Two provocative new star-driven movies – both about real-life musical geniuses whose lives took a dark turn – dominated HBO’s presentation Friday at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena.
In one, Al Pacino plays reclusive record producer Phil Spector, convicted in 2009 of the gunshot murder of B-movie actress and House of Blues hostess Lana Clarkson. David Mamet directed from his own screenplay, and Helen Mirren plays Spector’s defense lawyer. The other, directed by Steven Soderbergh, features Michael Douglas as the late impresario Liberace, and Matt Damon as his much-younger chauffer and lover, Scott Thorson.
Both projects looked utterly compelling in clips shown at the press tour – exotic, disturbing, and propulsive, with larger-than-life central characters. Each is drawn from well-publicized events, but the filmmakers found their way in, creatively, with the help of intermediary works.
In the case of the prosaically named “Phil Spector,” it was Vikram Jayanit’s documentary “The Agony and the Ectasy of Phil Spector” that captured Mamet’s interest. The doc, funded by the BBC, raises serious questions about whether the jury’s general dislike and suspicion of the diminutive, wig-wearing Spector, coupled with his gun collection and history of violence with women, sealed his fate, rather than any forensic evidence. “I originally had no interest in the case,” said Mamet. “I just thought, ‘He was a freak, he killed some girl, good riddance.’ But at the end of this documentary, you say, ‘Wait a minute - I came to this with such prejudice. Maybe the guy’s not guilty.’”
Mamet said his agent, John Burnham, encouraged him to write a script to explore that question, with the proviso that he refrain from indicting the victim. So the project takes the point of view of Spector’s defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden. Present on Friday’s panel, she said she had similarly refused to implicate Clarkson when she took on the case. Rather, she focused on establishing that the forensic evidence did not prove Spector had committed the murder.
“It explores what is the concept of reasonable doubt in a jury trial, and what kind of journey should the jury be taking, given that he wasn’t the most likeable person,” says Mamet, who approached it as “a mythological story, rather than a news story.” He explains: “it’s a strange amalgamation of imagination and reality.” One line in the movie likens Spector to “a minotaur, living in a labyrinth” – a reference to his Pyrennes Castle abode in Alhambra.
Originally, Bette Midler was cast as Baden, the blonde, New Jersey-raised defense attorney, but two weeks into filming she was forced to leave the project due to a disabling back injury, and Mirren came in to replace her. Says Mirren: “The challenge of the role was finding the tone. The story is like a strange dream you’re having. The nature of Phil Spector and the life he lived encourages that.”
Pacino, who joined the presentation by telecast from Manhattan, where he’s appearing on Broadway in Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” said that while he studied tapes of Spector to capture his voice and gestures, his main goal was to “get to the inner subtext.” “It’s a mixture of the inner and the outer person that you’re after,” said Pacino.
In the Liberace project, titled “Behind the Candelabra,” Michael Douglas tackles a different kind of inner and outer performance, playing the public persona of the flamboyant master showman and piano virtuoso as well as his private life as a closeted gay man in a restrictive era. “A character this big is easier to play than someone closer to yourself,” says Douglas. “It really frees you up. It was a treat.”
In the clips, he’s magnetic, with a driving, aggressive personality, whereas Damon is his baby-faced, slow-to-react young follower, eventually pushed to angry explosions. The script, by Richard LaGravenese, is based on the book “Behind the Candelabra,” written by Thorson, who was barely 17 when he was taken in by the wealthy entertainer, then in his late 50s. Liberace employed him as a chauffer, brought him into his act, and spoke of adopting the fatherless youth, even after they became lovers.
Soderbergh had long been interested in a Liberace project, but said, “for years, I couldn’t figure out a way in. I didn’t want to do a traditional biopic. I didn’t know what the angle was.” Then a writer friend recommended Thorson’s book, and the filmmaker knew he had found his focus.
The years-long relationship took some bizarre turns – at one point Liberace hired a plastic surgeon (Rob Lowe) to remake Thorson’s face so that it more closely resembled his own. Doctors then prescribed drugs to which Thorson became addicted. Eventually, when the relationship waned, the younger man was thrown out on his ear. His lawyer then sued Liberace for support, or palimony, in what became a bitter and privacy-ending breakup.
Producer Jerry Weintraub, reunited for the project with his “Oceans Eleven” collaborators Soderbergh and Damon, said he’d been a frequent guest at Liberace’s Palm Springs home and took pains to portray his late friend, known to insiders as “Lee,” as “a gracious, generous, remarkable man,” as well as a prodigious musical talent. The cast also includes Liberace friend Debbie Reynolds, as his mother Francis.
Weintraub and Soderbergh thanked HBO, which committed to the $5 million production after a round of studios had passed on funding a feature film version, declaring it “too gay” and too difficult to market, even with the stars attached, according to Soderbergh.
HBO’s presentation also included a panel on “Vice,” an edgy news magazine series sprung from Canada-based Vice magazine, that begins airing April 5 on Friday nights following “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Maher is a creative consultant and executive producer.
New comedy series “Family Tree,” created and written by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock, also joins the network’s lineup this spring, starring Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”) as a drifting 30-year-old who becomes obsessed with his genetic lineage after inheriting a mysterious box of belongings.
The movies “Phil Spector” and “Behind the Candelabra” will premiere this Spring, alongside HBO’s lineup of returning series that includes “Game of Thrones,” “The Newsroom,” “Boardwalk Empire” “True Blood,” “Girls,” “Enlightened,” “Veep” and others.