I’m confident Justin Timberlake is Gen Y’s generation’s Frank Sinatra. The parallels, while slightly forced, are apparent: cross-media appeal, lauded musical career, eternal likability, et cetera. Even when Frank, or Justin, released a less than stellar album of music, his affability led critics, even and especially those who panned the work, to simply add it to the canon and move on. For these two seminal artists, music was and is a huge cog in the personal development of each. It seems, then an Oscar is on deck for a talent like Justin Timberlake. He needs the right role – much like Frank approached and executed in From Here To Eternity.
The fact that From Here To Eternity, 1953’s “Best Motion Picture” winner, has to its name a total of 8 Academy Awards clues us, the readers 60 years later, as to how the entertainment industry classified its entertainment. Sure Frank Sinatra is known as his generation’s renaissance man, but it might seem strange to a contemporary of his in the 1940s and ’50s that he’d get a substantial role in a lauded book-to-screen adaptation of James Jones’ work of the same name. Nevertheless, Sinatra’s appeal was most likely an attempt to capitalize on this cross-media platform so many moguls look to emulate today. And it worked. Sinatra had the right amount of self-depreciation and malaise to play the Italians’ Italian, Private Angelo Maggio, so his portrayal came across as straightforwardly warm and obviously troubled. His character plays very carefully across our semi-lead: Montgomery Clift’s Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a proud and wildly stubborn, but not-so-obviously troubled, soldier who meets a tragically anti-climactic end.
Above taken into consideration, I don’t think there’s a role like Sinatra’s for Justin Timberlake in the current film atmosphere. For the first half of the 20th century media tended to romanticize war and battle, focusing on the character development as opposed to battle fatigue, PTSD and other harsh realities suffered in war. For the two major wars fought and won, Americans tended to feel pride and an over-zealous nationalism. Though the atrocities of war on the micro level tend to be more carefully scrutinized in the current iteration of filmmaking, in the 1930s, ’40s and 50s, war films tended to focus on the broad strokes, as to gloss over the bad. After all, war stories are never told from the loser’s perspective. So where would Timberlake fit into the modern war epic? He wouldn’t.
The Hurt Locker, 2009s dramatic focus on the Iraqi conflict, demanded a close read of a very specific situation. While Timberlake’s acting chops are growing stronger with each film (see: Alpha Dog to The Social Network ), his similarities to Sinatra end at self-depreciating and dramedic readings. Most of this has to do with climactic changes, that after WWII, American involvement in foreign conflict seemed (and seems) more self-serving, profiteering and war-mongering than it did (and does) when war “meant something.”
That being said, romanticizing all the conflict might seem disingenuous to the overall theme of the From Here To Eternity. The major theme I felt in From Here To Eternity was antebellum malaise, hubris and boredom. Burt Lancaster’s performance teetered on dramatic impotence: his deference to his staff and to his superiors has almost a lazy quality to it; his relationship with his commanding officer’s (the captain, Dana “Dynamite” Holmes – played by instantly recognizable straight-man Philip Ober) wife seems too casual. His initial reaction to Holmes’ sadism towards Prewitt is bored and stale. Sex, booze and machismo for these men is a casual affair, especially willfully marooned on an island with no clear reason to be there.
Until it’s time for war. What I hadn’t realized before (and this is important in how I read this movie) was its setting in the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. I had originally placed this film in the early 1950s in a strange regiment of Korean war reserves. In the former situation, I can relate to the restlessness of the soldiers teetering on the brink of a non-existent deployment, constantly and subconsciously wondering for what they were training. In the latter, however, I couldn’t quite read the listlessness especially with a deployment surely looming. I must again laud Lancaster’s performance as Sergeant Warden, whose attitude probably would have been the same in either situation, as he approaches his life with a charming and confusing ambivalence.
While Sinatra took home the acting award for this movie, Lancaster can rest peacefully knowing his performance is eternal. In fact, his role is the one I picture most for Timberlake, if the invisible forces that make movies grant me a wish. The parallels in actor/character would fit nicely. In the early 1950s, Lancaster decided to shed an image he’d acquired for playing tough beatniks, instead yearning for more challenging roles, for which he earned an Academy Award in 1960 for Elmer Gantry, in a year leading up to his reunion with Clift in Judgement at Nuremberg. The 2010s might see a dramatic shift for Timberlake, as he decides to shed his affability for more rugged, less-likable characters in search of full use of his acting skills, of which we’ve seen the surface of his chops.