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Casting today’s actors to impersonate well-known entertainers of the past is always a risky enterprise. Yet some recent biopics have overcome the hurdle; audiences accepted Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. It would be hard to imagine a more distinctive actress from another era than Katharine Hepburn, and yet Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her performance in The Aviator, even though she did not look or sound exactly like Hepburn.
The same acceptance will probably not greet the two actors who play Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner in the low-budget Frank & Ava, which receives a limited opening this week in Los Angeles. This story, adapted from a play by Willard Manus, focuses on the stormy love affair and brief marriage of these two superstars in the early 1950s. The film has significant problems in the writing and direction, but the first challenge lies in the casting. Surprisingly, unknown actor Rico Simonini has some limited success transforming himself into Sinatra. He bears a certain resemblance to the performer, and he captures the icon’s volatility and insecurity. He doesn’t sing, but then again, the film focuses on a period when Sinatra’s singing career was in eclipse, and he was obsessed with winning the role in From Here to Eternity in order to establish his credibility as a dramatic actor.
Simonini’s backstory is probably more interesting than the movie. A cardiologist by training, he was obsessed with the idea of playing Sinatra, and he starred in the production of Manus’ play, then resolved to turn the piece into a movie. Simonini co-authored the script with Manus, and Michael Oblowitz directed the pic. The star’s performance is not inspired or entirely convincing, but it’s a serviceable interpretation.
Newcomer Emily Elicia Low is less fortunate as Gardner. Unlike Sinatra, Gardner is not a household name today, and Kate Beckinsale, who played her in The Aviator, got by with her interpretation even though she really didn’t look like Gardner. Low doesn’t precisely resemble Gardner, either. She does capture the star’s sensuality, but not the salty humor that Gardner brought to her best performances, in such films as Mogambo and The Night of the Iguana. And the chemistry between the two leads is insipid.
The film includes some entertaining tidbits for fans of Golden Age Hollywood. It acknowledges Sinatra’s ties with the Mafia, which clearly didn’t help his Hollywood career at a time when the Kefauver hearings into organized crime were making headlines in Washington. In a scene when Sinatra visits a doctor to address the vocal cord problems that were interfering with his singing, the doctor does not recommend giving up smoking but suggests, “Switch to Camels.” In another provocative bit, Lauren Bacall advises Ava on where to get an abortion.
Many other real-life Hollywood players appear, including directors John Ford and Fred Zinnemann and columnists Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Some of these supporting parts are well played. The late Harry Dean Stanton has a tiny role as a sheriff who arrests Sinatra at one point. Eric Roberts gives a smooth performance as studio boss Harry Cohn, whom Sinatra lobbied for the part in Eternity. (There is no indication that a horse’s head was used to persuade him.) Initially, Cohn and director Zinnemann wanted Eli Wallach for the part of Maggio that Sinatra craved. But when Cohn saw Wallach’s screen test, he decided that Wallach didn’t “look Italian,” but rather too Jewish. (He uses a more offensive word.) Cohn was known to be one of the most anti-Semitic of the Jewish studio executives of the era, so this is one of the cleverly knowing touches in the uneven script.
Unfortunately, the low budget prevented any meaningful visual recreation of the era. Most of the scenes are shot in extreme close-ups; the scenes in Africa, Italy and Spain (where Gardner was working in the early 1950s) make do with just a couple of generic establishing shots. But even the scenes in Hollywood seem pitifully skimpy compared to richer evocations of the period found in The Aviator or L.A. Confidential.
The marriage of Sinatra and Gardner may have been passionate, but it was very short-lived. Do not expect a longer run for this earnest but inadequate chronicle of their romance.
Production companies: 8th House Entertainment, All Edge Entertainment
Cast: Rico Simonini, Emily Elicia Low, Eric Roberts, Jonathan Silverman, Harry Dean Stanton, Lukas Haas, Joanne Baron
Director: Michael Oblowitz
Screenwriters: Willard Manus, Rico Simonini; based on the play by: Willard Manus
Producer: Douglas Kaplan
Executive producer: Rico Simonini
Cinematographers: Michael Oblowitz, Daniele Poli
Editors: Christopher Cibelli, Cody Miller
Music: Misha Segal