June 10, 2010


Mr. Mimic: The extraordinary gifts and fleeting legacy of Sammy Davis, Jr. (John H. McWhorter, Spring 2010, City Journal)

[D]avis’s copycat essence prevented him from passing from personality to artist. David Denby once wrote in The New Yorker that “to become a movie star, an actor needs a certain density, a stubborn, immovable mass of being that an audience can rely on.” But as Fishgall observes, “there was no real Sammy”; Davis simply “became whatever people wanted him to be.”

Davis’s ill-fated television variety show in the mid-sixties was a case in point. A competent example of the genre of the period, the show had a hole in its middle, and it was Sammy himself. He had no individual essence to anchor the proceedings the way Dean Martin, with much less talent, could on his own variety show by just meandering out with a cigarette, a drink, and a grin. Sammy opens one episode singing an “Ol’ Man River” intended to be ruminative; it comes off instead as mannered. In a medley duet by Davis and Mel Tormé, only Tormé communicates something and comes off as a serious talent. In the same episode, we see Gordon MacRae singing through a head cold; his wife, Sheila, doing the worst imitation of Carol Channing in recorded history; and bug-eyed black comedian Timmie Rodgers doing a chitlin’-circuit act hinging on frequent interpolations of “Oh yeah!” Yet all these performers register more strongly than Davis, who seems more like a guest himself.

For Davis, performing was about the audience’s approval, nothing more.

...that he seems to be accidentally describing Barrack Obama here?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 10, 2010 1:32 PM
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