Reeling BackwardRating: 3.5 of 5 yaps
My Favorite Year
I’d somehow missed this sentimental 1982 comedy starring Peter O’Toole as a washed-up movie star trying to stay sober long enough to appear on a 1954 television show. It’s nothing spectacular, but I’m still glad I caught up with it.
“My Favorite Year” was directed by Richard Benjamin (a well-known actor marking his first stint behind the camera) from a screenplay by Dennis Palumbo. But the real inspiration was the life of executive producer Mel Brooks, who got his break as a young writer on Sid Caeser’s “Your Show of Shows.” The film is a much-fictionalized version of an appearance by Errol Flynn on the show.
O’Toole plays Alan Swann, a swashbuckling star of the 1930s and ’40s whose career is in the toilet. A drunkard with many ex-wives and a reputation for carousing, Swann doesn’t take anything seriously.
But Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, best known as one-half of “Perfect Strangers”), the stand-in for Brooks, wants to see his idol appear on the variety comedy show of King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). So he promises to keep Swann sober long enough for rehearsals and the show itself.
Back then, of course, shows were broadcast live, unbeknownst to Swann. Minutes before he’s to appear, he learns this fact and has a nervous breakdown. In perhaps the movie’s most memorable line, he roars at Benjy, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”
As written it’s not that great a part, but O’Toole fleshes out the in-between spots, showing us the inner decay behind the physical one Swann so revels in. He has a 12-year-old daughter whom he rarely sees, and on a whim orders his limo driver to take her to her house in Connecticut. But he’s too scared to even get out of the car, watching her riding her bicycle with longing. O’Toole earned an Oscar nomination for his turn.
There are a few other subplots and backstories going on. Benjy is infatuated with a young producer on his show, who seems very determined not to indulge him. But with a little Cyrano-like tutoring from Swann, he eventually wins her over.
Meanwhile, King Kaiser is facing threats from a mob boss who doesn’t like a thinly-veiled caricature they’ve been doing on the show. Sets start getting held up for delivery, a heavy studio light nearly drops on King’s head, and eventually some toughs arrive to beat some sense into him.
A completely unnecessary but thoroughly delightful detour occurs when Benjy takes Swann to his mother’s apartment building in Brooklyn, which brings out a small army of colorful characters who want a glimpse at the big star. I liked the bit where Uncle Morty (the wonderful Lou Jacobi, who recently passed), after having just promised not to ask any personal questions, grills Swann about a recent paternity suit. “Did you shtupp her?”
“My Favorite Year” is not great movie-making. The characters are mostly caricatures, the humor is broad, and the set-ups seem very unlikely. But it’s a sweet, amusing little film that’s in love with old movies and old television.