Directed by: Rob Cohen
Written by: Kario Salem
Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, William L. Petersen, Zeljko Ivanek, Bobby Slayton, Deborah Kara Unger, Veronica Cartwright
The undefine-able nature of the term “success” lends itself to an endless array of interpretations. The most conventional definition of the term is an accumulation of material wealth (money, property, cars, houses, clothing, etc.). On the opposite end of that spectrum are those who define success as the attainment of knowledge. Still, there are those who define “success” as the freedom to do whatever you want. In addition to accumulating material wealth (worth about $100 million by the time he died), singer/actor Frank Sinatra had this last freedom in abundance. The world was certainly Frank Sinatra’s oyster – the perennial bachelor playboy was limited only by the bounds of his ambition, which seemed to be boundless in 1960, at least in the way he was portrayed in the HBO biofilm, The Rat Pack.
By 1960, Frank Sinatra was enjoying a rebirth of his career. His Oscar win for his performance in From Here to Eternity revived Sinatra’s career in 1953 and ever since then, the singer/actor’s career thrived in both music and film. Sinatra was a regular mainstay in Las Vegas, and he, along with his Rat Pack friends (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, & Joey Bishop) personified cool. However, in the late 1950’s and 60’s, Sinatra’s ambitions turned his attention to a new arena: politics. Sinatra’s interest was motivated by his desire to gain the media’s respect for him, to elevate himself from being perceived as merely a nightclub singer with mob ties, and he, along with the rest of this county, was smitten with John F. Kennedy’s youthful optimism for this country. The Rat Pack chronicles Sinatra’s (Ray Liotta) involvement with the Kennedy family, his role in getting JFK to the White House, and his relationship with his fellow Rat Pack members (Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, and Angus Macfadyen as Peter Lawford).
Biopics are among the toughest genres to make. A person’s life obviously does not neatly fit within a screenplay’s 3-act structure. What we usually end up with is a movie about a person’s life or an event in which key moments are taken from that life/event, condensed together, and shoehorned into a 3-act structure. Consequently, a lot of details are left out, glossed over, and existing facts are exaggerated to make the film more dramatic. Aside from knowing the members of the Rat Pack, I am totally unfamiliar with their lives and interactions with each other so I cannot attest to how accurate The Rat Pack is. However, given the little I have read about them, I am going to assume everything in this movie is generally true.
Starting with the performances/portrayals, Ray Liotta never seems to get a fair shake despite having given some memorable performances in his career (Goodfellas, Field of Dreams). Most critiques I have read/heard about Liotta’s portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack is that he merely channels his Henry Hill character from Goodfellas. I totally disagree and such a gross oversimplification of Liotta’s performance is unfair. In fact, I was more impressed with Liotta work than what Don Cheadle and Joe Mantegna did in this film. The latter two actors were nominated for Golden Globe awards (with Don Cheadle winning) whereas Liotta was not nominated. Frank Sinatra was by all accounts a complex man. He loved women (particularly Ava Gardner), a high-class lifestyle, and he was fiercely loyal to his friends (both his Ray Pack comrades and his mobster benefactors). Not being content with just being a popular matinee singer from Hoboken, Sinatra ambitiously ventured into film and television acting before setting his sights on gaining access to the political circles in Washington, D.C. At the same time, Sinatra’s career ambitions seemed to always be dogged by his mobster connections, and he seemed to never gain the respect he deserved because of this.
Frank Sinatra was also known for his dedication to achieving racial integration, a view not shared by most in his circles, and his support for those who were blacklisted in Hollywood for their communist ties. The best and most touching moment in The Rat Pack is a scene between Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in which Sammy announces to Sinatra that he plans to marry his white girlfriend, actress May Britt. Sinatra knew the repercussions of Sammy’s decision, especially to his friend JFK’s electoral chances, but Sinatra continued to support his friend anyway. In this scene, Liotta beautifully conveys both Sinatra’s fierce support for Sammy Davis, Jr. and his sympathy for what his friend would endure for marrying a white person.
Except for having Sinatra’s blue eyes, Liotta may not resemble the Chairman of the Board, but his clearly earnest portrayal of the singer/actor makes up for this. The actor nicely captures the confidence, swagger, and charisma Sinatra was known for. Liotta also does a fine job displaying the naivety Sinatra had about his relationship with the Kennedy family. Sinatra was so enamored by the hopes and dreams JFK inspired in the country that he seemed to willfully ignore the slick political machinery underlying JFK’s campaign to take the White House. Just like the loyalty he gave to his mobster friends that helped him gain fame, Sinatra expected JFK to do the same after he helped him win the presidency. You deeply sympathize with Sinatra when he discovers that he’s merely been a pawn in toward fulfilling JFK’s political ambitions.
Don Cheadle won the Golden Globe award for his performance as Sammy Davis, Jr. A few short years after The Rat Pack was released, Cheadle co-starred in the 2001 remake of Oceans 11, the film that originally starred the Rat Pack. It goes without saying that Don Cheadle is unable to deliver a bad performance. I mean, he even survived Swordfish! Here, Cheadle comfortably fills into the shoes of Sammy Davis, Jr., a man just as complex as Frank Sinatra. Davis, Jr. owed much of his career to Sinatra because without his friend’s help in performing in previously whites-only clubs, Davis, Jr. may have never achieved the success that he did. Davis, Jr. was also a huge advocate of the civil rights movement, and he was not afraid to push back against the establishment to live his life the way he wanted to live it (e.g., marrying white actress May Britt). At the same time, Davis, Jr. recognized that he needed to also toe the line at times and play to society’s stereotypes so that he could pave an easier way for a future generation of black entertainers. Cheadle captures the mannerisms and dialect of Sammy Davis, Jr. without resorting to a caricature of the singer. Unfortunately, the film does not explore the singer’s relationship with the Rat Pack as much as I would have liked it to. It seems there was more friction between him and his cohorts than the movie reveals. Worth noting is the song and dance number where Sammy sings “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to a group of Klu Klux Klan members.
Finally, we get to Joe Mantegna, who stars as Dean Martin. For the most part, Martin stayed out of the politics and drama that Sinatra was involved in. With a large family to support, Martin focused exclusively on his career even though he remained cold and distant with his wife and kids. The film does not give a whole lot for Mantegna to do here other than appear and sound like Martin, which he does very well. There are a few, brief glimpses of Martin’s family life, but other than that, Dino spends the majority of this film as a supporting character among the rest of the Rat Pack. I was surprised that Mantegna, and not Ray Liotta, received a Golden Globe nomination.
The Rat Pack is rounded out by a few more notable actors who, more or less, give serviceable performances. Angus Macfadyen plays another Rat Pack member, actor Peter Lawford. Lawford was essentially a bag boy/messenger for Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys. He hated the fact that he was used by all these people (Sinatra used him to get close to the Kennedys and the Kennedys used him to control Sinatra), but he could never muster enough courage to stand up to anyone. Macfadyen almost has a thankless role here playing a spineless man who lacked any self-worth. William Peterson (CSI) plays JFK and Deborah Kara Unger plays Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s ex-wife and lover. Neither actor elevates their performance above a caricature, especially Peterson, who is unconvincing as JFK.
The Rat Pack features some very good performances, but what ultimately stands out is the film’s gorgeous production design by Hilda Stark Manos, who also earned a Golden Globe for her work on this film. I don’t know whether or not the sets accurately portray what Frank Sinatra’s house and office looked like, and nor do I care because the 1950’s space age look of the sets is absolute eye candy to behold. Watch for one particularly nice shot where an FBI agent is sitting inside his car outside of Sinatra’s restaurant and behind the car is a huge Coca-Cola billboard.
One can easily dismiss The Rat Pack as nothing more than your typical TV bio movie and to a large extent, this film does amount to this. Director Rob Cohen presents the story in the same straightforward manner that we have seen so many other TV bio flicks. The movie does not give us anything more than a simple recital of the facts from one dramatic event to the next. At the same time, the marriage of Washington and Hollywood during this period is fascinating enough to make you not care so much about the director’s failure to take this film to another level of insight. With that said, I would have done anything to see Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the Rat Pack, a movie which he was developing for a long time. All in all, even with all its faults, The Rat Pack is an entertaining and educational watch that contains some very good performances.