After finishing Shawn Levy's Rat Pack Confidential, I thought of a remark in an essay by my favorite essayist, Joseph Epstein. In "I Like a Gershwin Tune," about music of the 1940s and '50s, when he was growing up, Epstein says that "popular music was everywhere; and it was not of interest only to the young, as popular music is today."Though admittedly not an overly pithy remark, especially by Epstein's witty standards, its truth came back to me because of a similar assessment in Levy's concluding summation about the Rat Pack, "They were the last redoubt of old-time showbiz against the hordes of teen culture; the acme of traditional performance based on vaudeville, burlesque, and Tin Pan Alley; the final moment during which adult entertainment could be said to have the undivided attention and undiluted respect of the world."That they were, the Rat Pack Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop they were all that and more. And, in a way, less, because, as Levy astutely observes of their decline, "What they did, exactly, was never really the point of who they were or what they meant. They'd been a majestic triumph of style and attitude over content." Rather like the Beat writers, they are recalled more for what they were than what they accomplished.
What they were is not easily put in a nutshell, which is why it takes a book, and even at that, the author's task is much like roping smoke. Understandably, since style and attitude are, metaphorically speaking, smoke.
They were a moment in time, the late 1950s and early '60s, when America was vigorous and on top of the world. Collectively they were a genuine example of that shopworn term, "icon." The Rat Pack represented glitz, glamour, cool, sophistication, hipness, and suavity characteristics that they themselves persuaded us to admire.
What they were not was very nice. "This bunch," Levy writes, "made Nero look like a Cub Scout." In this their meanness, selfishness, loutishness, and sexual excess they were an expression, or perhaps creation, of what Levy calls "Frank and his hurtful brand of friendship." (In much of this we have to except Joey Bishop, who was pretty much a fifth wheel on this hell-bent chariot of self-indulgence.)The book centers on, or sort of loosely floats around, the filming in 1960 of Ocean's Eleven, which, the author says, "was never really a movie movie. It was a publicity event." He treats his work not as biography but as analysis, attempting to show how these disparate entertainers came together, what they did, why people cared, and what happened to them afterward.
His method works, I think, though he actually does use mini-biographies of the five men to get into his subject. They are fascinating, in the same way that Waco and Heaven's Gate were fascinating:Frank, the biggest rat of all, in more ways than one; Dean, the coolest one, who managed to keep a great measure of independence from Frank; Sammy, poor, tortured talent, deeply in Frank's thrall; Peter, totally out of his depth and along for the ride; and Joey, well, how did Joey get in there?It was Frank's show, and when it was over they all ended up badly, to a greater or lesser degree. Now, three decades later, we remember the name, but wonder what the fuss was all about. Even a book as full as this can only begin to plumb its shallowness.
I am not convinced that Levy was wise to use the breezy style not to mention vulgarisms that he does, as if he were trying to appropriate and at the same time give a sense of the ring-a-ding-ding elan of the Pack. Also, the book is not footnoted, but then, considering the shifting nature of Hollywood "fact," precise documentation probably would be pointless.
This is not the model of celebrity biography that Levy's first book, The King of Comedy, about Jerry Lewis, was, but it is nevertheless a more than yeoman like essaying of a slippery subject. If nothing else, it gives one newfound respect for Joey Bishop.
Reviewed by Roger Miller.