Peter Bart: Today’s Movie Stars May Be Losing Their Aura, But Sinatra’s Mystique Survives

Frank Sinatra
Harold P. Matosian/AP

I found myself having dinner with Frank Sinatra this week; at least it seemed that way. I was in Palm Springs where a dozen restaurants and clubs claim that Sinatra was once a “regular.” Photos of their idol adorn the walls, all showing Sinatra smiling, even though I never remembered a Sinatra smile during our real-life encounters.

The Sinatra mythology intrigues me because movie stars seem all but invisible these days. They’re absent from their once-favorite Hollywood haunts or even from magazine covers or late-night television. Or from movies, until perhaps next fall when big-budget movies are unveiled.

By contrast, Sinatra’s claim to a certain immortality was reinforced this week with publication of Sinatra and Me, a book augmenting the formidable library of Sinatra books (30 by my count). Its author, Tony Oppedisano, claims to have been a Sinatra intimate, thus joining a list of intimate writers that includes three wives, two children, his valet, bodyguard, manager, conductor and assorted newsman. Their accounts are all dwarfed by The Chairman, the 1,000-page Sinatra biography by James Kaplan, who claimed no intimacy.

“The Sinatra library could well be an acceptable field of study for an undergrad English major,” concludes Will Friedwald, who writes about popular culture for the Wall Street Journal. Himself a student of the topic, Friedwald praises the Oppedisano entry, though noting warily that it disavows Sinatra’s link to organized crime. In so doing, it refutes the legend that the star once personally carried $2 million in Mafia money to “a friend” in Havana. Sinatra acknowledged, however, that he secretly transported $1 million to the then fledgling state of Israel when it was in urgent need. But to “Tony O,” as he was called, Sinatra was a man whose generosity was equal to his talent.

So why has Sinatra’s legend survived over the years? Admirers who were around during his prime remember his brilliance as a showman. Also his genius at stirring scandal and intrigue, which was exacerbated by his troubled relationship with the media.

A case in point: Sinatra’s clumsy handling of Gay Talese, the revered New York Times reporter who had been sent to Hollywood by Esquire magazine to do a Sinatra interview and profile. Despite early encouragement, Talese waited six weeks for the interview only to finally learn that the star would meet only if he could read the article prior to publication – a demand rejected by the magazine.

“I found myself sitting at the Beverly Wilshire waiting for Sinatra to back down, but he wouldn’t,” recalls Talese, who’d been reluctant to accept the assignment to begin with because “I hated celebrity interviews.”

With the star unavailable — his press agent put out the story that he had a cold — Talese set about interviewing the “little people” around Sinatra. “I particularly liked the lady whose job was to carry around his hair piece,” he recalls.

The article, appropriately titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” not only won many awards for its hilarious glimpse at backstage Hollywood, but it was also optioned as a film with a commitment from Leonardo DiCaprio to play Sinatra. Scott Rudin would produce.

Though the movie never happened, the article will again reappear in Talese’s forthcoming memoir. Titled Bartleby and Me, the book predictably will focus not on stars, but rather on the obscure yet idiosyncratic people who never make news —people Talese prefers to write about (the title stems from a Herman Melville short story).

None But The Brave
Frank Sinatra, second from right, on the set of 1965’s None But the Brave Everett

A decade after the Talese incident, Sinatra and I met for a drink during which he unloaded about his dislike of the press. “The media is always out to hammer me,” he complained. “Journalists want to write about my so called romantic life or about shadowy friends I don’t even know. They won’t write about friends who are filmmakers and serious writers or mention that I have directed some damn good movies like None But the Brave.”

He was only confiding in me, he explained, because I had left my former position at the New York Times for a top production job at Paramount, so I was therefore “off the hook.” Sinatra said he was very impressed with the studio’s slate. “You guys are making some good movies. I’m also trying to.”

Still, Sinatra had his grievances. The portrait of the Johnny Fontane character in The Godfather represented a personal insult, in his mind. Roman Polanski’s directing style was also an insult: Polanski was directing his then-wife, Mia Farrow, in Rosemary’s Baby and was demanding as many as 20 takes per scene. “He may think it’s ‘art’, but he’s making a big mistake,” he said angrily. “A good director needs two takes, not 20.”

A week later Sinatra’s attorney, Mickey Rudin, visited my office to issue a follow-up message. While Sinatra had nothing against me personally, he said, it would be “unhealthy” for me if I ignored his demands. “Frank is a moody guy,” Rudin advised.

As it turned out, I ignored his advice, while nonetheless remaining healthy. Sinatra was not pleased. It came as no surprise, therefore, that I was never invited to have dinner with him in Palm Springs.

This week, however, I was nonetheless treated to a few minutes of Sinatra music while having dinner with my wife at one of his “favorite” restaurants. It left me with a big smile, like the one he was flashing on the wall.

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