Nov 19, 2019

On Blu-ray: Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year (1982)

My Favorite Year (1982) is an invigorating period piece, with uniformly excellent production values, script, and cast, but it runs deep because of a remarkable performance by Peter O’Toole. Starring as Errol Flynn-like rogue Alan Swann, a movie star whose best days are behind him, he is charming, funny, and devastating. I recently revisited the film on its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

What a remarkable directing debut this was for actor Richard Benjamin (Westworld, The Last of Sheila). To hear him talk about it in a commentary included in the disc’s special features, he succeeded by encouraging a positive environment on the set, giving everyone in the production the opportunity to contribute, and above all his intuitive and intelligent leading man. While he was too dedicated to his craft to be a complete rogue, there are definitely parallels between the lives of O’Toole and the charming drunk Swann.

Swann has been hired to make an appearance on a live fifties television comedy variety show. However, he doesn’t know that the production is live until he is just about to step in front of the cameras. Before that moment of terror, he is a handful for the staff of the show, getting blackout drunk, disappearing, stealing dames beneath the noses of their fellas, and inspiring scandalous headlines.

Despite the trouble he causes, Swann is effortlessly charming, and he knows it. He casts his spell on everyone, including the young gag writer (Mark Linn-Baker) who has been enlisted to babysit him.

Rather than emulating the times, My Favorite Year evokes the spirit of a bright, bubbly MGM musical from the fifties. However, its comic pace and tone are closer to screwball, complete with  characters who are simultaneously lovable and exasperating.

As Swann, O’Toole was supposed to be a ravaged man, and he does show the effects of living in a smoke-filled environment, drink in hand. He has too much spirit to truly be in the dumps though, which makes his ultimate triumph believable. With those alluring blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a swoon-worthy way of paying attention to a lady, his erotic power almost seems to have increased with time.

O’Toole knew how to play a charming man who could get away with anything until he suddenly can’t. His creative contributions to the film were to more deeply reflect the man behind his movie star persona. Here his fate is happier than that of the real Flynn and it is because he is able to find the courage to face his true self.

That journey is emotionally resonant, and the impact it has is surprising, because for the most part the film is a wild comic ride, with snappy dialogue, goofy slapstick, and a feeling that everything is out of control. The transition from wildness to a quieter redemption is remarkably smooth.

Benjamin has gathered a fascinating cast to support O’Toole. Baker reminded me a lot of Benjamin himself, which makes me wonder how much influence he had over the actor. As a fellow stage actor, he connected with O’Toole and that shows in the way their give and take is so effortless. Though she has essentially been cast as a love interest for Baker, Jessica Harper is too intelligent to fade into a girlfriend part; with her sense of curiosity and wonder, she is a sort of relatable surrogate for the audience.

The other supporting actors are a riot. Among the best of them, Lainie Kazan, Selma Diamond, and Cameron Mitchell so thoroughly own their roles they seem to have been written to their strengths. Apparently that was the case with the rough-talking Diamond; Benjamin couldn’t imagine anyone but her as a studio secretary and it shows.

This is such an uplifting film and it comes by its laughs and tears honestly. The idea of a broken man redeeming himself could easily get too sentimental, but with a little slapstick and a lot of emotional intelligence, Benjamin and O’Toole get to the heart of things without becoming sappy. Truly an under seen classic.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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