Al Pacino and Helen Mirren are so convincing as the freaky music producer and his defense attorney that by the end of HBO’s “Phil Spector,” it’s likely you would vote to acquit, based on reasonable doubt.
And that’s with the knowledge that Spector is in prison and has a gun fetish and a violent history.
David Mamet’s film, premiering Sunday, March 24, unfolds in 2007, before Spector’s first trial. It was the second trial that resulted in Spector’s sentence of 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson, an actress.
In this, Pacino becomes Spector, uncannily inhabiting the man who was born within four months of him and also raised in the Bronx. The two did not know each other, though they apparently met at a party, where someone took a photo of the two.
“We have a look on our faces that we don’t know each other,” Pacino tells Zap2it. “We were from two different worlds. It looks like what it is — posing for some picture some stranger is taking of us.”
When viewers meet Spector, he is old, frail and shaking. It’s the twitches and the shuffle, the flares of temper and the clouded eyes that make for a spectacular performance.
“You kind of hope that whatever information the playwright has given you, the authentic character and what you see in the footage and what you have read, to see if somehow you can channel it through, and what comes out comes out,” Pacino says.
“The shakes are real because he had some sort of narcolepsy and the drugs he was taking,” Pacino continues. “He was suffering. They said he had Parkinson’s.”
We’re drawn into Spector’s bizarre world in a lonely castle, decorated with Lincoln memorabilia and guns. He shuffles around in silk pajamas and an embroidered robe, sporting different wigs — the first makes him look like a suburban woman in 1985, and the wig he wears on the day he takes the stand resembles Dr. Seuss’ Thing One and Thing Two characters.
Pacino, who pauses to consider his answers, credits Mamet with giving him all the insight he needed into Spector.
“I get my instructions really from what I see in the play,” he says of the script. “Because the marriage is really between me and the playwright and not necessarily what is Spector.
“However it took a lot of time and effort to put together lots of footage and information about him, as you always do when you do these kind of things,” Pacino continues. “Hopefully it susses out what the characterization of Mamet wrote. Mamet is a great writer.”
Pacino’s Spector is a lost man, yet when he breaks through his drug-induced haze, there are glimpses of the layers. There’s the swagger of a man who revolutionized music and made millions. There’s the enraged gun enthusiast who many women swear was their abuser.
“There is a certain defiance in him, a provocateur,” Pacino says. “I would be loath to mention anything about his state of being. For me, I was trying to come upon a truly eccentric person, who is really, really eccentric. It is not an affect, and also someone who happens to be a genius. You can’t play these things, but you can allow whatever research you have done to take over, hopefully.”
Since people assume they know this case, what makes the film interesting is its vantage point, told from attorney Linda Kenney Baden’s (Mirren) perspective. This begins with the caveat that it’s fiction.
Spector’s attorney, Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor), hires Baden, and like everyone, she assumes he’s guilty. Spector is so weird that putting him on the stand will only reinforce the jury’s assumption of guilt.
Still, the forensic evidence does not support that he pulled the trigger.
“It’s an amalgam between a fantasy, a work of imagination, like a strange dream that you’re having, and you’re not quite sure whether you really dreamt that or whether it actually happened,” Mirren says at a press conference. “I think the nature of Phil Spector and the life that he lived encouraged that. He must have lived, it seems to me, in a permanent dream. I’ve heard so many extraordinary stories about him. Obviously we all did a lot of research. My husband actually worked for Phil Spector, so my husband had some incredible stories about him.”
Spector’s flashes of lucidity, though, are striking. His ego is so huge that it makes you wonder if, had he done it, might he have taken credit?
Mamet wrote and directed this after seeing a documentary about Spector. “Oh, this guy’s a freak,” Mamet says of his initial thoughts. “He’s small. He’s wizened. He talks funny. His arms are shaky. He’s obviously a freak. Three minutes later you say, ‘Well, but he says some interesting things.’ [After] half an hour, you’re saying, ‘How could I be so prejudiced? The guy’s kind of brilliant.’ And at the end of the documentary, you’re saying, ‘Wait a second. I came to this with such prejudice. Maybe the guy’s not guilty.’ “