BWW Review: FRANK & AVA ~ An Affair To Remember
The tempestuous rollercoaster relationship of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner was the hot stuff of the post-World War II tabloids ~ from the late 40's to their marriage in 1951 (he was 35 and she was 28) and then to divorce in 1957.
Michael Oblowitz, a South African filmmaker with a prolific track record of avant garde hits and documentaries, has seized the torrid relationship as the centerpiece of FRANK & AVA and in so doing has also profiled a turbulent crossroads in American history.
The movie has some of the feel of film noir, capturing the sharp New York/New Jersey cadences of hot shots, tough guys, sexy dames, and mouthy gossip columnists, offset by a smooth jazz and pop song soundtrack. There's also wit and a smack of caricature in the representation of the characters ~ a device teasingly suggested in an opening note: "Most of what you're about to see...is on the level."
Rico Simonini, who co-wrote the screenplay based on the play by Willard Manus, stars as Sinatra. A near look-alike (blue eyes and tightly sculpted face), Simonini is splendid as the crooner who stole the hearts of bobbysoxers and then spun out of fame in the wake of scandal and the rise of new singing stars like Perry Como and Eddie Fisher. His portrayal captures Sinatra's contradictions and complexities. There's the promiscuity and the blatant disregard for his wife Nancy and their children. The careless association with members of La Cosa Nostra. Then, there's the love struck and romantic Sinatra, full of proclamations of endless love for Ava Gardner, but even then infidelity was not off limits.
Emily Elicia Low is equally terrific as Ava Gardner, playing steamy and voluptuous to the hilt. She embodies the silver screen mojo that made the superstars of that era so revered and, frankly, so seductive to the likes of Sinatra... and Gable... and Mickey Rooney... and Artie Shaw, etc., etc. She's sensual, sure, but she can snap a wise crack and pitch a putdown with the best of the guys.
The on-film chemistry between Simonini and Low is electric and is enhanced by a supporting cast who emulate the manners and accents of the time and cinematography that captures the texture and colors of the period.
The film's opening scenes of screaming teens agog in adoration of The Voice contrasts markedly with Sinatra's downward spiral. First, he's at the top of his game, and then bewilderment sets in as the screams die down. He becomes despondent as his career is on the rocks, but Ava is his saving grace.
Alternating with the lovebird scenes are the periodic reports ~ snarky, acerbic, and nearly gleeful ~ about their raging affair. The long knives of the gossip broadcasters and columnists ~ Walter Winchell (done to perfection by Richard Portnow), Hedda Hopper (Joanne Baron), and Louella Parsons (Joanna Sanchez) were out in full force for the couple. The camera plays its role as pinpoints the grimaces and smirks of these paragons of innuendo.
Despite the critics and the rise of the new breed of singers, and rocked by strained vocal chords that kept him out of commission, the single thread of hope that weaves throughout Sinatra's ups and downs is the dream of a key role in an upcoming film adaptation of From Here To Eternity. That's the break that he needs to turn his career around. The film plays with the circumstances surrounding the studio's dropping Eli Wallach in favor of Sinatra for the role of Maggio ~ leaving open the timeless question as to who ~ the Mafia, Gardner ~ got him the role.
When Sinatra wins the Oscar for his performance, all's right with the world ~ except that Ava is gone. Again, the camera, punctuating the end of the great romance as it follows a forlorn Sinatra, alone, the only treasure in his hand a golden statue.
Oblowitz has filled out the film with a number of special appearances, including Harry Dean Stanton (in his last role in a feature film) as a wizened sheriff whose deputy has apprehended Frank and Ava after they've literally shot up a farm road in Indio, California; Eric Roberts as Harry Cohn, the Columbia Pictures mogul; Lukas Haas; Terry Moore; and Shirley Jones.
If this is Oblowitz's Valentine to the duo, he has hit a bulls-eye.
FRANK & AVA (1:45) is one of the films featured at this year's Sedona International Film Festival.
Photo credit to RA Enterprises, Courtesy of 8th House Entertainment