Why do we love to immortalize the grotesque?
Like many of us fascinated with scandal, I eagerly awaited last night's controversial premiere of Phil Spector, an HBO film written and directed by David Mamet, starring Al Pacino (as Spector) and Helen Mirren as Spector's defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden. Spector's murder trials -- there were two -- (the first in 2007, which ended in a mistrial and the second in 2009, which ended in a second degree murder conviction) over the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson, who was shot through the mouth by a pistol in Spector's Alhambra, California mansion, were never televised. Yet Spector's eccentric courtroom behavior, as well as the details of a case filled with sex, fame and grotesque violence made headlines. I remember. I remember because I read about the story in some fashion magazine years ago, glorifying a horrific and brutal end to an aging actress' life and the end of a legendary music producer's career.
Was it murder? Suicide? A drunken accident? No one knows for sure -- except, of course, for the accused and the deceased. Where the court defines reasonable doubt, Hollywood has found its next salacious fictional biopic (a contradiction in terms? Perhaps not, in our age of reality TV). Mamet himself, in interviews about his project claims that all documentaries are "constructions." However, after watching the fictional biopic, from which I could not look away (especially the scenes in Spector's proclaimed "castle" that housed nine firearms as well as the piano where John Lennon composed "Imagine") I felt a twinge of guilt. Gun control, the cult of celebrity, fame and its trappings, addiction, depression, isolation -- many of the themes holding the story together, could not be more topical in 2013, a decade after Lana Clarkson's life came so brutally to an end.
It is a mark of Western culture that we are obsessed with watching the tale of one's "fall from grace." But why? As Mamet puts it, his film is an attempt to examine the mythology that surrounds this man, this myth, this presumed monster -- who not only falls, but has the "Eumenides (Greeks deities of vengeance) furies catch up with him." And though Lana Clarkson's pictures (both her headshot, and her shot-through head) are displayed throughout the film, the audience is serenaded by many of Spector's sensational hits. Pacino, riveting throughout, in a role only Pacino could play, has gotten inside Spector's skin, if not making him endearing, at the very least, making him a hero/anti-hero. Mirren, who can do no wrong in my book, turns in an equally spectacular performance. It is she who concludes the film, asking, "Why does the monster live in castle? Why does the Minotaur live in a cave?" By ending on that note, Mamet takes the grotesque and makes it myth. But should this story indeed be a myth we are compelled to watch?
There's one voice missing from the story -- Lana Clarkson's. No Academy Award winning actor embodies her, and though Mirren's character repeatedly says she won't "attack the girl," Lana Clarkson is relegated to the flatness of photographs. Her imagined fictional biopic is absent from this gripping portrayal. But who knows? Maybe some Hollywood producer is working on her fictional biopic at this very moment.