Career (1959)

During the last PBS pledge drive I found myself staring at one of those 60-minute bios with tinkly piano music about Dean Martin, and it mentioned this movie Career that Dino hoped would help establish him as a serious actor in people’s eyes. It’s not bad, but it’s not a Dean Martin pictureit’s a Tony Franciosa picture. I never could cotton to Franciosatoo many teeth, too many twinklesbut he actually turns in a full-bodied performance here, even if half of it consists of the most lifelike Burt Lancaster impersonation you’re ever going to see. That’s only fitting, though, since the movie itself is straining for the rarified cynicism of Sweet Smell of Success. When we first see Franciosa, he has some chalk in his hair and he’s carrying people’s steaks to them at O’Malley’s on Broadway, and then in a long (long) flashback we get the whole dirty history of how one day, way back when, he got on the train from Lansing, Michigan, to “make it big” as an actor in New York, only to experience all the cold-water flats, cattle-calls, and heartbreak you can imagine. Along the way he gets hooked up with a rising director and power-player (Dino), an alcoholic nymphomaniac whose father is the biggest producer in town (Shirley MacLaine), and an agent who’s the hottest-looking spinster you’re ever gonna see (Carolyn Jones), yet even with all these contacts the guy can’t catch a break. It’s not that he’s a bad actoreveryone agrees that he’s greatit’s just that Fatty Arbuckle had better luck than Sam Lawson does. If it’s not one damn thing, it’s anotherbackstage politics, a loveless marriage, a back-stabbing old friend, even the blacklistto the point that when Sam’s called up for Korea on the same day that he finally lands a breakout part, even he has to laugh at what a sick joke his life has become. (Cue footage of Franciosa in army gear and spitting dirt out of his mouth somewhere in the San Gabriel Mountains.) This all probably sounds pretty agonizing, and the damn thing did seem half an hour longer than its running-time, but I respected Career by the time it was over. Everyone involved in it worked their tails off, perhaps because the material dwells so much on how hard it is to be recognized for our giftsthis thing makes it look easier to become a Mafia don than a working actorthat it touched something in them. I don’t know. I do know that last night I also watched All in a Night’s Work, a movie that the same director, Joseph Anthony, made a mere two years later, also with Martin and MacLaine, and it was ground chuckso impersonal and antiseptic that not even the sight of Shirley MacLaine spilling out of a bath towel got a rise out of me.

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