Mel Brooks welcomes Errol Flynn to Sid Caesar comedy television show in the 1950s, and Jimmy Hoffa tries to ruin it all. That’s essentially the plot of this fictionalized recounting of a week in the Saturday evening comedy showbusiness, a vehicle for Peter O’Toole to play a drunk and out of control actor of yesteryear with his best years behind him, guiding the young Mark Linn-Baker through the intersection of movies and real life to find the truth of the man who entertained the world as a swashbuckling hero on screen but who’s too terrified to get out of his car to meet his own estranged daughter in Connecticut. Built on nostalgia, solid character work, and strong comedy, My Favorite Year is a fun comedy with a wonderful central performance by Peter O’Toole to anchor it all.
It’s 1954 and the young Benjy Stone is the junior writer for “Comedy Cavalcade” with King Kaiser with their guest that week being the famous British born actor Alan Swann. Swann has grown a reputation as a wild and out of control man with a major drinking problem. There are great concerns that the show’s cast and crew won’t be able to wrangle Swan to even appearing for rehearsals. When he shows up late and stinking drunk, Kaiser gives Swann a single chance, hinging on Benjy’s ability to get Swann to every rehearsal on time. So starts Benjy’s weeklong effort to keep his movie idol sober enough to work and out of trouble.
Swann is an effortlessly charming man who, when combined with his fame, has absolutely no trouble attracting the eye of young women. Benjy, on the other hand, is hopelessly in love with K.C., played by Jessica Harper, a co-worker at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and his love is completely unrequited. And yet, despite these supposed differences, there are a multitude of similarities between them. Swann’s real name is Clarence Duffy, and that along with most of his biography was created by the studio when they discovered him in Manchester. Likewise, Benjy’s real name is Benjamin Steinberg, and he changed his name because he thought Benjy Stone would look better going across the screen. Benjy takes Swann from Manhattan to Brooklyn to have dinner with his family, and it’s like going to another world that Benjy almost wants to hide, much like how Swann’s hid his own past. This forms the basis of the endearing relationship that really forms between them.
What follows is a series of episodes as Benjy does his best to keep Swann under control, failing almost every time, only to be saved by Swann’s own sense of self-preservation and habitual control over his life. The first night they’re together, Swann takes Benjy to The Stork Club where Swann immediately eyes an attractive woman with a date and plans on stealing her away. Swann incorporates Benjy into his plan, which succeeds with Swann dashing away with the woman and making the morning papers for his escapades, but he still manages to show up for the rehearsal, saving Benjy’s skin.
What ends up making up the movie’s emotional core is the idea that Benjy espouses towards the end. With Swann realizing that the show is live moments before air time, he loses all of his confidence and finds a bottle to lose himself into, but Benjy, in a desperate attempt to get Swann to be anything like the heroes he portrayed in the movies, tells him that a man who portrays such heroism on film can’t be a complete coward in real life. If the rest of the show had gone as planned, maybe Swann would have just settled comfortably in the bottle, but there’s another subplot that comes to fruition.
Kaiser plays a character named Boss Hijack in a regular skit thinly modeled on a New York labor leader and gangster named Karl Rojeck. Rojeck doesn’t like the sketch and threatens Kaiser if he doesn’t stop it. Kaiser, of course, plans on going through with it, so Rojeck sends some men to make trouble during the show. That trouble spills over onto the stage where a fistfight breaks out that the audience thinks is just part of the show. Swann, slightly sloshed, runs toward the action and helps successfully fight off the hoods, providing him his best moment in years, maybe even his life, showing that he does have some real bravery in him, having faked it for so long.
Benjy as the point of view character feels such warmth towards Swann after all this, finding that his hero could be both less and more than his own dreams of him, using Swann’s advice to get K.C. and even come to greater terms with his very Jewish mother and his very Filipino step-father, the sort of background he feels like showbusiness would look down on.
It’s a sweet and endearing little movie really anchored by O’Toole. As the past his prime actor, he portrays Swann as a man caught in an empty situation with no desire to get out of it. He can get away with just about anything, and he also gets blamed for a lot that he didn’t do. It evens out in a way. It’s also empty, but in the way Benjy gets Swann to accept some kind of responsibility, first by injecting himself into a fight and then by visiting his daughter, he becomes a fuller person. It’s sweet, and nice.
There’s a lot to enjoy in My Favorite Year. It’s a nice movie with a simple endgame that it achieves with energy and humor. O’Toole is very good, and the movie is filled with amusing supporting performances like Joseph Bologna as King Kaiser and Adolph Green as Leo. There’s a lot to enjoy in the easy charm of the film, much like Swann.