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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Host
Remind Me

Ben's Top Pick for June


In this world of extreme polarization, one of the unheralded pleasures of hosting for TCM is having my mind changed about a movie. Sometimes this new way of looking at a film comes from a staff member (I'm just kidding...I don't allow them to speak to me... or even look me in the eye), a fan or, in this case, a Guest Programmer.

To say I was eager to talk movies with Billy Bob Thornton would be a dramatic understatement. He's long been an actor whose work I admired. His resume speaks for itself: Sling Blade, Monster's Ball, The Man Who Wasn't There, A Simple Plan, Friday Night Lights, Bandits, Tombstone. Each is a movie I hold in high regard, in large part because of Thornton's performance, because even when the part is small--as in Tombstone-- he makes certain you'll remember it. That list doesn't include his work on television, notably his Emmy ®-nominated performance in season one of Fargo, and his addictive, Golden Globe®-winning portrayal of a washed up, boozed up lawyer on Amazon's Goliath.

He's one of those rare actors who seem completely a part of Hollywood, while simultaneously telling the town to f*%# off. I like that dichotomy. So when Billy Bob Thornton chose The Man with the Golden Arm as part of his night as a Guest Programmer, I watched the movie again with an open mind. And when we discussed it, he quickly convinced me this was a picture worth re-examining.

To me, Frank Sinatra's heroin-addicted jazz drummer represented Sinatra's unfulfilled potential. Yes, he got an Oscar® nod for Best Actor, but I saw the Sinatra reputation all over the performance: his refusal to rehearse and resistance to do multiple takes of a scene. But Thornton sees this as Sinatra's finest performance, full of honesty and guilt and weakness.

Thornton also comes at the movie with his own unique "outside Hollywood" perspective. Thornton is a musician--and a good one. He told me he considers himself a musician first and a filmmaker and actor second. Yet throughout his career, he's been dogged by suggestions that he's a Hollywood actor "playing" at being a rock star. So he has inherent sympathy to the suggestion that Sinatra was a singer using his celebrity to sleepwalk through much of his dramatic career. Though, significantly, we agreed that there's something psychologically interesting in Sinatra's refusal to do second, third and fourth takes. It's as if Sinatra feared he'd be exposed as a fraud. There's emotional coverage in insisting that your first take--your most raw take--is automatically your best.

Fittingly, director Otto Preminger drew Sinatra out of his protective shell. On The Man with the Golden Arm, Sinatra changed course and not only rehearsed but agreed to multiple takes, in part out of consideration for Kim Novak, a nervous new actor in a major film opposite a huge star.

Thornton also commended the strong supporting performance of Eleanor Parker as Sinatra's desperately insecure wife. Parker is consistently undervalued today, perhaps because she was so good at playing so many different types of characters.

So, on the strength of Billy Bob Thornton's artistic wisdom, I'm now recommending a movie I used to think fell short of expectations. Turns out, for the 7,486th time, I was wrong again.

by Ben Mankiewicz