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My Favorite Year
The picture was produced by Mel Brooks's production company, with writers Dennis Palumbo and Norman Steinberg fashioning a quasi-biographical story about a Brooksian TV writer, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) working as a junior scribe on a Sid Caesarian-type weekly live show called Comedy Cavalcade. The story revolves around Benjy's efforts to contain the alcoholic former movie swashbuckler and guest star that week, the Errol Flynnian Alan Swann (O'Toole), whose notoriety as a prolific lover is eclipsed only by his legendary consumption of booze.
The Sid Caesarian star of Comedy Cavalcade, the conceited, autocratic Stan "King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna), wants to replace Swan after he shows up dead drunk on arrival to "30 Rock," NBC's headquarters in New York, but Benjy, a longtime fan, puts his job on the line, promising to deliver a sober and well-rehearsed star, and the two spend several days getting to know one another.
The movie is a strange animal, sometimes playing like a joke-filled Neil Simon comedy, Simon himself having written, like Brooks, for Sid Caesar, and who in 1993 would himself pen the similar Broadway comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor, itself later turned into a TV-movie directed by - Richard Benjamin. Benjamin himself had worked as a page at NBC during roughly the same time, 1954, when the movie is set.
Anyway, My Favorite Year has a lot of Simonesque banter, especially among the show's writers, including Bill Macy as a boot-licking sycophant, and its producer Leo Silver, played by the great musical-comedy screenwriter Adolph Green. As DVD Savant (now Cinesavant) noted in his review of the DVD version, Green seems to be imitating Oscar Levant in The Band Wagon (1953), co-written by Green, who was playing a character based on Green himself. Or maybe it was the other way around.
My Favorite Year has many wonderful moments, such as when the dashing Swan graciously dances with an old lady (movie veteran Gloria Stuart) celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary at the Stork Club, she dazzled by the one-time matinee idol on the dance floor for several minutes, magical moments she'll remember for the rest of her life. The most hilarious sequence has Benjy reluctantly taking Swann home to Brooklyn, where his mother (Lainie Kazan) has invited him to dinner. Benji is continuously horribly embarrassed by the behavior of his mother, uncle (Lou Jacobi) and various star-gazing hangers-on, but Swann is delighted, amused by their combination of star-worship and the way they treat him like a member of the family.
Their exaggerated Jewishness, in the tradition of performers like Betty Walker ("A Call from Long Island") is simultaneously warm and funny, oddly superior to Woody Allen's efforts to recreate that distinctive atmosphere. When Benjy's mother advises Swann to find himself a nice girl and have children, she's both amusing in her presumptuous meddling but also genuine in her concern, which Swan recognizes.
When Peter O'Toole is in the frame, it's impossible to focus on anyone else. Even when the focus turns to other characters, the fun is watching Swann's amusement, as others fawn and fuss over him, sometimes doing and saying ridiculous things in their excitement meeting a big-time star. Swann is clearly tired of the glamor of his fame, but still enjoys observing others observing him.
Conversely, while Mark Linn-Baker and Jessica Harper (as Benjy's girlfriend) are very good actors perfectly fine in their roles, he displaying all the right comic timing, somehow they never entirely win movie audiences over, who are more concerned about Swann's life than whether or not Benjy will lose his job or end up with her at the fade-out. Maybe that's because O'Toole, so perfectly cast, overwhelms his co-stars (though not those in smaller bits). Harper's part seems almost unnecessary to the story; a long scene where they watch clips from Swann's films in the writers' room and kiss for the first time is pleasant enough but lacks emotional impact.
In his aforementioned review, DVD Savant notes how My Favorite Year cribs scenes and ideas from other movies, like the climatic brawl between real gangsters and TV actors, lifted from It's Always Fair Weather (1955). In some ways the movie, especially the opening titles and all the live-TV stuff, seems patterned after The Front (1976). (Interestingly, a very good title song, written for the film, was dropped in favor of Nat "King" Cole doing "Stardust"; in The Front it's Frank Sinatra singing "Young at Heart.") My Favorite Year more meticulously recreates the era, but The Front plays more authentic. Easily missed is cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld's marvelous recreations from Swann's movies, which approximate the richness of three-color Technicolor, while the rest of the movie has a warm, ‘50s feel.
Video & Audio
Warner Archive's Blu-ray of My Favorite Year squeezes every drop of high-def resolution and color it can. Their early ‘80s MGM, ironically, seem to generally be in poorer shape than catalog titles decades older, but this 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is very impressive throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is also above average. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region-Free disc.
Supplements are repurposed from the DVD version: a very good audio commentary by director Benjamin; and a trailer.
Imperfect yet also irresistible, featuring one of Peter O'Toole's best performances, My Favorite Year is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.