Mister D: As most of you know Bette Midler was originally to star in this movie with Al Pacino, but because of a back injury she had to back out and was replaced by Helen Mirren. Therefore there is some interest in this movie due to Bette’s connection. She worked on set for a couple of weeks before the accident. Thankfully, all is well now.
In making his HBO film, Phil Spector, writer and director David Mamet had two large obstacles to overcome. Let’s start with the wigs. Because how can you not? How do you even get past the spectacle of Al Pacino wearing an assortment of Spector’s famous adornments and believe him as the famous record producer charged with killing an actress at his mansion? As it turns out, during the course of an intriguing and intimate 90 minutes, Pacino is compelling both despite of and because of the wigs. So, mission accomplished.
The other element — the challenge inherent in making a true-crime biopic — is a bit more dicey. Mamet has stated that he was interested in the “mythological possibilities” of the high-profile case and decided the story couldn’t just be fact-based. On the other hand, it is a little jarring to start a movie focused on Spector’s murder trial and his defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), with this stark graphic: “This is a work of fiction. It’s not ‘based on a true story.’ It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor comment upon the trial or its outcome.”
Regardless of the disclaimer you slap on them, biopics are difficult to pull off if the story is famous enough that the public already knows the facts. While sticking to facts can be boring, making fiction of them is problematic. If you don’t care, then you can just watch for entertainment, but in true-crime stories, part of what the audience is thirsting for is insight into whether the person actually committed the crime. So with Mamet’s disclaimer about not attempting to answer those questions, what is it that we’re watching?
It’s 2003, and Lana Clarkson has just been found dead at Spector’s mansion. Jeffrey Tambor, in an excellent turn as lead defense attorney Bruce Cutler, is arguing that it was suicide — that Clarkson, a depressed fame-seeker, put one of Spector’s many guns into her mouth and pulled the trigger. What Cutler realizes is that nobody will buy that defense, since a number of women have come forth saying they went to Spector’s mansion and were forced, at gunpoint, to stay when they wanted to leave.
The film has Cutler bringing in Baden to help. (As TV has taught us, anyone coming in to help is brilliant, and Mirren is gifted enough to make that evident without it being hamfisted.) Baden thinks Spector did it. But she changes her mind after meeting Spector, and the real meat of this movie is the interaction between them, even though, in a truncated 90 minutes, Baden’s flip-flop seems too quick.
This is where Pacino shines. He immerses himself in a role that seems impossible both because Spector’s outlandishness lends itself so easily to cliche and because it’s often difficult for Pacino to be seen as anything but “Al Pacino, Actor.” Does he get past the wigs as a device? He does. And does he get past himself as an actor too self-identified to be someone else? He does. For that, he deserves all the credit in the world.
Mamet uses the camera to luxuriate in the oddness that is Spector’s mansion as Baden walks through a succession of rooms dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, then Lawrence of Arabia and then a carnival environment, with Spector talking about everything from Jesus to The Beatles. Finally we reach a room with jail doors and racks for his guns (confiscated after the killing) as Mamet makes the audience see a bizarre, gun-loving egotist and eccentric who probably did it — and then 15 minutes later introduces doubt. It’s a great job of Mamet not only holding his cards but shuffling them before revealing them to the viewers.
Pacino soaks up Mamet’s words and freely gives and takes with Spector’s likability. For example, Spector feels like he’s the victim: “What are we talking about here? Hatred. What do they hate about me? I’m alive.” Spector comes off as having a God complex. But credit Mamet’s writing and emphasis on “reasonable doubt” to make you wonder if an eccentric, literally wigged-out husk of a man was somehow locked in a presumed guilty state because of his own history of bad decisions regarding women. Toying with the notion of Spector being a creepy jerk who actually is innocent gives Mamet room to do what he does best. Pressed by Baden to simply ask the question of whether he killed Clarkson, Spector becomes enraged. “That idiot, who I would have helped — why not? — ruined my life,” he yells. “For sticking a gun in her mouth.”
Eventually, Baden discovers her angle on the perplexing evidence — that it was neither a murder nor a suicide but an accident. That Clarkson put the gun in her mouth and Spector, 10 feet away and wearing a white dinner jacket that barely got any blood on it, yelled out and the gun went off as Clarkson pulled it from her mouth and it caught on her teeth. Cutler doesn’t think this defense will work: “Linda, the point is, they think he’s a freak.” This is Mamet’s hook.
No scene is more effective than Mirren’s reaction, wonderfully shot through a series of closed-circuit cameras, to the infamously outrageous Afro-esque wig Spector wore (really) to the trial without telling anyone that was his plan. Pacino milks all of Spector’s peculiar, animated logic to convince her that he knows what he’s doing, but she’s not buying it. All the work to de-freak Spector has been lost. “Look in the mirror,” Baden says with heavy resignation. (Chiwetel Ejiofor also has a small but dynamic role as a fake prosecutor Baden uses to rile up Spector in a mock trial to see if the defendant would be capable of taking the stand.)
In real life, Baden was instrumental in getting the 2007 jury to deadlock and force a mistrial. This is essentially where Phil Spector ends. (He was retried and in 2009 — without Baden, who was too sick to take the case again — was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life at a state prison in Corcoran, Calif., where he remains.)
Ultimately, it appears that Mamet was being disingenuous with the statement that the film takes no sides. Maybe it was done for legal reasons. Because even though the movie is loaded with enough to satisfy those who believe Spector did it, as Mirren’s role is written and Pacino’s performance hints at, the film seems eager to suggest Spector was found guilty mostly of being a freak. That have-it-both-ways storytelling doesn’t make Phil Spector a great legal movie, but it allows two exceptional actors and a talented writer a chance to play with reality.