"This is a work of fiction. It's not 'based on a true story.'" So goes the disclaimer preceding director and writer David Mamet's Phil Spector, which premieres Sunday on HBO, and what sense are we supposed to make of that Bizarro World claim? The movie features Al Pacino in a surprisingly convincing impersonation—or maybe I just mean a disconcertingly affecting one—of the 1960s record producer now doing time for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson (real name also used). Nothing already known to the public deviates from the record, including Spector's cuckoo array of wigs in the courtroom.
As if Pacino's participation doesn't already lend enough heft, Helen Mirren, flagrantly miscast—but, as ever, classy, and cowing us into being predisposed in her character's favor is what she's been hired for—plays Linda Kenney Baden, one of the battery of legal eagles who represented Spector during his first trial. (It ended in a hung jury; a 2008 do-over convicted him.) The real Baden is also credited as a consultant on the movie, and she's been fending off charges of violating attorney-client privilege by playing coy in interviews about whether Mamet's version of what went on behind the scenes is accurate or made up from whole cloth. How would she know, after all? Maybe he just hired her to vet Spector's wigs.
Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice used to say. No matter how Baden spins her contributions, her endorsement is useful propaganda, and you know Mamet knows it. That would be less provocative if he and Baden weren't both convinced Spector is innocent. The whole point of Phil Spector is to badger unsuspecting viewers—HBO wouldn't lead us down the garden path, would it?—into believing they're right.
Thanks to that agenda, the movie's a very odd hybrid. Half of it is a series of Pacino monologues, mostly delivered to an ever more doting Mirren, that build up sympathy for Spector as a pop-culture titan turned befuddled, endearing oddball. He may be a ranting old kook with a gun fetish, folks, but can't you see he wouldn't hurt a fly? The other half is a forensics lesson obessive enough to put Oliver Stone's JFK to shame, with Baden hiring armies of experts to stage a variety of hi-tech simulations of the fatal gunshot that show us why Phil couldn't have pulled the trigger. (Whether Spector's defense team actually did this stuff is something the real Baden is mum about; anyhow, none of it ended up in court.)
Because Mamet wouldn't be Mamet without bluster, we also get plenty of muddled but predictably irascible talk about the perils of celebrity. The idea is that Spector is getting railroaded because O.J. Simpson walked and the prosecutors aren't about to let that happen again; we hear more than once that the evidence against him is so flimsy that he'd never have been indicted if he hadn't been famous. But as L.A. Times reporter Harriet Ryan—who covered both Spector trials—points out in her own critique of the movie's distortions and omissions, the filmmakers can't have it both ways. Even as we're being told that the mob is baying for Spector's head because they hate him for his wealth and fame, we're asked to pity poor Phil because nobody knows who he is anymore—he's a giant whose artistic glories have been forgotten.
To say that HBO deserves to take some heat for okaying this exercise in inflammatory special pleading is an understatement. If Mamet had chosen to put his brief for Spector's innocence on stage, I doubt many people would object. Because theater never gets mistaken for the "true" story of anything, it would be understood that his version's just a hypothesis. On the other hand, no matter how many disingenuous disclaimers are stuck on up top, a TV docudrama that uses everybody's real names—and isn't even called, for instance, Was Phil Spector Framed?—is bound to acquire a quasi-official air of validity in viewers' minds. That's especially so when it's presented as the inside dish on things we didn't know at the time.
The old device of opting for peekaboo fictionalization instead—in the vein of, say, Compulsion or Rope, both based on the Leopold-Loeb case—has fallen into disrepute, but I think that's too bad. (As I never tire of reminding people, that "trashy" tradition includes Citizen Kane.) Mamet could have told me anything he wanted to in defense of Bill Hector, onetime movie mogul on trial for murder, and I wouldn't say that he was being irresponsible. I might think he was crazy, but that's another story.
In that case, these days, I'd just be joining the club. Plenty of people already think Mamet's gone crazy, though for unrelated reasons—and that may not be totally irrelevant to Phil Spector. In the past few years, he's gone from being a man widely hailed as America's foremost living playwright to a reborn right-wing nut who's almost as widely excoriated for his political diatribes. Mightn't he be identifying just a tad with Spector the beleaguered martyr—misunderstood, solitary, pilloried in the court of public opinion by idiots who don't even know his great work from yesteryear? Substitute Mamet's rage at his critics for Pacino's self-justifying outbursts at everyone calumniating him, the "truths" Mamet now harps on about wicked liberalism for the movie's endless demonstrations of how things must have gone down at Phil's mansion that night—and then, I guess, substitute American Buffalo for "Be My Baby" or "And Then He Kissed Me"—and this berserk project makes more emotional sense.
It's annoying to have to report that his talent hasn't deserted him along with his marbles. True, you can spot Mamet's boredom with whatever doesn't advance his thesis; the frictions within Spector's legal team are about as perfunctory as padding gets, and Baden's switch from skeptic to passionate advocate never does get explained. But the arias he's written for Pacino modulate expertly from wacko and abrasive to infectious and touching. No stranger to eccentricity himself, the actor is often wonderful at delivering them, playing off Spector's rasping voice against his haggard face and lost eyes to subtler-than-you'd-expect effect.
As for Mirren, her main job is to vindicate Mamet's view of his hero, above all in the climactic scene when Baden realizes she can't put sweet, sad, mysteriously gallant Phil on the stand and gazes at him with a compassion so radiant that we're all but commanded to share it. If Dame Helen agrees that to know him is to love him, who are we to argue? Yet moments like that one are just what make Phil Spector so insidious, and argue we should.
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