My Favorite Year is an absolute classic that—if you’ll forgive the ‘80s analogy—is fading from memory like a McFly from a Polaroid.
With all the reboots, re-imaginings, remakes, comic book movies and Star Wars features filling the multiplexes near you, pop culture feels like a self-consuming serpent feeding on nostalgia. Serious cultural critics cry out for originality, but there is little recognition of the fact that nostalgia has always fueled content creation. At this point in time, the reverence for the 1980s feels boundless, but nostalgia clouds perception like any inebriant. There never actually were simpler times, just childhood and its era of limited personal responsibility. Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Hughes, Dante, Zemeckis and the lesser giants of ‘80s Hollywood were nostalgia peddlers remaking the serials, teen comedies and horror movies they loved as children. That’s the cycle, but the trend did not belong exclusively to what was seen at the time as lesser pursuits. So-called serious movies could be just a guilty of nostalgia even if that serious movie was a comedy.
“1954. You don’t get years like that anymore. It was my favorite year.” So begins My Favorite Year, a story of live television, movie stars and the clear and present danger of meeting one’s heroes. Directed by Richard Benjamin, a well-known actor himself, and written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo, the film tells the story of a young comedy writer on the biggest comedy/variety show on television and the alcoholic movie star placed in his keeping until show night. The movie star’s sobriety is the key to the writer’s budding career.
If the movie star can’t perform, the writer loses his job. Legend has it that the genesis of the movie comes from an appearance Errol Flynn made on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” when he was placed in the tender hands of Mel Brooks for safekeeping. It is difficult to believe that Brooks was ever a fanboy of anything, but he was one of the producers of the film and clearly didn’t mind adding to his own legend.
The film is framed around the week that the fictionalized Brooks must keep the fictionalized Flynn sober enough to make his live television debut. A friendship grows, affecting their parallel character arcs. Benjy Stone, the young writer played by Mark Linn-Baker in his first movie role, is at the start of a career on the most popular show on a new medium that is set to dominate the coming decades. The fictionalized Flynn self-medicates to deal with a world in which his star has faded and the medium that made him a star is dying. He is a has-been unable to adapt to the changing landscape and his alcoholism makes him unemployable. But he is still idolized by people like Benjy Stone who grew up watching his movies.
Flynn was a legendarily charismatic figure. It would take an actor of equivalent charm to embody the role of Alan Swann, the swashbuckling movie star fallen on hard times, and none other than Peter O’Toole accepted the challenge. O’Toole belongs to the last generation of iconic movie stars. We still have movie stars, but no one quite like O’Toole. Movies are not as important to the culture as they were when he was young and his perfect features filled a closeup in a 70mm epic like Lawrence of Arabia. A tall, slender man, he is absolutely magnetic on film, his legend more than equal to that of Flynn.
“You can depend on Alan Swann, he will always let you down.” Swann will never stay sober for a week. At his drunkest he is every bit the mentor Stone wants. There is potential for a swashbuckling adventure every night as long as Swann is drinking and director Benjamin, O’Toole and Linn-Baker exploit every comic moment between Swann and the neurotic Stone. They are a comic team of opposite traits: tall versus short, smooth versus loud, stylish versus ill-fitting and handsome versus not. Despite the differences in their filmographies when the movie was released in 1982, Linn-Baker is every bit O’Toole’s equal onscreen, especially when the film takes a dramatic turn. Alcoholics will always break your heart, even fictional ones, and it falls to Stone to teach his idol, a man with a gift for playing heroes, something about honor.
The movie’s subplot revolves around its Sid Caesar stand-in called Stan “King” Kaiser played by Joseph Bologna with great comic machismo. Kaiser plays a recurring character on his show known as Boss Hijack that’s a caricature of a local mob boss named Karl Rojeck. Boss Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell) doesn’t like being made a fool of in front of millions of people every Saturday night and sends some Teamsters to see Kaiser on the night of the live broadcast. A fight breaks out backstage and crashes through a plywood wall where the cameras make it part of the show. Kaiser is terribly outnumbered and there is only one person who might come to his aid.
The problem is that Swann is standing in the balcony drunk and humiliated. He tried to walk out on Stone, the show and a chance at redemption. In the span of a week, Stone became well-acquainted with his idol’s flaws, but, unlike the rest of us who make heroes out of such frivolous personalities as writers, actors, musicians and comedians, he has the moment we all wish we could have when someone famous says he’s not a role model. It is something that someone could only say so perfectly in a movie: “Don’t tell me this is you life-sized. I can’t use you life-sized. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them.” With that rebuke ringing in his ears and dressed for a Three Musketeers sketch, Swann gets to decide once and for all who he is: the drunk who lets everybody down or the silly goddamn hero he pretends to be.
My Favorite Year is an absolute classic that—if you’ll forgive the ‘80s analogy—is fading from memory like a McFly from a Polaroid. Sadly, the movie is falling victim to one of the lessons it teaches. Fame is fleeting. Whether you are Errol Flynn, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks or Peter O’Toole, your moment will pass. My Favorite Year is about live television, a bygone era, 90 minutes long with no chance at a trilogy. What chance did it have to be remembered against the spectacle of terminators, aliens, predators and DeLoreans?