“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”: Notes on ‘My Favorite Year’

MFYbenjyTonight and tomorrow evening, TCM presents six movies produced through Brooksfilms, the production company headed by Mel Brooks. In addition to Brooks’s comedies, the company has been responsible for a variety of movies not associated with the comic mind that spawned Blazing Saddles, including my favorite David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, and a gothic horror flick called The Doctor and the Devils.

Tomorrow night, TCM airs the Brooksfilms production My Favorite Year, which happens to be my favorite Peter O’Toole movie, though fans of his more lauded signature roles might disagree. Set during the Golden Age of Television, when prime-time programming was produced live in New York, the story unfolds from the perspective of Benjy Stone, a junior writer on the comedy series The King Kaiser Show. O’Toole plays Hollywood movie star Alan Swann, who is guest-starring on the show because he needs the money. Benjy is assigned to watch Swann throughout the week of preparation and rehearsal, because the star lives as large as his image, chasing women and drinking at every opportunity. As a result of their week together, Benjy, who is both disillusioned and awestruck by Swann, grows from a wise-cracking kid into a mature young man.

PETER O'TOOLE AS SWASHBUCKLING ALAN SWANN

PETER O’TOOLE AS SWASHBUCKLING ALAN SWANN

The obvious appeal of My Favorite Year, which was the directorial debut of actor Richard Benjamin, is its basis in recognizable events and stars. The King Kaiser Show recalls the highly respected Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) starring Sid Caesar, and its later incarnation, Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957).  Joseph Bologna plays the Caesar character, a gifted but egotistical comic who enjoys his reputation and stardom. Like Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, the fictional King Kaiser Show features Hollywood legends as guest stars, including the swashbuckling heartthrob Alan Swann, who is obviously patterned after Errol Flynn and/or John Barrymore.

Legend has it that Errol Flynn actually guest-starred on Your Show of Shows, and online reviews and articles on My Favorite Year are quick to make the connection between Flynn’s experiences on the program and the film’s storyline. However, on a website that listed all of the Your Show of Shows episodes, I did not see any that featured Flynn, though I did find his swashbuckler rival Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., on the list.  If Flynn did appear on one of Caesar’s show, it was likely Caesar’s Hour. Flynn made several guest-star appearances on television, even presenting and performing in an anthology series called The Errol Flynn Theatre. If he did appear with Caesar on one of his series, I wonder why there are not more details about it. (There is a reference called Errol Flynn: A Bio-Bibliography that lists every film, television show, and radio program the star appeared in, but I did not have access to it.)

SELMA DIAMOND PLAYED THE WARDROBE MISTRESS IN 'MY FAVORITE YEAR.' DIAMOND WROTE FOR 'YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS' AND 'CAESAR'S HOUR.'

SELMA DIAMOND PLAYED THE WARDROBE MISTRESS IN ‘MY FAVORITE YEAR.’ DIAMOND WROTE FOR ‘YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS’ AND ‘CAESAR’S HOUR.’

According to the online articles about My Favorite Year, if Alan Swann is Errol Flynn, then Benjy Stone is Mel Brooks, who began as a writer on Your Show of Shows and stayed with Caesar through Caesar’s Hour.  The stories about Brooks and Flynn’s real-life experiences during this week vary, depending on the source. Some write that Flynn’s episode was uneventful, and the writing staff did not even meet the legendary star, making the events in the film fiction. Some suggest that the character Benjy Stone is likely a composite of Brooks and Woody Allen. Others swear that Brooks was assigned to watch over Flynn for a weekend, and events unfolded much as they did for Benjy and Swann in the movie. Fact and fiction are difficult to separate, though whoever brought Allen into story did not do their homework. Allen did not write for Your Show of Shows or Caesar’s Hour; he wrote for Sid Caesar’s television specials on NBC from the late 1950s.

Those who claim that the antics in My Favorite Year are slight exaggerations of Brooks’s real-life experiences generally paraphrase or quote from a 1997 interview in the webzine Film Score Monthly, which has been reposted many times. Interviewer Jeffrey K. Howard asked Brooks how close the movie was to real events. This is supposedly Brooks’s response: “Pretty damn close. My company made it, Brooksfilm, and I made sure that we were telling the truth. I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed, Cuban sisters. For three days I was trying to get them out of there and he was trying to get me drunk and in there. It was the craziest weekend of my life. I was 20 years old and just starting with The Show of Shows. He was a tough guy to corral and get to rehearsals. Max Liebman assigned me to him and said, ‘Get him into rehearsal! Make him learn his lines! Work with him on the sketch!’ Errol Flynn was a raving maniac. All he wanted was booze and to fool around. He did learn the sketch. Actually, I whispered into his ear when he was asleep. I’d say all the lines and unconsciously, I knew it would get through to his head.”

RICHARD BENJAMIN DIRECTS O'TOOLE IN THE PARK SCENE. ALSO IN 1982, BROOKSFILMS RELEASED 'FRANCES,' A BIOPIC ABOUT STAR FRANCES FARMER. IT WAS THE OPPOSITE TAKE ON MOVIE STARDOM.

RICHARD BENJAMIN DIRECTS O’TOOLE IN THE PARK SCENE. IN 1982, BROOKSFILMS ALSO RELEASED ‘FRANCES,’ A BIOPIC ABOUT GOLDEN AGE STAR FRANCES FARMER. IT WAS THE OPPOSITE TAKE ON MOVIE STARDOM.

Several things do not ring true with this interview and particular quote, and I would be hesitant to use it as definitive proof of anything. Obviously, the title of the series is incorrect: It is Your Show of Shows, not The Show of Shows. And, Brooks was 20 years old in 1946—four years before the start of Your Show of Shows in 1950. Finally, the timing doesn’t seem to fit Flynn’s other television appearances, which occurred in the mid to late 1950s. Whatever the true story, it will be interesting to see what Mel Brooks says about My Favorite Year when he appears with Robert Osborne on Tuesday.

JOSEPH BOLOGNA (LEFT) PLAYED THE SID CAESAR-LIKE CHARACTER.

JOSEPH BOLOGNA (LEFT) PLAYED THE SID CAESAR-LIKE CHARACTER.

Somehow, the exaggerations, discrepancies, and half-truths about the origins of the film’s storyline only add to the appeal of My Favorite Year, which has at its heart a character whose very existence is a construct of fact and fiction. And, Alan Swann does not know where one ends and the other begins. But, in the end, it isn’t relevant. I don’t think I ever truly understood the mystique and meaning of stardom to movie-goers until I heard it articulated so poignantly in My Favorite Year. Near the end, when Swann tries to justify his less-than-heroic actions, he tells Benjy that he is only a man. The young writer stands in for all of us when he declares that he doesn’t need the real man. He needs the big-screen, larger-than-life movie star, who represents a value or a virtue that he, Benjy, aspires to.  That is the importance of stars to all of us: They signify the ideals, behaviors, and virtues we admire and measure ourselves against.

Sadly, today’s star system is only a shadow of what it once was, when the likes of Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and countless others graced the silver screen. Though there are still stars, the entertainment press has robbed them of their larger-than-life status by exposing every physical flaw, private problem, and moment of weakness, destroying their value as signifiers. In addition, the industry has devalued the star system by emphasizing two-dimensional fictional characters over the stars who play them, because adolescent audiences care more about fidelity to a  2-D construct on a comic book page than actors who can breath life into characters via unique interpretations. Finally, the movie-going audience in general seems to have turned its back on movie stars, preferring “real” actors in true-to-life stories about the people next door to movie stars with glamorous images.  On this final note, I have to say I agree with Joan Crawford, who was once asked about the new realism in Hollywood movies: She noted, “If you want to see the people next door, then just go next door.”

11 Responses “I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”: Notes on ‘My Favorite Year’
Posted By Jonathan Barnett : May 19, 2014 3:32 pm

Great job. I love this. My impression is that the movie combines events over the course of the four to eight years that the show was in production. I can’t see all of this happening in one weekend at least not as the movie shows it. I agree with your assessments about movie stars. Not only does the movie show our need to look up to movie stars but it also shows a need to look down on them. “Alan Swan is beneath us.” “Of course he is. He’s an actor.” “No. I mean he’s beneath us right now.”. I love his Jewish dinner and a wonderful slapstick fistfight on the stage. Also the movie seems to say a lot people going through career changes, embracing people and situations that they have no training for. Yes, there is something about yesteryear a stars that had a certain something. You might find someone as Alan Swann. Can anyone today actually be Alan Swann?

Posted By Tammy : May 19, 2014 4:19 pm

This is also my favorite Peter O’Toole film. “I’m not an actor, I’m a MOVIE STAR” has to be one of the best – and truest- lines ever uttered. The slapstick comes in the right amounts, and the drama is poignant. I think O’Toole gave a wonderfully nuanced performance here and for those who love old movies, with real “stars”, this is a must-see.

Posted By Alan : May 19, 2014 7:14 pm

one of my favorites also. I have to watch it every time it is on. Glad it is on again instead of usual time over Oscar month.

Posted By Doug : May 19, 2014 9:29 pm

Any tribute to Mel Brooks and his productions is well deserved.
To get a flavor of the early Brooks, seek out “New Faces” from 1954, a blackout sketch show built around a nominal backstage plot. ‘Melvin’ Brooks wrote most of the skits and music; the highlight of the show is the beautiful Eartha Kitt introducing “Santa Baby”. Brooks stalwart Ronnie Graham also stars, with Robert Clary, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Carol Lawrence and a host of other ‘New Faces’.
As for “My Favorite Year”, perhaps a quote from the Blake Edwards movie “Sunset” will help:
“It’s all true, give or take a lie or two.”

Posted By Susan Doll : May 19, 2014 9:33 pm

Doug: Thanks for the info. I am a softie for old-school show-biz.

Posted By Richard Brandt : May 20, 2014 3:33 am

I adopted one of my signature lines from this film:

“Never better!”

Posted By Doug : May 21, 2014 1:07 am

Susan, just found a fun mention and, since you have her picture up, here’s a line from a Fred Allen letter to Groucho Marx in 1951
regarding Groucho’s upcoming appearance on a TV show:
“i should warn you that this is the last show and from the writer’s collective attitude i take it that they are not going to
take any nonsense from any of us on the show. they have been tacit all season and i sense that a wrong word may stampede the writing staff and cause them to beat one of the guests to death with selma diamond.”

Posted By Marty : May 21, 2014 3:00 pm

A day doesn’t go by without my using at least 1 big line from My Favorite Year.
It’s a picture I can watch every day; in fact I go through MFY jags in which I view it day after day and finally, give it a rest.
I saw it first run in the theater and when Belle (Lainie Kazan) first appears to welcome Benjamin and Swan in her Brooklyn apartment, she looked so much like my long-departed Aunt Rae, I gasped out loud!

Never have I seen O’Toole appear to be having so much fun working in a picture and you feel a real relationship between Swan and Benji and O’Toole and Lin-Baker.

The mob and the set issues are supposed to have been suffered by The Steve Allen Show, not Your Show of Shows.

“Jolson’s Coming?”
“Philipino Pork & Beans”
“That’s Captain From Tortuga”…”Captain From Crap!”

A great picture and a great favorite of mine.

“I guess if you want to be technical…”

Posted By Muriel : May 24, 2014 7:33 am

” That is the importance of stars to all of us: They signify the ideals, behaviors, and virtues we admire and measure ourselves against.” I never thought of “stars” that way. They are performers who create very entertaining characters, whether by acting, singing, dancing. As for The Movie Star ? That is a person with a lot of talent, and often pulchritude, or at least very interesting looks.
I never look at new movies, celebrities now all seem to look alike. I only like movies made before 1960.

Posted By swac44 : May 27, 2014 9:43 pm

I got to feel that movie star aura once, at a Toronto Film Fest screening of One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest hosted by Chow Yun Fat. Granted, I’m a fan of Chow and his work with John Woo and others, but when he came into the theatre in his crisp linen suit, beaming and waving to the crowd (who were collectively losing their minds), I felt like I was experiencing what people must have felt in the presence of a Gable or Cooper. And again, it comes down to mystique; Chow lives in Hong Kong under much less scrutiny and hasn’t become tabloid fodder (at least not outside of Asia), so his aura remains intact. It was a pretty remarkable experience.

Oops, suddenly remembered, also felt the same thing when meeting Charlton Heston. Some people just project “movie star”.

Posted By Kazzie : June 23, 2014 1:26 am

I also loved this film for many solid reasons and one just a crush on Corrine Bohrer. She was one of the Airline Attendants Bobbie of Bobbie and Connie with whom Alan had just spent the night. I have always loved the quirkier types!!

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies