Friday, February 19, 2010

Leo as Mr. Frank, but where's Der Bingle's story?

Leonardo DiCaprio will portray Frank Sinatra in a Martin Scorsese biopic. That means that, unlike "Titanic", I won't be rooting for him to drown. "Titanic" could have been saved if Kate Winslett had also drowned. Instead, it became, arguably, the biggest inducer of flaccidity in movie history, but I digress.

You won't find a bigger Sinatra fan than yours truly. Our toddler could sing "I've Got You Under My Skin" before she could speak a complete sentence. There are many who will criticize the choice of Leo since he won't be doing his own singing (though he tried, according to various reports). I disagree and think he will make a fine Frank as long as he doesn't pull a Kasem and have Sinatra the movie character predict global warming. (Pulling a 'Kasem' refers to legendary disc jockey and voice guy Casey Kasem. He was the longtime voice of Scooby Doo's Shaggy, and when Kasem became a militant vegetarian, he refused to voice scenes in which Shaggy and Scoob indulged in copious amounts of meat.)

That said, it makes me a sad Panda that Sinatra's story will be told yet again while the story of a man who was a much bigger star has never been told on the movie screen.

When folks think of Bing Crosby, they mistakenly simply think of the guy who was the big celebrity of one generation before Sinatra came along to displace him. Sort of like Elvis before the Beatles or being a loser hippie before being a responsible human being. Not true. Bing may have been the biggest celebrity in the nation's history in terms of overall popularity. Yes, even bigger than Lady Gaga, Ryan Seacrest's closet, or even "Who Let The Dogs Out!" Beginning in the early 1930's when he went solo full time, Bing was the biggest musical star in the world. He sold an enormous number of records, even during the Depression. Bing was feared by mostly older folks who thought every young woman could be wooed by his singing, and most of the rest of us guys have been wooing ever since, though some woos are bigger than others.

When Bing began hosting radio shows in 1932, his quickly became one of the highest-rated shows on the air. In 1936, he took over the "Kraft Music Hall" show on NBC Radio, making it an institution for the next decade, and the only American Idol number that even comes close is the number of Paula Abdul's prescriptions. After that, Bing took his show to ABC and, later, CBS after he became one of the first big stars to insist on tape-recording his shows, virtually creating the pre-recording industry in America by himself. The only unfortunate side effect of that was the birth of those shows where Dick Clark and Ed McMahon pretended to laugh at the TV bloopers.

From the first time he starred in a feature film in 1932's "The Big Broadcast", Bing was the biggest movie star in America. Even when the movies stunk, as many of them did, people still bought tickets to see Bing. Indeed, when it comes to ticket sales, Bing is the third-biggest movie star of all time, trailing only Clark Gable and John Wayne, and ahead of Jimmy Stewart and Optimus Prime. Der Bingle was also respected by his peers as evidenced by his Best Actor Oscar in 1944 for "Going My Way." And just when most people thought Bing's was getting long in the teeth, 1954's "White Christmas" became the biggest-grossing movie of the then-50-year-old Bing's career, taking in $30 million at the box office at a time when the average cost of a movie ticket was 50 cents. Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost $238 million in 2008, or enough for Washington to "stimulate" the repaving of my driveway.

There is no question that Sinatra was a phenomenal entertainer. He sold a lot of records and albums, had a fairly popular radio show (and some good but not-so-popular TV shows), and made some great movies, including his Oscar-winning role in 1953's "From Here To Eternity." But Bing was the country's single biggest star of three mediums (records, radio, and film) for at least two decades, and maybe three. So why is Sinatra revered, even by those of us who weren't around in his prime, while Bing might as well be as old as the Magna Carta? I believe there are a few reasons, and they have nothing to do with Bing being big before the Lord re-created the world in Technicolor in the late 1930's and 40's (yes, Adam and Eve were in black in white).

First, Bing stopped performing concerts in the early '30's, and according to his biographer Gary Giddins, he didn't resume live performances on the stage until the 1970's just before his death. Frankly (no pun intended), Bing didn't need concert tours to sell records or movie tickets. But a lot of people saw Sinatra perform live over the years, either solo or with members of the Rat Pack, and some of those shows became myths and legends of their own. Sinatra kept performing long after he forgot the words and the music to the songs. But rather than people feeling sorry for him as you did watching Dale Murphy in a Colorado Rockies uniform, those last concerts boosted his god-like status even more. Ironically, it was Sinatra's attendance at one of Bing's last live concerts of the 30's that led to Frank's decision to be a singer.

Secondly, Sinatra's children have played King Midas with his image, his music, his everything better than Warren Buffett managed the first dollar of his investment portfolio. Nancy, Frank Jr., and Tina have been masterful at keeping their dad alive long after his passing. Crosby's children, on the other hand, have mostly called each other names, notably when son Gary Crosby wrote his "biography" claiming Bing was akin to the 'pre-Buster Douglas' Mike Tyson when dealing with his kids. While Bing never made any secret of his use of the good, old fashioned whoopin', just as it was used on him by his parents and by the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School and University, Gary's claims appear to have been greatly exaggerated to help a failed singer and actor make some money off the family name.

Finally, and this is not a virtue, America loves Sinatra because America loves talking about sex. Deny this fact of life at your own peril, and when it comes to sex, Sinatra was, um, experienced. Frank started cheating on first wife Nancy even before they were married, and the escapades didn't stop until he married fourth wife Barbara (ex-wife of Zeppo) Marx in 1976, and maybe not until long after then. The notion that guys who slept around were cool gained traction with the rise of Hugh Hefner and "Playboy" in the 50's, just as Sinatra's resurgence was beginning. John F. Kennedy, despite having a libido resume as long as Gene Simmons, is still a media darling, mostly because of women who wish they had had a drink from the Vineyard, and Sinatra was a huge fan of JFK and helped secure, um, entertainment for him until Kennedy distanced himself because of Sinatra's ties to mobsters. Bill Clinton, ditto. While Der Bingle did get around before he was married and (allegedly) got around some later during his first marriage, he was not famous for his peccadillos as were most of Hollywood's leading men of the day, with the exception of straight-laced Fred Astaire. So, in adherence to our "modern" way of thinking, if Bing wasn't sleeping with anything that hath breath, he must not have been that cool.

Don't take this as bashing of Sinatra. I will cherish every moment I listen to Frank until the day I die. I also can't wait to see Leo's depiction of The Leader, as I have a feeling it will be excellent. But there are many stars, like Bing Crosby, who were bigger and more influential than Sinatra whose lives apparently can't be sexed-up enough to warrant their introduction to the next generation.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting view of the causes of the eclipse of the greatest singing star of the twentieth century. And not just on records - In the Movies and on Radio he was pre-eminent over many years. He had an "Entertainment Life" that was both a higher profile but lasted longer than any of his contemporaries or successors.
    Any with an interest could visit The BING CROSBY Free Speech Fan Forum at and The International Club Crosby at