Wednesday 17 July 2019

The spectre of Spector – as Al Pacino goes wildly over the top

A work of fiction, apparently: Helen Mirren and Al Pacino in 'Phil Spector'
A work of fiction, apparently: Helen Mirren and Al Pacino in 'Phil Spector'

John Boland

Fiction, it seems, can be even stranger than truth. David Mamet, who wrote and directed the HBO film Phil Spector (Sky Atlantic), informed the viewer at the outset that although this was a drama "inspired by actual persons in a trial" it was "neither an attempt to depict the actual persons nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome". And, just in case he hadn't made himself clear, he added: "This is a work of fiction. It is not based on a true story."

Why, then, was it called Phil Spector? And why was the main character, who went by the name of Phil Spector, on trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson, which was also the name of the cocktail waitress who was found shot dead in the house of the real Phil Spector in February 2003?

And like the real Phil Spector, Mamet's Phil Spector was a megalomaniac record producer with a violent past, while the film's soundtrack was crammed with hits by the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, the Crystals and other performers from the real Spector's back catalogue. Oh, and the woman acting as his defence counsel, Linda Kenney Baden, had the same name as the actual defence counsel in the real Spector's first trial.

What was going on here? What was going on was that Mamet was trying to play silly metafictional games with the viewer – aided and abetted by Al Pacino, who made no attempt to "depict the actual person" of the real Phil Spector, being instead more than happy to play Al Pacino at his scenery-chewing, in-your-face, over-the-top nuttiest.

This was vanity acting at such an extreme as to make the same player's insufferably showy turn in Scent of a Woman seem positively restrained, and it quite overwhelmed the contribution of Helen Mirren as his lawyer, though her low-voltage, indeed somewhat remote, performance could be put down to the fact that she was a late replacement for an indisposed Bette Midler, who at least might have brought some energy to the proceedings.

As for Mamet's claim that he was making no "comment" on the actual trial (which ended in a hung jury before a 2009 retrial finally convicted Spector of murder), that's being disingenuous given that Pacino's Spector was presented as an engagingly oddball genius while there wasn't a whit of sympathy for, or even interest in, the unfortunate Clarkson.

HBO has done a lot better than this self-indulgent confection, which hadn't even the courage to declare its factual underpinnings.

But at least it was competently assembled, unlike this week's instalment of Crimes That Shook Ireland (TV3), which detailed the 1983 kidnapping of supermarket executive Don Tidey, an abduction that resulted in the shooting dead of an Irish soldier and a garda trainee in a Co Leitrim wood.

But if this rescue mission was botched, so too was the film in its clumsy attempts at reconstruction and the use of a constantly flickering screen that was probably meant to lend an atmosphere to past events but that succeeded only in inducing migraine.

Thatcher: Ireland and the Iron Lady (RTÉ One) added little to what everyone knows about the former British prime minister who died last April, though it came up with a few intriguing soundbites about her intransigent attitude to this country and to some of its leaders.

For instance, it's long been suggested that she quite fancied Charles J Haughey, a suggestion confirmed here both by her former Number Ten aide Charles Powell, who revealed that there was "a glint in his eye that she found quite attractive", and by her former colleague Jim Prior, who thought Haughey "hoodwinked her quite a bit and she fell for it quite a bit".

Apparently, she was also thrilled by the teapot he gave her on their first meeting, but when they fell out, according to Prior, "she wanted to throw the teapot away, I think".

Still, at least he registered strongly with her, unlike his predecessor Jack Lynch who, in the words of her former press secretary, Bernard Ingham, was "utterly and totally useless, as wet as a whistle". And with not even a teapot to commend him.

As for Garret FitzGerald, "she liked him and she trusted him", Douglas Hurd recalled, "but she thought he was brought up in a bad tradition". Well, he was Irish after all and, according to David Goodall of the Cabinet Office, "I think she didn't like the Irish". Nor did they much care for her.

Rich Hall is one of the driest and drollest of American comedians, though he seemed somewhat muted when presenting Rich Hall's You Can Go to Hell, I'll Go to Texas (BBC4). Maybe he was overawed both by the size of the place and of the task confronting him – trying to explain what makes the Lone Star state tick.

Or should that be thick? Certainly the 72-ounce slab of meat being eaten at a restaurant table next to him was pretty offputting, but Rich's mission was to discover if there was more to Texas than sheer size – whether of steaks, oil wells, Baptist churches, rifles or carbon emissions. However, by the end of an overlong film, I was none the wiser.

Irish Independent

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