Review: For Sammy Davis Jr., performing was living
Sammy Davis Jr. was a lifelong sponge; he absorbed technique and turned it into artistry.
He could dance, he could sing, he could play instruments, he could act. He could even do impressions. A charter member of the swinging Rat Pack in the early ’60s as well as a civil rights activist (Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan), he was the coolest of the cool.
Until he suddenly wasn’t. Director Samuel D. Pollard starts out his documentary “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” with what was surely Davis’ most uncool moment — his hugging of Richard Nixon at a campaign rally in 1972. There was nothing less cool in 1972 than Richard Nixon.
But then Pollard reviews the incredible life that led up to that awkward moment. Davis began dancing professionally in a vaudeville act with his father and godfather at the age of 3. By the age of 7, he was singing in a movie with Ethel Waters.
He never went to school; in an interview he says he has the writing skills of a second-grader. Instead, Davis went on the road and really never came off it. After a stint in the Army, he worked his way up, appearing on (th e white) Eddie Cantor’s TV show, becoming pals with Frank Sinatra, constantly touring.
Davis had a well-publicized affair with the white actress Kim Novak in 1957, when mixed race relations were fully taboo in Hollywood. Supposedly a movie mogul threatened to have him killed unless he broke it off, which he did. In 1960, he married white Swedish-born actress May Britt.
But home life wasn’t for Davis. In the early ’60s, he and the Rat Pack were making Las Vegas America’s playground.
Davis by then had lost an eye in a car accident and converted to Judaism, and the Rat Pack act was full of jokes about the one-eyed Jewish Negro. Davis had gotten to the top of the cool heap, but he was never fully integrated. When Rat Pack favorite John F. Kennedy was elected president, Davis wasn’t invited to the inauguration.
Which is about the time he took to marching for, and funding, the Civil Rights movement. So how did he end up a tone deaf Richard Nixon supporter? That probably grew out of his support for the troops fighting in Vietnam, itself considered somewhat uncool at the time.
“I’ve Gotta Be Me” is stuffed with archival footage and Davis interviews, as well as interviews with close friends (Novak, Jerry Lewis, Billy Crystal, Harry Belafonte), although there’s not much discussion of Davis’s wives (three) or home life. Which is likely because he wasn’t home much. Entertainment was his life.
“I’ve Gotta Be Me” showcases Davis’s vast talents, but it also shines a light on his need for acceptance, his inability to curb indulgences, the groundbreaking aspects of his career and his hunger for applause.
Davis eventually returned to the liberal fold. And he became revered by scores of performers. At the film’s end, Davis is honored with a TV special celebrating his 60 years in show business. Frail at 64, Davis still came up on stage for an impromptu, mind-blowing tap dance exhibition, ever the performer. He died months later.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘Sammy Davis Jr.: “I’ve Gotta Be Me’
Running time: 100 minutes