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My Favorite Year (1982)

| October 8, 1982

I had a teacher once who told me that there is a difference between acting and ACTING!!  The former is the subtle art of slipping into the skin of a character.  The latter is done with broad gestures, a booming voice and a screen presence that could ape the Hollywood Sign.  It is also the persona of a boozy, self-aggrandized Alan Swann, an Erroll Flynn-type movie star whose head might be too big to fit in through the door.

Swann is played to perfection by Peter O’Toole who apparently knows all too well about this kind of character.  Swann is legendary but he is also a problem.  The time is the early 50s at the birth of television and he is to be the guest on “Comedy Cavalcade” starring King Kaiser, a sort of “Your Show of Shows” with a lower register.  The problem is keeping Swann sober and well-behaved enough during the week that he is to be the show’s guest. 

That job is given to a young, fresh-faced Jewish kid named Benjy Stone (Mark Lynn-Baker) who narrates this story with a great deal of affection and sees 1954, the time he spent with Swann as his favorite year.  He knows he has his hands full when Swann drops into a story-writing session completely smashed and collapses on the conference table.  Not to be comforted in any way, he also discovers that Swann’s drinking is so persistent that his PA has created a “drunk suit” which buttons down the side so that he can be pulled out of it easily in case of a stupor.

Outside of his tare, Swann turns out to be a dapper and quite randy old boy who proves that he isn’t going to make Stone’s job any easier sober than he is drunk.  Bad behavior is Swann’s trademark and so his handler quickly discovers that falling down on the job is never a good idea.

This all sounds rather routine, and it Swann were played by anyone but O’Toole, you might imagine that it would be. But he is so infectious, so funny, so broad and at the same time so needy that we come to like him even when he’s hanging off the roof of a Park Avenue apartment causing Stone to fear for his life.  This is one of those gems of a comedy in which the characters are funny but only have just enough humanity to keep you caring about them. It’s a great balance, a great sense of time and place and a great sense of comedy.

But what makes it work really is Peter O’Toole who throws himself completely into the role of Allan Swann.  We never sense that we’re seeing O’Toole playing a role, he seems to embody and a former action star who is still noted but whose expiration date has run out.  He’s funny but he has a human side as when he pines for his daughter.  But what we love is the bigness of his performance, particularly when he corrects the notion of his profession by reminding us that “I’m not an actor, I’m a MOVIE STAR!!”  He certainly is, and he’s brilliant.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1982) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy