Selective spotlighting of showbiz legend Frank Sinatra in five hours may not include all the sunlight and shadows, but the result is a well-honed account backed with a first-class sound track and a gratifying portrayal by actor Philip Casnoff. Even with a sagging Part II, “Sinatra” is, like its subject, entertainment.
Seven years in the works, telefilm subs for a written autobio, which Sinatra felt wouldn’t be satisfactory without music. Singer-actor did not have script approval and he was not involved in the actual filmmaking, but he did give daughter/exec producer Tina Sinatra his blessing for the project.
Biographical allowances are made as scripter William Mastrosimone and director James Sadwith keep the subject in sympathetic focus. From the Hoboken lad piping “My Wonderful One” to the graying adult announcing “That’s Life,” the vidpic’s benign assessment fits customary showbiz vidbios.
His pursuit and hurtful treatment of first wife Nancy (strikingly played by Gina Gershon), his affairs, his romance and wedding to (in this account) a surprisingly compliant Ava Gardner (Marcia Gay Harden, a valiant try but striking no sparks) and his marriage to Mia Farrow (a fey Nina Siemaszko) roll through the two-parter with hints at darker hues.
The opus, not always pretty, reasonably covers his career, considering the forum and the timeslots. The Major Bowes start, Harry James days and the Chi walkout, the eventful hitch with Tommy Dorsey and the strained parting, his bobby-sox-besieged stand at the Paramount Theatre all point the way to his film and recording coups.
The career nosedive, the Oscar, the Kennedy fracas, his Vegas ventures, a now-dated, unamusing Rat Pack seg, and blurred versions of underworld connections pass swiftly, buoyed by Sinatra’s vocalizing in the background.
Temper explosions are explained away (he’s fighting bigotry, intrusion, disloyalty, nerves); his moods, if not explored, are at least monitored. WW II is bypassed with a Pearl Harbor announcement and mention of his busted eardrum keeping him out of the service.
CBS’ watchdogs OK’d some rough, big-screen style lingo, but “Sinatra” still plays as a TV movie: When he’s down about Gardner, she dramatically walks in while he’s chirping, and he’s saved from suicide, naturally, by a timely entry. Mastrosimone and Sadwith occasionally resort to the obvious to make a point.
Casnoff, a resourceful actor, catches not only nuances and angles but suggests deeper emotions. The actor’s lipsyncing is convincing; the singing is provided by recordings of Sinatra himself, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Tom Burlinson, an Australian who does the vocals for the early years (for which there aren’t recordings).
As Sinatra’s mother Dolly, Olympia Dukakis strikes home with a vigorous interp. Rod Steiger as a benevolent Sam Giancana, Jay Robinson as Major Bowes, Joe Santos as Frank’s dad Marty all turn in sterling performances.
Richard Rosenbloom’s production does what it’s supposed to do–it sings. If it’s not objective Sinatra, it moves as persuasively as its subject. Production designer Veronica Hadfield accomplishes wonders with period items and a variety of locales, and Reynaldo Villalobos’s camerawork is excellent.