It is 1954, Benjy Stone's (Mark Linn-Baker) “favorite year”. He is a young, successful comedy writer for Stan “King” Kaiser's (Joseph Bologna) Comedy Hour on Saturday night network television. This week is particularly special. Benjy's hero, swashbuckling movie star Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole) is the special guest star. Unfortunately Swann's glory days are behind him. He is now a dissolute alcoholic, in debt to the tax man, whose first act is to pass out cold on the floor of the writers' office. After pleading that Swann be given another chance, Benjy is given the job of chaperoning Swann, making he sure turns up for rehearsals – both on time and sober.
As the week goes by, each man learns much about the other. Benjy has an archetypal Jewish family in Brooklyn – he is really Benjy Steinberg – of which he is more or less ashamed. Swann, meanwhile, turns out to be Clarence Duffy, whose entire biography is a studio construct and who also has a secret family in the form of a young daughter, Tess (Cady McClain) of whom he is too nervous to be a true father. Swann, in fact, becomes a father-figure to Benjy, helping him in his efforts to win the affections of colleague K. C. Downing (Jessica Harper). The most memorable of these involves crashing a society party by “shimmying down” the exterior of an apartment block using a firehose. The fact they reach the wrong apartment doesn't faze Swann in the least (“Close, Stone, very close.”)
Meanwhile, TV star “King” Kaiser is having problems as a series of sketches in which he plays corrupt union leader “Boss Hijack” is causing offence to their inspiration, Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell). During rehearsals little accidents occur as Kaiser insists the sketches will continue.
At the climax of the film Swann suffers a massive panic attack as he learns that not only will there be a live audience in the television studio, but 20 million people will be seeing him in their homes. Immediately seeking comfort in the bottle he bolts from the studio. Seeing his idol in this state, Benjy turns from him in disgust.
Returning to the studio he finds Rojeck's goons have appeared onstage and are beating the life out of Kaiser (the audience assuming it's all part of the show). Swann reappears, pleading for Benjy's understanding, that he never was that figure on the screen, just an ordinary man. Benjy says he needs those figures on the screen, and that Swann could never have portrayed them without having a spark of the same courage, somewhere. Seeing Kaiser fighting for his life on stage Swann reacts by swinging down and fighting alongside him (just like the movies). The final shots show Swann, his faith in himself restored, waving to the audience, while Benjy tells how Swann finally reached out to his daughter and they developed a great relationship.
Unashamedly nostalgic, and almost autobiographical, 'My Favorite Year' has a standout performance by Peter O'Toole, who was Oscar nominated. The clips we see of Alan Swann's great roles come from O'Toole's earlier films, Lord Jim and Great Catherine.
Produced by Mel Brooks, who wrote for Sid Caesar (Kaiser, geddit?) in the early years of television, the plot is a fictionalisation of Errol Flynn's appearance on Caesar's “Your Show of Shows”. In reality Brooks and Flynn never even met, and the show passed off without incident, but the film is a great alternative reality.
While O'Toole is the heart and soul of the film, the supporting cast play very well indeed, particularly Bologna's “King” Kaiser. He is an insecure, bullying loudmouth, but he is also rather courageous, standing up to Rojeck physically and refusing to be scared off, and essentially decent and kind-hearted. He's a rather touching character, and Bologna plays him very well.
Equally memorable are Benjy's Brooklyn family. They are loud and uncouth (Uncle Morty (Lou Jacobi) wants to know about Swann's recent 'paternity rap' - “Did you schtup her?”) but fundamentally decent people who, for all their faults, love and support each other. They call Swann 'Al' (“Mom,” pleads Benjy, “it's Alan. If I bring Jolson or Capone, it's Al.”) before settling down to Benjy's Filipino stepfather's speciality, 'Meatloaf Mindanao', seasoned with parrot meat. As Benjy, Mark Linn-Baker brings a lot of frenetic energy as he tries to come to terms with Swann's attitude to life, while keeping him safe in order to keep his job, but does fall into the classic trap of American comedy – assuming that shouting your lines somehow makes them funnier.
'My Favorite Year' is a real feelgood comedy, which sends you on your way with a golden glow inside. Life isn't like this, but wouldn't it be great if it was?
Watch out for Gloria Stuart – 'old Rose' from James Cameron's Titanic – in a cameo as Swann's dancing partner in the Stork Club.