- Frank and Ava co-screenwriter and Frank Sinatra portrayer Rico Simonini discusses the indie drama about Sinatra’s tabloid-friendly relationship with Ava Gardner at a time when the former’s popularity had hit bottom while the latter was on her way to international superstardom.
Frank and Ava actor & co-screenwriter Rico Simonini discusses indie drama about the tempestuous Frank Sinatra & Ava Gardner marriage
Directed by Michael Oblowitz from a screenplay by Willard Manus and Los Angeles-based cardiologist Rico Simonini, Frank and Ava – which is currently available on Amazon Prime and iTunes – revolves around the turbulent relationship between headstrong Hollywood icons Frank Sinatra (played by co-screenwriter Simonini) and Ava Gardner (feature film newcomer Emily Elicia Low).
At the time of their tabloid-fodder marriage in 1951, Sinatra had witnessed his career take a nosedive following several box office disappointments (and a couple of downright bombs) at his by then former studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Not helping matters for the ex-bobby-soxer idol were his ongoing voice problems.
Gardner, for her part, was on the cusp of becoming an international superstar thanks to the 1951–52 MGM hits Show Boat and Lone Star, and while on loan to 20th Century Fox, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Real-life A Star Is Born?
This may sound like a more explosive real-life remake of the doomed Janet Gaynor-Fredric March romance in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born. Except that the “Frank and Ava” ending was radically different.
After some heavy campaigning and an even heavier reduction in salary, Sinatra would land the career-resurrecting role of Pvt. Angelo Maggio in Columbia Pictures’ hugely successful 1953 adaptation of James Jones’ World War II-set bestseller From Here to Eternity.
A Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and a number of box office hits (The Tender Trap, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Joker Is Wild, etc.) would follow in the ensuing years. The Frank Sinatra-Ava Gardner marriage would officially come to an end in 1957.
In the brief Q&A below, Rico Simonini, whose credits include Max Payne and A Good Day to Die Hard, answers a few questions (via email) about the making of Frank and Ava, which, as per its press release (website), was shot in the Los Angeles area, in Rome, and in Sinatra’s Palm Springs home.
Frank and Ava: Q&A with Rico Simonini
First of all, how did you, a cardiologist, become involved in Frank and Ava?
As a cardiologist, matters of the heart always interest me. My medical practice and living in Los Angeles surrounded me with show business, as I met actors, writers, directors, and producers who nurtured my interest in theater and film. They encouraged me to go on the boards, offered me roles in films, and some became teachers with whom I learned the craft.
I was invited to join The Actors Studio where I met playwright Willard Manus who wrote a two character play, Frank and Ava, in which I originated the role on stage. The success and response to the play and the manner in which it told Sinatra’s story from the viewpoint of his decline, heartbreaking romance, and eventual comeback was very compelling and inspired me to write and produce the screenplay.
How did you approach/study for the role of a still well-known international celebrity like Frank Sinatra? What about Emily Elicia Low’s preparations to play Ava Gardner?
As an Italian-American who grew up in New York City, only the pope was more revered than Frank Sinatra (of course depending on the pope).
My dad was a 5’ 9”, blue-eyed, sharp dressed,“knock-around” guy who worked in the city’s best Italian restaurants and frequented “swank joints” after hours all over town, keeping company with both “wise guys” and performers until the wee small hours. As a boy, I’d sometimes duck out the Bensonhurst flat I grew up in just to hang with dad and the “boys”; one time meeting Sinatra and his entourage backstage after a show.
In portraying Frank, I looked no further than my dad and his style, swank, loyalty, convictions, and fearlessness for the spine of the character. Mix that with having impossible dreams and yearning for impossible love and I was closer to the role. In the end it was alive inside of me as I grew up around it, inhaled it, and felt it.
Emily was the consummate artist, always searching for the truth of her work. She read several biographies and an autobiography of Ava and found ways to make it relatable to her so she could play the truth of Miss Gardner and not a “cliché” or “character”.
She would strive to find Ava’s playfulness, strength, devotion, and even heartbreak in portraying her love for Frank and her convictions for her particular morality and principles.
Frank and Ava is based on real-life events. Were there many “dramatic liberties” taken, or does the film mostly stick to the facts?
We tried to stick to the facts in broad strokes, as many of the events portrayed were as described in newspapers and tabloids and broadcasts of the time. Of course, some dramatic liberties were taken to take advantage of the supporting actors, unique locations (Sinatra’s Palm Springs home, for example), and to accommodate our limited budget.
There was a Fellini homage in Rome we couldn’t resist given the backdrop and the real-life crack in Sinatra’s Palm Springs bathroom sink that was the result of a champagne bottle tossed during a skirmish (as the proprietor informed us), which led us to recreate it on camera.
“Frank and Ava Q&A” notes
Frank and Ava cast
 Besides Rico Simonini and Emily Elicia Low, the Frank and Ava cast includes the following:
Eric Roberts (as Columbia head Harry Cohn), Lukas Haas, Richard Portnow (as gossip columnist Walter Winchell), Emrhys Cooper (as Montgomery Clift), Jessica Erickson (as Marilyn Maxwell), and Jacqui Holland (as Lana Turner).
Also: Carlos Mendez (as the bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín), Marcus Shirock (as George Reeves), Peter Soli (as Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick), Nadeea Volianova (as Zsa Zsa Gabor), Olivia Soli (as the young Ava Gardner), Lora McHugh (as Mercedes McCambridge), and Silvia Spross (as Marlene Dietrich).
Plus Joanna Sanchez (as Louella Parsons), Joanne Baron (as Hedda Hopper), Dexter Cross (as the young Frank Sinatra), Keira McCarthy (as Nancy Sinatra Jr.), Paola Saulino (as Alida Valli), Sashile Wood (as Lena Horne), and Neil Sandilands (as From Here to Eternity director Fred Zinnemann).
In addition to veterans Terry Moore (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Come Back Little Sheba, 1952) in a cameo as herself and Harry Dean Stanton in his final feature film role.
“Frank and Ava” endnotes
Rico Simonini and Emily Elicia Low Frank and Ava images: 8th House Entertainment.
“Frank and Ava: Q&A with Sinatra Portrayer Rico Simonini” last updated in April 2022.