The Voice, The Spark, The Image

Frank Sinatra never gave a better performance as an actor than he did as Frankie Machine in 1955's The Man with the Golden Arm, in which he plays a hotshot poker dealer and junkie who emerges from prison hoping to kick his bad habits (heroin included) and earn a living as a drummer. Everything about Sinatra in the movie is electrically nuanced, as if he hot-wired his vocal cords and facial muscles to the circuitry of Frankie Machine's brain.

But Sinatra isn't merely putting on a one-man show. He adjusts persuasively when Machine moves between two women, acting wary and solicitous with the antihero's agitated, wheelchair-bound wife (Eleanor Parker); naked and yearning with his sympathetic downstairs neighbor (Kim Novak). The movie rests on Sinatra's ability to pull off the terrifying cold-turkey sequence, in which he alternates adrenalized frenzy with physical collapse.

Simply put, in The Man with the Golden Arm, Sinatra taps the same raw power that fueled (but rarely entered so directly into) his musical genius. On record, he was The Voice; in movies, he was often The Spark. Watch him again as the goodhearted, high-spirited Maggio in 1953's From Here to Eternity, and there's no mystery why it spurred his first comeback. As he goes from saloon buddyhood to chair-breaking brawling in a half-second, he's like an emotional quick-change artist, except his hallmark is honesty, not trickery: You believe in his every altered mood.

Sinatra's next movie was Suddenly (1954); his enactment of a presidential assassin who starts out happily sadistic and then blows his cool is the most sudden thing about it. No screen idol sweated more eloquently than he did in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In the subsequent downward slide of his movie career, when his insistence on speedy, convenient shoots took irrevocable tolls on his productions, he was still a master of low-key charisma. His last box-office smash, 1965's Von Ryan's Express, was accurately reviewed as a canny Sinatra-ized knock-off of The Great Escape. See it today, and what's appealing is how magnetic Sinatra can be as an action hero without special effects or a Body by Jake. It's understandable that the singer who revolutionized phrasing would be a virtuoso of line-readings, but Sinatra is also able to inflect his eyes; his dynamism generates more energy than muscle-flexing and cuts deeper than lasers.

Frank Sinatra has been such a pervasive influence in pop culture that his long-past work keeps producing pleasurable surprises. Thirty-one years ago, in her first New Yorker essay, Pauline Kael wrote about "the small discoveries or rediscoveries we make" watching movies on television; she compared them to "putting on a record of Ray Charles singing 'Georgia on My Mind' or Frank Sinatra singing 'Bim Bam Baby' or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing operetta, and feeling again the elation we felt the first time." Ever since I read that sentence I've scoured the bins for the obscure "Bim Bam Baby."

But when Columbia released the boxed set The Voice in 1986, "Bim Bam Baby" wasn't there. It also didn't show up in 1990 on either The Capitol Years or The Reprise Collection. Then, finally, in 1993, on the next-to-last track of 12-disc The Columbia Years, 19431952: The Complete Recordings, Sinatra growls out: Hey now / Take a mip-map-mop and a brim-bram-broom / And clim-clam-clean up your rim-ram-room / Because your bim-bam-baby's coming home tonight....

In the guidebook to The Columbia Years, music critic Will Friedwald dismisses Sinatra's "aggressively nasty sound" on that number, which encapsulates what's wrong with the swelling pool of literature on Sinatra -- including the pamphlets and treatises accompanying each reissued set of albums. Sinatra may have had genius, but it was the kind that communicated -- still communicates -- with a smacklike immediacy, without the need of interpreters who get in the way.

The level of connoisseurship that's sprung up around the performer has become ridiculous, and much of the critique tends to be swamped in scholarship or nostalgia or both. The most useful Sinatra book I've read -- one that, despite many flaws, matches his eclecticism with an apt mixed-bag quality of its own -- is The Frank Sinatra Reader (Oxford University Press). Edited by Penn State academics Leonard Mustazza and Steven Petkov, it avoids drowning in minutiae and sentimentality simply by paddling fast. With entries dated from 1944 to 1995, it draws on articles and books on Sinatra, as well as popular song; the newspaper and magazine accounts give the collection a "you are there" provocative edge often missing from commemorative tomes.

In 1986, Wilfrid Sheed counted five acts in Sinatra's real-life epic. Now, at the epic's close, seven acts seems more like it. Act I: The Hoboken boy, determined to break through like Bing Crosby, apprentices with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey (who teaches him breath control and complicated phrasing), then makes the gutsy split from Dorsey to become his own performer. Act II: The performer arouses Frankie-mania with cunning eye contact, an unprecedented intimate sound and shrewd publicity. Act III: In Hollywood, his philandering upsets his supposedly picture-book marriage with Nancy, while his movie tally sheet registers more downs than ups. Act IV: Frank becomes torturously obsessed with soon-to-be-second wife Ava Gardner; his throat hemorrhages at the Copacabana, and when he's beset by trashy material and weary vocal cords, Columbia Records dumps him. Act V: From Here to Eternity triumphs. At Capitol Records, he develops a throatier delivery that wows audiences and critics. He inherits Bogey's Rat Pack with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., becomes the uncrowned czar of Las Vegas, complete with enigmatic Mob friendships, and helps elect JFK, only to be ultimately snubbed by Camelot. Act VI: Frank upscales into tycoonhood, marries and then divorces Mia Farrow, lets his movie career slide into oblivion, but also jazzes up his elder statesman image with "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life" and "My Way." Act VII: He retires in 1971 but quickly resurfaces. He bops in and out of the public eye, punctuating road trips with new and recycled recording events (the Trilogy album in 1980, Duets and Duets II in '93 and '94, respectively), gathering accolades and, increasingly, entreaties to keep his aging voice in the recording studio and out of live, unprotected venues.

In a 1963 Playboy interview, Sinatra made one of the most revealing statements ever to issue from a pop supernova: "I don't know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an 18-carat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradiction, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation."

And as it turns out, The Frank Sinatra Reader's accounts of that side of Sinatra -- the romantic balladeer -- are fresher and more informative than those of his hard-swinging style and tough-guy persona. Indeed, audiences used to the huskier, more powerful voice of the '50s and later wouldn't recognize the reedlike instrument that once made bobbysoxers swoon. In a Time item from 1954, Sinatra talks candidly about the bad taste of Columbia Records' artist and repertory chief Mitch Miller, whom he blames for the near-demise of his singing career between 1949 and '52: "Instead of a real interest in the lyrics or the melody, all Miller cared about was gimmicks." Later, you can just picture him snapping his fingers when he says, "Everything's ahead of me, man. I'm on top of the world. I'm buoyant."

Also in the Reader is the most famous piece ever written about Sinatra, Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" (1966), which epitomizes a subgenre that could be called "Sinatra mood prose." It frames a consideration of the singer in his Chairman of the Board phase (roughly from the late '50s to mid-'60s) with a look at an eight-day period when the taping of the TV special Sinatra -- A Man and His Music had to be postponed because of ... a cold. Though overwritten and erratically reported, the piece contains a terrific vignette of Sinatra hassling writer Harlan Ellison at a private club and mercilessly telling him that the 1966 film he scripted (and Sinatra appeared in), The Oscar, is "a piece of crap." Joe Morgenstern's 1965 Newsweek story presents the clearest picture of how much authority Sinatra wielded at the top of his game -- it reports on the rumor that Jack Warner was grooming him to inherit Warner Bros. studio.

If you want some visual aids while listening to the albums or poring over the various Sinatra bios and guides, you might want to pick up Lew Irwin's Sinatra: The Pictorial Biography (Courage Books). While the text is error-laden, and you can't trust the reality depicted in the photos, they do have wonderful stories to tell -- whether fact or fiction. Most often, Sinatra is fiddling with a piano, jabbing at a music stand or seducing a mike. But we also see him hugging daughter Nancy with first wife, Nancy, at his side, and cutting wedding cake with his enduring love Ava Gardner. Hopscotch over the decades, and there he is at Kennedy's inaugural, then yucking it up with the Reagans.

In the coming weeks, movie channels will replay the Hollywood pictures; TV specials will portray Sinatra as a figure who influenced popular American culture for half a century. But in the end, it all goes back to the music. "The song is you," Sinatra sang in a number he loved so much he recorded it four times. Now, his songs are us.

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Michael Sragow