Oscar Blindspots: My Favorite Year/Frances

It might be 40 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1982 through the month of July

A pair of gifted thespians delivered two very different performances in very different films. While one works much better for me than the other, it might not be the one you expect.

My Favorite Year
Directed by Richard Benjamin

Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) writes for a variety comedy show in 1954. The show host King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) books aging and drunken actor Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) for the next episode. Forced to monitor the actor due to his antics, Benjy bonds with the man while attempting to keep him sober enough to make it to this week’s taping.

O’Toole is the main reason to watch this film. He is a force of smooth charsima and charm, despite his drunkenness. Despite advancing in age, the actor appears limber and willing to go for whatever chaos the scene calls for. It’s a delightful performance. Linn-Baker might not get top billing, but the film is much more focused on him than anyone else. It’s not Linn-Baker’s fault, but he is by far the least interesting character, and the film cares far too much about him.

This is lighter fare of most Oscar films, but it’s a nice deviation from the usual heavier material. I wish Stone was a small bystander as opposed to the absolute focus of the film. O’Toole is the draw and he is great. Magnetism isn’t something you can teach and O’Toole has loads in this film.

Directed by Graeme Clifford

Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) is a rebellious teenager who eventually becomes an actress in Hollywood. Continually followed by controversy and a string of poor relationships, she is relegated to B-movies and a dependence on alcohol and amphetamines. Pressured by her mother Lillian (Kim Stanley), Frances has a nervous breakdown leading to her being brutally institutionalized.

Lange is a roaring presence that refuses to be tied down or conventional. I have a tendency to scoff at the term “brave” when it comes to acting, but this performance puts it all out there with no ego getting in the way. Maybe it was my high expectations for what Lange was going to do, but the film was underwhelming. Lange isn’t the end-all-be-all of acting performances, but she did stellar work. Stanley also did well in a very unlikeable role, but gives it a level of dignity and despair that wasn’t on the page. Sam Shepard gets to play the straightman among all the chaos, but he feels more like a literary device than a real person.

The life of Frances Farmer is rife with drama and film potential, but it goes absolutely nowhere here. It focuses on large inconsequential chunks of her life while overlooking other vital pieces. It feels thrown together and rushed. Director Graeme Clifford said the film was originally four hours and had to be cut down to two. It certainly feels that way, because the film has no flow and no cohesion. Performances aside, it’s a real mess.

Next week: An ensemble of future stars and a classic movie star gets their chance to shine in Diner and The World According to Garp

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