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'My Favorite Year': Vintage Laughs
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
01:44PM / Thursday, October 22, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the several movies about this pox upon our house that are certain to be made when the horror is deep into our rearview mirror. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
Oh, that we had a swashbuckling hero like Peter O'Toole's Alan Swann in director Richard Benjamin's "My Favorite Year," about the early, comically innocent days of television, to swoop down just in the nick of time and save our republic.
Like our country, the aging, Erol Flynn-like matinee idol, after a sordid dalliance in unmitigated greed, is sorely in need of redemption. Unfortunately, almost everyone but Mark Linn-Baker's Benjy Stone, the novitiate writer on King Kaiser's variety show, a fictional paean to Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows" where Swann will be this week's guest celebrity, has lost faith in the tarnished star. Thus, to continue the plucky metaphor, you might accept that Benjy, who dropped out of college in favor of the new medium's pioneering excitement, represents America's better angels.
He remembers Swann from his glorious silver-screen representations, and when the show's bigwigs contemplate dismissing yesteryear's leading man, now too often drunk and tardy, Benjy volunteers to "babysit" him. The thought is that just as it's far too early to drop the curtain on our experiment in democracy, surely the still handsome headliner has some glory left in him.
Otherwise, while striving to get a foothold among the cadre of senior writers who don't let him forget his also-coffee-boy status, Benjy is trying to score points with Jessica Harper's straight-laced K.C. Downing, a producer's assistant who, to his incredulity, has never told a joke. Swann takes it upon himself to school his young patron in affairs of the heart.
This has the duo incurring all manner of dangerously scintillating situations, often featuring Swann's pirate-portraying penchant for swinging from things. The action is complemented by an equal amount of comic glee and touching moments inspired by an evolving mutual admiration. A dueling tutelage occurs as the idolizing Benjy works to restore Swann's faith in himself.
The pairing makes for a heartwarming, soulful commentary about the human condition, wonderfully evoked in a series of deliciously memorable moments, stitched together with notable comic savvy. The standout scene I'm tempted to ruin for you is the proverbial hoot when Benjy brings Alan to his Mom's apartment in Brooklyn for dinner, attended by a cast of lunatical family members, one nuttier than the other, and all trying to make an impression on, or gain favor from, the movie star.
Arriving at the residence, the opening dialogue reads:
Benjy: Mr. Swann, may I present my mother: Mrs. Belle Mae Steinberg Carroca of Brooklyn, New York, and Miami Beach, Florida, for two weeks, each and every winter.
Belle: Mr. Swann ...
Swann: Alan, please. And what may I call you?
Belle: How 'bout, yours?
Benjy's Mom, played in an award-worthy stint by Lainie Kazan, is a widow now remarried to Rookie Carroca, a former bantamweight champ from the Philippines who, when Swann recognizes him and asks if he's still in the fight game, responds: "In a way. I married Benjy's mother."
Students of comedy are bound to speculate just who's supposed to be Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks or Neil Simon among the group of superbly played scribes, clearly inspired by what's vaunted as the Greatest TV Writers Room Ever. Portrayed by Bill Macy, Basil Hoffman and Anne De Salvo (presumably Selma Diamond), their acerbic squabbling is an entertainment unto itself, and a schmaltzy paean to these Beatles of modern American humor.
When playing hooky from rehearsal, which is most of the time, Swann employs a grand gallivant of New York restaurants and the crashing of society functions as backdrop for the life lessons he imparts to Benjy. And as the latter frantically tries to make sure his often smashed, self-declared mentor doesn't kill himself, the two engage in a philosophically comical discourse that plays like a Vaudevillian answer to Shakespeare's to-be-or-not-to-be.
In revealing that his name is really Steinberg, not Stone, Benjy informs, "Benjy Stone is not who he seems to be." To which Swann pensively agrees, "Who is, Stone, who is?"
Back at the studio, Joe Bologna's King Kaiser, aside from worrying whether the legendary heartthrob will show for the live broadcast, is up to his neck in rehearsal worries, not the least of which are threats to his life by Boss Rojeck, a gangster miffed by King's weekly parody of him.
The touch-and-go situation adds a swath of tension to the hellzapoppin atmosphere, and rewardingly suggests that Swann's alter ego isn't the only hero on the set.
Richard Benjamin, who seven years earlier directed "The Sunshine Boys" (1975), knows his shtick. His command of, and reverence for, the art of comedy, celebrated in joyously sentimental hilarity, is capsulized by Swann who, when he mortifiedly realizes the show is live, apprises Benjy thusly:
Swann: Comedy is such a mystery to me. I feel the way Edmund Kean did.
Benjy Stone: The great English actor?
Swann: Mmm. On his death bed, Kean was asked how he felt. He answered, 'Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.'
"My Favorite Year," rated PG, is an MGM/UA Entertainment Company release directed by Richard Benjamin and stars Mark Linn-Baker, Peter O'Toole and Jessica Harper. Running time: 92 minutes
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