Why Sinatra deserves better than DiCaprio

Martin says doo-be-doo-be-don't to the cherubic actor as Ol' Blue Eyes - even if Scorsese is welded to him at the hip…

Get that shoe-horn out, Scorsese…

Last week’s news that Martin Scorsese wants to make a fifth film – a biopic of Frank Sinatra, no less – with Leonardo DiCaprio was both unsurprising and disappointing. But also understandable. If you strike up a good working relationship with an employee or colleague, it’s obviously something that you’re going to want to continue: you’ll both be on the same page, have established productive working rhythms, and be confident that such a tried-and-tested screen partnership will at the very least turn out ‘professional’.

In terms of marketability, it also makes getting a package together a bit of a breeze, in comparison to starting ‘cold’. In the field of ‘A’-list Hollywood fare, the director will either have ‘broken’ a burgeoning talent – as Quentin Tarantino did with Samuel L. Jackson and Pulp Fiction before continuing the partnership in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vol.2 – or the very marketability of the actor not only got the original collaboration green-lit but continues to make follow-on collaborations a no-brainer: Sidney Lumet made five films with Sean Connery between 1965-89, Steven Soderbergh six films with George Clooney 1998-2007 (not including other Soderbergh-Clooney cross-collaborations in the area of executive producing) and Akira Kurosawa an astonishing sixteen films with Toshiro Mifune between 1948-65.

Hollywood tries to remove luck from the equation with ‘bankable’ names and proven formulas, but remains obsessed with lucky charms, and it must be hard at this point for Scorsese to separate himself from DiCaprio, having scored so many financial and critical successes with him.

In the case of the Sinatra biopic, I fear things may go wrong, since the appeal of doing a film about Ol’ Blue Eyes is an intensely personal one for Scorsese, addressing many themes familiar from his body-of-work to date, i.e. crooners, the mafia and (I’m taking a wild guess here) lots of high-cholesterol food. It therefore seems unlikely that the director was looking for another ‘good DiCaprio project’, and that in this case the bonds of loyalty might shoe-horn the actor into a role he is even less physically suited-for than that of Howard Hughes.

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I’m not a DiCaprio hater anymore, I should add –  he began to win me over in Gangs Of New York, and The Aviator sealed the deal. But in The Departed, DiCaprio’s ill-fitting cherubic features grated with the hard-edged role, and frankly I don’t see the slightest note of Sinatra in him. Ironically, he looks shorter than the wiry young Frank, though – at 6 feet – he is actually five inches taller. But most restrictingly he has a very distinctive set of features, set – boy-like – in an ocean of face.

He’s always numbered, for me, among a group of select actors I like to call ‘the farm boys’ for their indistinct features, the others being Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon – stars who became stars without evincing obvious star quality – though I have to admit that DiCaprio has shown some under the Scorsese spotlight.

But he is no ‘man of a thousand faces’. Despite the non-descriptness of DiCaprio’s  features, I could pick him out of a line up from a Google Maps ariel photo, even if he was wearing a beard and sunglasses. ‘Vague’ and ‘versatile’ are not the same thing.

Compare him then to the incredible physical mutability of Geoffrey Rush, so convincing as Peter Sellers despite no obvious physical correlation or, latterly, Michael Sheen in any of the raft of biopic roles he has pursued in recent years.

I love biopics – in fact I love biographies in general, and I do hate to see unsuitable actors shoe-horned into roles for which they may have (about as often as not) adequate acting scope but no obvious physical qualifications. DiCaprio as Sinatra would be such a case. He got away with it only just in The Aviator due to the reclusive nature of Howard Hughes himself, who shunned cameras from the mid-twentieth century; but Sinatra’s visage is iconic from the 1950s on, from the rake-thin crooner to the fleshed-out rat pack leader to the near-moribund stage entertainer of the closing decades of his life.

It matters to me whether or not an actor resembles the real-life person they are portraying – at least if that person is part of the cultural iconography.

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As a fan both of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, it was a joy to see them work together so many times, but Carpenter actually cast his old chum in a variety of roles that the actor was well-able to play: Russell had his ‘Eastwood’ down pat for Escape From New York and his supreme comic timing (see Overboard, arguably the funniest comedy of the eighties alongside The Man With Two Brains) was a boon to the otherwise-indifferent Big Trouble In Little China.

But the TV project that got them together, Elvis: The True Story, is undermined by Russell’s non-existent resemblance to the king, though it’s a part well-played.

The more distinctive the real-life character is in appearance, the lower the chance of finding an actor with the chops to match a resemblance. As a huge fan of Frank Langella, I have to admit that I still had to ‘get out and push’ a bit to buy him as Nixon in Frost/Nixon. Langella was a heart-throb from the start, Nixon a rough-hewn genetic off-cut spurred on by his own overwhelming sense of inadequacy. I’m also a huge fan of Hopkins, but even his epic and bravura performance in Oliver Stone’s Nixon felt ‘theatrical’ rather than authentic- and through no fault of the actor.

Nixon’s a hard piece of casting, then, but Sinatra isn’t, and I really believe there are dozens if not hundreds of suitable candidates with the acting skill and at least a germ of resemblance to offer the part – rather than Leonardo DiCaprio.

I’m not even going to talk about Hollywood wanting Johnny Depp. That’s just sad. I’m a fan of Depp and not of Sinatra’s, but more than either of those, I’m a fan of biopics with verisimilitude – and commitment.

It hardly ever happens. What a joy it was then to see David Strathairn plucked out from a highly respectable career on the sidelines to take centre stage in George Clooney’s excellent Goodnight And Good Luck in 2005. Clooney and Soderbergh remain firmly in the rhythm of ‘one for the money, one for the show’, and it’s a dream arrangement that gives them the freedom to indulge in such a genius piece of casting, despite Strathairn’s lack of ‘A-list’ provenance.

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Sometimes the suitability of an actor to a historical personage is overwhelming, and that they should eventually play the role a foregone conclusion; so it was with Stephen Fry, whose obvious qualifications to play Oscar Wilde were a little squandered in the under-funded and often under-written BBC co-production Wilde in 1997.

At other times the impetus behind a biopic is that of actors with dream-projects, such as the Kemp brothers struggling for years to star as East End gangsters The Krays (1990), or Kevin Spacey aching to play Bobby Darin, which he finally did in Beyond The Sea (2004), a film thought by many to be a bit of a vanity project.

Unfortunately it’s mainly the actors with known faces and public appeal that will get to work up such hobby-horses into theatrical releases, even if their faces don’t fit, or their abilities match their obsessions. Can it be that even Scorsese is beholden by Hollywood to stick with the ‘dream team’, though he could get a better Sinatra elsewhere?

Perhaps with DiCaprio Scorsese will get budget for a CGI recreation of 1950s New York, whereas with a ‘risky’ (unknown) Sinatra-alike, he’d have to just hire some black Fords and throw the background out of focus to hide the satellite dishes. I know these are the realities, but that’s also why so many biopics fail to transcend the period in which they were made.