Friday 12 July 2019

Movie Review: My Favorite Year (1982)

A nostalgia-driven comedy about the insanity of early live television shows, My Favorite Year combines laughs with joyfully expansive characters.

It's 1954 in New York City. Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) has landed a job as a junior writer and errand boy for the weekly live television show Comedy Cavalcade, starring Stan "King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). While Benjy is busy trying to ignite a romance with office girl K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper), he is tasked with ensuring that ex-movie star Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), once a popular hero of swashbuckling spectacles but now a notorious drunk, remains sober and functional enough to fulfil his guest star appearance.

In the days leading up to the show King is threatened by mobster Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell), who is unhappy being one of the King's regular satirical targets. Meanwhile Benjy tries to keep Swann under control, and their misadventures include a wild sojourn to a nightclub, a highrise rooftop escapade, and dinner with Benjy's family in Brooklyn. The two men get to know each other and find they have more in common than expected.

A look back at the early days of writing and producing popular live television comedy shows, My Favorite Year feeds off the buzz and energy of writers, actors and producers tasked with pulling together a weekly event in which anything can go wrong in front of millions of viewers. Director Richard Benjamin finds a good rhythm alternating comedy and character depth, My Favorite Year enjoying moments of farce interspersed with more quiet scenes of pathos, reflection and some romance.

The film draws on the real-life personal experience of Mel Brooks, here an uncredited executive producer. The script (by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo) is inspired by Brooks' days writing with Woody Allen for the Sid Caesar variety program and Alan Swann is based by Errol Flynn, once a guest star on Caesar's show.

My Favorite Year plays on the theme of screen fantasy colliding with the reality of the men who create it. The larger than life imagery lifts but also consumes, and Swann's surrender to mythology comes at the expense of true fulfilment. While Peter O'Toole is in top form bringing Alan Swann to life as happily addicted to alcohol and women, some of the drunken antics are tiresome. Better are the moments where Swann displays surprising humanity and perception, demonstrating to Benjy a startling level of self awareness.

To a lesser extent King Kaiser is dealing with the same issues but at a more immediate level, his current mass popularity antagonizing the real target of his stinging sketches. The line between actor and role blurs, King standing up to mobster Rojeck as if he has an entourage of muscle rather than actors supporting him.

The romance elements are choppy and essentially disappear from the second half of the film. But the comedy highlights are many, including a dinner event with Benjy's parents that draws in all the occupants of a Brooklyn apartment building, followed by an attempted party gate-crash stunt involving misuse of a firehose. Director Benjamin finds a suitable finale that brings together the past and present while meshing the actors and their roles in a fitting tribute. As it turns out, once actors create their legend, there is no turning back.

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