“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”

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To view My Favorite Year click here.

Peter O’Toole utters the infamous line above at a strategic moment in the comedy My Favorite Year (1982), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck. As part of the fabric of our pop culture, the line is familiar even to those who have not seen the film. At first glance, it might seem like a put-down of movie stars—those performers celebrated as much for their screen persona as for their acting prowess. But, there is much more to the line and the film than meets the eye . . . or, the ear.

Set in 1954 when New York was the center of the television industry, My Favorite Year stars O’Toole as flamboyant Golden Age movie star Alan Swann, who is obviously patterned after such rogues as Errol Flynn and John Barrymore. The story revolves around Swann’s appearance on a television variety show, The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade, which echoes the type of sketch comedy programs that dominated television in the 1950s. Swann loves his liquor and women, so Kaiser and the producers give junior writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) the task of keeping him out of trouble. The aging but still charismatic Swann utters the line, “I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star,” when he discovers that the show is live, meaning it is broadcast as it is performed. For Swann, who is accustomed to film production in which scenes or even single lines are shot and reshot until the director is satisfied, a live show is like jumping without a parachute.

Director Richard Benjamin appreciated the difference between stars and actors, because he was an actor himself. Benjamin took classes in the highly respected theater department at Northwestern University, my alma mater. He appeared in a few bit parts in films during the 1950s, but his reputation as an actor rested on his success in the theater in such comedies as Star-Spangled Girl. Benjamin made the transition to cinema during the Film School Generation after appearing in two films based on Philip Roth novels, Goodbye Columbus (1969) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972). Columbus and Portnoy seemed to type him as a “serious New York actor,” but Benjamin also appeared in popular genre films, including The Sunshine Boys (1975) opposite George Burns and Walter Matthau and The Last of Sheila (1978) with an ensemble of familiar Hollywood players.

Benjamin became a film actor in an era when stars from the Golden Age were still working in movies and television. Old-school movie stars took a different approach to acting compared to those of Benjamin’s generation. A movie star’s performance was built around his or her image. Stars played into their image to please the fans; or, they played against it to surprise the fans. Back in the day, the studios nurtured the images of their stars and cultivated their charisma because these images—Bogart’s reluctant heroism, Monroe’s innocent sexuality, Stanwyck’s independent dame, Wayne’s rugged individualism—meant something to moviegoers. In the 1950s, when Method actors from New York introduced a more cerebral approach to acting, it was hailed as more “realistic.” The personality acting of the Golden Age seemed contrived and old-fashioned in comparison. The idea that movie stars could embody or represent cherished values was lost on those too eager to embrace the new realism in acting.

And, yet, I don’t think Richard Benjamin felt that way about Golden Age stars. Perhaps the reason he exhibited such empathy for Alan Swann in My Favorite Year was his own experiences as an actor in which he had costarred with movie stars of all ages. At the heart of the narrative of My Favorite Year is an understanding of what Golden Age stars meant to movie fans. It was truly a cultural phenomenon that young audiences don’t quite grasp.

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The film is often discussed as an exercise in nostalgia for the 1950s, because the decade is so lovingly recreated. But, that’s not really accurate. The depiction of live television behind the scenes of The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade does serve as an homage to Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and other comedians who hosted sketch comedy shows in the 1950s. But, within the context of the story, live television is presented as a new, exciting age of entertainment, while Alan Swann represents an Old Hollywood that is rapidly fading. Aside from Benjy and the women who work at the studio, King Kaiser’s staff view him as a has-been. Swann is a mythic icon of the silver screen, but he is out of place on the small screen parodying his own legend with shtick—that is, until he seizes the moment in the final scene and comes through for everyone in a big way. As the scene plays out, we realize that Swann’s era is gone forever, and we miss what he and other stars represented as well as their larger-than-life personas.

My Favorite Year takes place in the early 1950s, which was a period of transition and upheaval for the Hollywood industry. The studios let go of their tight hold over movie stars; producers and directors formed their own production companies; and censorship relaxed slightly, allowing for more serious content. Hollywood would never be the same. My Favorite Year was released in the early 1980s—also an era of transition for the industry. In film history texts, the 1980s are described as a return to entertainment after the serious exploration of film as an art form by the Film School Generation. New industry practices, such as the adoption of the blockbuster model and its uber-marketing campaigns, changed the nature of the typical Hollywood film. Also, the home-viewing industry began in the 1980s, which changed audiences and their viewing habits. Hollywood would never be the same. Interesting that My Favorite Year, produced during a period of transition, looked back at another era marked by great change.

As delivered by O’Toole, Swann’s famous line is a funny swipe at movie stars in all their superficial glamour and contrived personas: “I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star.” But, the line should not be interpreted out of context. Benjy delivers a speech after Swann’s line that counters the movie star’s self-deprecation: “Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to me! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don’t tell me this is you life-size. I can’t use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them!” After the Golden Age, fans would never be so devoted, and star would never shine so brightly.

Susan Doll

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17 Responses “I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”
Posted By Doug : September 18, 2017 8:02 am

Just watched O’Toole in “Stardust” making perfect every moment of his scene as a king on his deathbed. As “My Favorite Year” was a homage to 1950′s television and the passing of ‘Old Hollywood’, “Stardust” is based on a graphic novel, a newer media still telling the good old stories. It also has a handful of Oscar winners having great fun in what Neil Gaiman, the author of the graphic novel, called ‘a fairy tale for adults’.
“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”-O’Toole was both.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : September 18, 2017 12:21 pm

“I am not an animal! I am a human being!”–John Merrick (John Hurt) The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)

The line was a parody of that. Sometimes I wonder if any of you know a single thing about movies.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : September 18, 2017 12:33 pm

Doug: I really liked Stardust, I think it’s an underrated film, but I LOVED the source material (more an illustrated novella than a graphic-novel, with superb illustrations by Charles Vess). It’s another example of the apples-oranges thing between books and movies, and another example of “Hollywood” dumbing-down literature and aiming for the lowest common denominator.

Posted By doug : September 18, 2017 2:03 pm

dear waldo…

Posted By chris : September 18, 2017 4:13 pm

Ed, I don’t think it was necessarily a parody of the line from “The Elephant Man”. For one, the context of the two lines are a bit different. Also, the line(“I’m not an actor…) works specifically for that scene, it doesn’t seem like it was added just to parody some other movie.

Posted By Tammy : September 18, 2017 4:58 pm

Excellent review of a wonderful film that seems to only in recent years be getting the credit it deserves.
I don’t believe the famous line being discussed is a parody of The Elephant Man line. If they were going to parody something, wouldn’t it be a line from a Golden Age movie? That would certainly be more in context.
And from the blogs I read here, there are a lot of folks who know a great deal about movies. Thanks for another interesting post.

Posted By kingrat : September 18, 2017 6:23 pm

Dialogue from Bryan Forbes’ DEADFALL, which predates MY FAVORITE YEAR:

Nanette Newman: “I want to be in films.”
Another character: “Oh, you’re an actress?”
Nanette: “No, I want to be in films.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if a variety of sources had lines that make similar distinctions between actors and movie stars.

Susan, I share your fondness for MY FAVORITE YEAR and enjoyed your comments about it.

Posted By Doug : September 18, 2017 8:33 pm

For those who have been waiting, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” comes out on Blu ray next week.
Today I lent “Stardust” and “House” (Hausu) to one of my young friends who doesn’t know either film. She had liked “What We Do In The Shadows”, which I shared with her a while back. It’s all good.

Posted By Christine in GA : September 19, 2017 2:10 am

I watched MY FAVORITE YEAR when it originally came out and loved it. I was hoping O’Toole would get the Oscar for it.

Re the “I’m a movie star” type line reminds me of when years ago, Leif Garrett, who was sort of a teen heart throb back then, was asked about future goals and he said he wanted to be a rock star. Not a guitarist, not a musician, but a rock star. Lame.

Good article as always, Susan

Posted By swac44 : September 19, 2017 9:51 am

I learned about the distinction between actor and movie star when I met Charlton Heston in the late ’80s. Yes, he could act, but he exuded something extraordinary that I can’t call anything but star power. The only other time I felt that was meeting Chow Yun Fat at TIFF in the mid-90s.

Today films are blessed with some superior actors, but not so many movie stars. They’ve been supplanted in our culture by “celebrities”.

Posted By Lisa W. : September 19, 2017 12:47 pm

Recently re-watched Lawrence of Arabia and was just mesmerized by Peter O’Toole and it’s no wonder he was the star he was. I have no doubt that swac44s comments about Heston could apply to O’Toole. Thanks for the great write-up, putting My Favorite Year into context!

Posted By AL : September 19, 2017 8:28 pm

Another example of excellence from Susan! Brava!
“That’s all television is, my dear: auditions.”

Posted By AL : September 19, 2017 8:31 pm

The pendulum has swung all the way back–we’re now in the true Golden Age of television. (what’s with all this SuperHero crap?)

Posted By Susan Doll : September 19, 2017 9:34 pm

Al and Everyone: Thanks so much for your comments. I wrote this while Irma was on her way to Florida, and I am not ashamed to say I was anxious and nervous. As I read this over, I realize it’s not my best work, but I thank you for your support. I am happy to report that I was lucky. I am okay, and my neighborhood sustained only minor damage.

Posted By kingrat : September 19, 2017 10:52 pm

Susan, I’m glad to hear you escaped the worst of the hurricane. So did my friends in Pinellas County and relatives in Pasco County.

Posted By George : September 20, 2017 3:50 pm

AL said: “The pendulum has swung all the way back–we’re now in the true Golden Age of television. (what’s with all this SuperHero crap?)”

AL, go see MOTHER! It’s definitely not superhero crap. And it’s more challenging — and weird, bizarre and crazy — than anything you’ll find on TV.

Posted By George : September 20, 2017 3:54 pm

Ed B. said: “Sometimes I wonder if any of you know a single thing about movies.”

Sigh.

So is he being Waldo or Rex Reed today?

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