The American Man, Redefined

The cultural significance of Sinatra’s filmic portrayals.

This article, written by , appears on The Conversation.

Sinatra’s films shattered the postwar myth of the white American male

Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday on December 12 is being celebrated with all the requisite fanfare: Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, CBS’ Sinatra 100 All-Star Grammy Concert, exhibits at the Lincoln Center and Grammy Museum, a London Palladium show and a number of book publications.

But while Sinatra was an extraordinary creative force in American popular music, his film career is often an afterthought, damned by the inconsistencies of a dual-career artist.

Yet it’s on the screen where Sinatra’s wider cultural significance lies.

If the 20th century was, as Time publisher Henry Luce termed it, “The American Century,” then Hollywood told the story of a nation reveling in its economic and cultural rise.

And if Hollywood provided the narrative, then its protagonist was the white American male, frequently depicted as a middle-class, married suburbanite.

Sinatra, in his films, explored the main tenets of this identity. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he offered a striking, alternative idea of masculinity.

Masculinity, redefined

In the 1940s, few would have thought that Frank Sinatra’s screen career would have any sort of lasting influence. Sinatra was often limited to playing implausibly naive characters in RKO and MGM musicals, and both studios attempted to suppress the potent sexuality that Sinatra had harnessed as a musician to induce hysteria among his teenaged fan base (known as bobby soxers).

But even in these musicals, we see the roots of his unconventional screen persona. While military triumph and notions of male bravery were fresh on everyone’s minds, Sinatra played sailors on shore leave whose greatest fear was the opposite sex (Anchors Aweigh and On the Town). In Take Me Out to the Ball Game, he portrayed a singing baseball player lit for audience consumption like a fully fledged glamour girl.

Sinatra’s screen image constantly challenged the period’s norms, disrupting the postwar obsession with the middle-class white male so incisively laid out in the first seasons of Mad Men.

He was the antithesis of Gregory Peck’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a character who symbolized both the trappings – and trap – of the American Dream. Read more on The Conversation.

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