Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reaching out

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)

Kevin Spacey plays Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea, which he also directed and co-produced and co-wrote. The movie is a colossal vanity project – I’d say that thirty to forty per cent of it consists of Spacey strutting around in look-at-me mode. He’s got the Copacabana-era mannerisms down to a T. The big problem, as many have noted, is that Spacey is ten years older than Darin was when he died (at 37), and is thus staggeringly absurd when he tries to portray the singer in his teen idol phase. The scenes of Spacey scampering around with the much younger Kate Bosworth (as Sandra Dee) are about as embarrassing as anything I’ve seen recently.

Beyond the Sea

The film tries to get around this with a meta-structure in which Darin steps outside the action to talk with his younger self; at times it acknowledges we’re watching a movie (supposedly directed by Darin himself). This is remarkably similar to the structure Irwin Winkler used in last year for the movie about Cole Porter, De-Lovely. It seems the musical subculture that spanned Porter to Darin, with its highly evolved codes of sophistication, can’t be presented head-on any more. Maybe we’ve lost our capacity to swoon. But the intricacy seems disproportionate when applied to a life story as dispensable as Darin’s. Further, the movie botches the few interesting aspects of it all. He talks in his later years about how he had to fight to get out of the Bronx, but it all looks pretty easy from what’s presented here (as soon as he gives himself the cool stage name, he’s on TV, and it all just seems to fall into place). And, bizarrely, after some rocky passages, the movie shows him still married to and reconciled with Dee at the time of his death, whereas they’d actually divorced six years earlier and he’d remarried. What’s the point of that?

In any event, Beyond the Sea is a much better movie than De-Lovely. Some of Spacey’s ideas are highly imaginative, and the film has some sequences of real panache. Spacey himself belts out the tunes like the real thing. It’s pretty good entertainment. But it’s also suffused with smarminess and a plain nutbag quality.

Sandra Dee

Watching the film, I started thinking that the more interesting story would be Sandra Dee’s. I doubt that many people have seen more than a couple of her films (I think I’ve only seen three of them, not including Gidget or Tammy anything), but her name is probably better remembered than many actresses of greater achievement. She was on the top ten list of box-office stars for four straight years, from 1960 to 1963. A few years later her stardom was over, and she has no credits listed after 1983, although she’s appeared on stage occasionally. Apparently she was diagnosed with throat cancer and kidney failure in 2000, but she lives on, only 60 years old.

I wrote not long ago about my puzzlement at directors who disappear from view, and I can’t help returning to the theme. All our lives have ups and downs of course, but I always imagine in my fanciful way that the particular intensity of Hollywood fame, especially in its teen idol incarnation, might make for a particularly difficult transition back to anything approaching normality. I wonder too about the fate of a creative personality (some will say I’m being kind to Sandra Dee here, but it costs nothing) so long divorced from her medium. Of course, in the annals of things we should care about, this is just about at the bottom. But we all know how our identification with actors spills off the screen. However much we know the superficiality of it, it seems beyond us to limit our fascination to the duration of the movie, especially when the savvy media so willingly pushes celebrity detritus toward us.

I’m relatively immune to that (only relatively – I’m not that disingenuous). I’m not gripped by their scandals or domestic turbulence, especially when it runs in parallel to a bland career. I don’t think we can learn a shred about ourselves or anything else by dissecting Brad and Jennifer’s break-up. But Dee’s career, with its weird contours – rapidly encompassing highs and lows, washing her up before many major stars even get started – seems like a story specifically created by cinema, a chronicle that might repay further consideration. Spacey circles around Bobby Darin as though there’s a “Rosebud” in there somewhere. But Darin’s story lacks at least one virtually essential ingredient of a great mystery – age, enduring loss. Dee’s story has that much by now.

Stuff of Legend

Spacey recently went on a concert tour to promote Beyond the Sea, which seems to be taking his Darin identification thing to an even crazier level. Still, you have to admire his energy and the scope of his activities. He’s currently based in London, working as artistic director of the Old Vic theater, while at the same time announcing that he’ll play Lex Luthor in a forthcoming Superman movie. Even by Hollywood standards, he’s had to put up with undue speculation about his private life. There’s no evidence that he carries any particular box office appeal, but some combination of luck and acumen rendered him perhaps as close as we have to a popular culture Renaissance man.  And he seems like someone who wants to leave his mark.

The same weekend I watched Beyond the Sea, I finally watched the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye. It’s a movie that effectively rehabilitates that much-mocked woman while never forgetting for a second what a gift she is to camp-lovers everywhere. If nothing else, she deserves credit for inviting men with AIDS onto her cable show in the early 80’s, and advocating on their behalf without a hint of reticence. So the movie goes through the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s rise and fall, and then at one point inserts a clip from a 1990 TV movie about the pair, Fall from Grace. And there in bed with the fictional Jessica Hahn, under a bad toupee, is Kevin Spacey. The Internet Movie Database reports that Bernadette Peters played Tammy Faye.

It’s common to refer to such early projects as skeletons in the closet, to imagine Spacey would burn the negative if he could get hold of it. Maybe the best that can be said is that it’s better than early topless scenes of the kind that bedevil Sandra Bullock and others. But it’s not clear that there’s much qualitative difference between playing Jim Bakker and Lex Luthor, so who knows. Spacey is obviously an admirable man in so many ways, but his career is too solid to be truly interesting, or for early oddities like Fall from Grace to carry much meaning. His fascination with Darin seems like a tacit acknowledgment of this, like a reaching out for some intangible stuff of legend.

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