoiding his child. Ms. Kazan is over-the-top, as is Belle, so it works.
Many of the other characters are based on real people: Rookie Carroca (Ramon Sison) was based on a Filipino sailor that lived in Mr. Brooks Brooklyn neighborhood; Herb Lee (Basil Hoffman) resembled Neil Simon, a writer on Your Show of Shows; Benjy Stone is a combination of Mr. Brooks and Woody Allen; Boss Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell) was Jimmy Hoffa (Mr. Brooks personally asked Mr. Mitchell to do the part while both were eating lunch at the MGM commissary); and of course, King Kaiser (the always excellent Joe Bologna) was Sid Caesar, The King of Comedy!
Make sure you take a look at the actress who dances with Alan Swann in the Stork Club - that's Gloria Stuart, 15 years before her Oscar-nominated performance in Titanic. Adoph Green - the songwriter with partner Betty Comden of musicals like Bells are Ringing and Wonderful Town - appears as producer Leo Silver (based on Your Show of Shows producer Max Liebman). Mr. Green was himself nominated for two Oscars - screenwriting for The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather.
So, was this really based on Errol Flynn's appearance on the Sid Caesar variety show? Two opinions seem to exist. According to this Los Angeles Times article, Flynn's appearance on the show was uneventful, and the writers had little interaction with him. However, in 1997, Brooks stated that "I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed Cuban sisters" and that Flynn kept trying to get the 20 year old Brooks drunk (The Baltimore Sun; Ben Mankiewicz intro). Which is true? Who knows.
I was looking forward to viewing this film with my group; it's a favorite of mine, and I was expecting they would all like it. I was wrong. One person disliked it; one said it was okay, but no more than that. The other members really enjoyed it. It did do well on release - the opening weekend, it earned over $2 million. The New York Times review was quite positive. The story was remounted as a Broadway musical (with Lainie Kazan reprising her role) which didn't do particularly well - it only ran for 45 performances. Here is a trailer from the film and a suggestion to visit the films of the always impressive Peter O'Toole:
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, 2019.