Because somebody has to be, if not a hero, at least a magnet to which a few stray scruples are attracted, Dean Martin emerges from The Rat Pack (Saturday, August 22; 9 to 11 p.m.; HBO) as the embodiment of skepticism – a sort of counterintuition. Instead of playing him like Perry Como’s evil twin, Joe Mantegna goes for queasiness. In a Las Vegas hotel at night, while the rest of them are bed-hopping in a pop-song chiaroscuro of black windows, pastel walls, chalky flesh, and gummy sex, Dino watches TV, alone with a nicotine pacifier and his inchoate doubts. While he’ll tell his wife he never expresses his feelings because he doesn’t have any, we know he’s uncomfortable around gangsters, thinks that Sinatra is out of control and that the Rat Pack’s gaudy moment is fading fast. They are less the Lost Boys led by a goatish Peter Pan than a precursor of that “Posse” of high-school hoodlets in Lakewood, California, who scored points by nailing girls.
Among them there’s not much to choose. All of them together, with their cigars and pinkie rings and locker-room “fruit” cracks, don’t add up to six degrees of Jack Nicholson’s cool. Ol’ Blue Eyes here (Ray Liotta) is in fact a gray-faced pimp, handing out a Judy Campbell (Michelle Grace) to a John Kennedy (William Petersen) or a Sam Giancana (Robert Miranda) like a party favor. Peter Lawford (Angus Macfadyen) is a contemptible messenger boy, Jell-O with a plummy accent, shuttling from Hyannisport to Palm Springs with marching orders and obedience lessons for the status-hungry crooner: “I just want to act – and cheat on my wife,” says Lawford. “Is that too much to ask?” Joey Bishop (Bobby Slayton) has the least to do – most of it Catskills shtick – and would obviously sign up for a lifetime membership in any club that let him in. Sammy Davis Jr. (Don Cheadle: terrific, as usual) is the jockey on Sinatra’s lawn, and maybe where Michael Jackson’s self-hatred came from. For some reason, a tender mercy, Shirley MacLaine is omitted.
Still, that a lounge lizard like Dino, best remembered for his cue-card and mammary-gland jokes on a prime-time variety show with a chorus line called the Ding-a-Lings, should end up the center of gravity in a cable-TV movie about the limbic wastes of showbiz, organized crime, and presidential politics would be even more of a surprise if the script weren’t by Kario Salem. Last year, Salem amazed us with Don King: Only in America, in which Ving Rhames as the boxing promoter defended himself against the evidence of his own life, and even attacked HBO for making the very film we were watching. Salem seems to specialize in ambush perspectives. If Rob Cohen directs The Rat Pack as if it were a self-important music video, and Savion Glover choreographs it as if to satirize Las Vegas – in a genuinely stunning fantasy sequence, Sammy as a rhinestone cowboy guns down a rabble of cross-burning swastikas while singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – Salem is always a cynical presence, at the end of the bar or the bottom of the swimming pool, reading James Ellroy, seeing this sentimentality for the sleepy sleaze it is.
Sleazy sentimentality was the Rat Pack storyboard. Sinatra was a Stand-Up Guy. Except he wasn’t. He was prepared to buck the blacklist and hire Albert Maltz to write the screenplay for the movie version of The Execution of Private Slovik. Except he didn’t: When Joe Kennedy (Dan O’Herlihy) told him to dump the pinko, Frankie dumped. He promised to be the best man at Sammy’s wedding to May Britt (Megan Dodds), even if it cost his buddy JFK the South. Except that Sammy bailed him out by postponing until after the election. So what if he couldn’t deliver, because of Bobby, on a promise to Giancana of lenient treatment from the Kennedy Administration if the mob voted the Chicago dead for Jack? They were still his buddies. “You don’t turn your back on your friends,” he tells Ava Gardner (Deborah Kara Unger), interrupting their sex to take a phone call from Chicago. Except that Salem gives Ava the last word, twice. Once, angrily: “You cheated on your first wife. You cheated on me. We’re not your friends?” The next time, sadly: “You’re honest … when you sing. You’re an angel … when you sing.”
So Frankie wanted not only to be respected but to be cherished by the big boys, in the Mafia or the White House. So he was out of his league. As the late Irving Howe observed many years ago, there is no reason to believe that laissez-faire will work out any better in the economy of moral conduct than it has in the morality of economic relations: “Against me, against my ideas, it is possible to argue, but how, according to this new dispensation, can anyone argue against my need?” After the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, and John Kennedy, no wonder we got feminism. When Marilyn Monroe (Barbara Niven) dies, Joe DiMaggio (John Diehl) won’t permit any of the Rat Pack to attend her funeral. As usual, playing in center, Joe was right.