Helen Mirren: “Bette Midler would have been absolutely brilliant in the role…” (Phil Spector)

Vancouver Sun
Phil Spector
film ‘an amalgam of fiction, imagination and reality’
Helen Mirren calls HBO movie on reviled music producer a ”˜mythology’
By Alex Strachan, Postmedia News
March 19, 2013


“I got a guy, sure looks guilty,” a high-powered, widely connected attorney to the music industry says at the beginning of David Mamet’s eccentric, twisty, HBO film Phil Spector. “He’s a creep. They’re going to convict him, and I just don’t like him.”

“Well, then,” legal expert Linda Kenney-Baden says dryly. “He’s going to need a good lawyer.”

When Baden, played by Helen Mirren, finally meets Spector, played by Al Pacino in the film, he’s not at all what she expects. He’s not what anyone expects. He is a guy; he does look guilty; he is a creep; and they are going to convict him.

As for whether she likes him or doesn’t like him, the point is moot. A lawyer’s job, and a lawyer’s only job, is to represent the client as best they can.

Easy to say – harder to do. It isn’t long in the film before Baden realizes that the case, and Spector himself, are going to take more out of her than she bargained on. After all, as he berates her at one point in the film, “For what am I being punished? For being the most successful music producer in the history of the world.”

Phil Spector is a work of fiction, writer Mamet insists. It is not “based on a true story,” as a title card reminds viewers at the beginning of the film.

Mamet wouldn’t have it any other way.

The celebrated playwright, screenwriter, author, director and producer set the rules for Phil Spector early on, as he told out-of-town reporters earlier this year in Los Angeles, alongside Mirren, Baden herself and Pacino, via satellite from New York, where he was performing in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway.

As filmmaking, Phil Spector is heightened realism, in the frenzied, deliberately fictionalized, occasionally over-the-top style of HBO’s Emmy-winning – and oft complained about – political films Game Change, Recount and Too Big to Fail. It is not a documentary.

Mamet chose to tell his story from Baden’s perspective and the essential question that dogged her at every turn: How does one defend a person the public have decided is guilty? Mamet said he saw the real story as Baden’s reconciling the concept of reasonable doubt with prejudice and the public’s rush to judgment.

“The challenge was finding the tone,” Mirren said, “because it’s an amalgam between fantasy, reality and a work of imagination, like a strange dream that you’re having where you’re not quite sure whether you dreamt something or whether that actually happened. Phil Spector must have lived, it seemed to me, in a permanent dream. ”¦

“This is more a mythology than a documentary. The myth of the minotaur, the minotaur living in a cave, in the labyrinth, was a wonderful image, I think, for Phil Spector: this half man, half beast, mythological creature.”

Mirren was parachuted into the role at the last minute when Bette Midler, Mamet and Levinson’s original choice, hurt her back two weeks into filming.

“Bette Midler would have been absolutely brilliant in the role, but she was in too much pain to continue,” Mirren said. “So I stepped in very late in the day. But in a funny way, because the film is a strange amalgam of imagination and reality, it was easy to adapt.

“The imaginative part of the film, I think, is as important as the realistic element. I didn’t feel I had to do the most perfect, immaculate impersonation. It’s always a tricky tightrope you walk in these cases, as an actor.”

Baden herself was a creative consultant on the film, and made herself available to Mirren as needed.

“It’s invaluable to have someone available to you who lived those experiences, who knew the intimate details of that world,” Mirren explained. “We’re not exactly replicating Linda’s experiences but, obviously, her influence, her understanding is very important to the piece.”

Mirren says it was virtually impossible to exaggerate the stories swirling around Spector at the time.

“They are so extreme, so out there,” she said. “A man of such incredible contradiction. Only yesterday, funnily enough, I met a youngish woman who had known him very well and said that she had only ever seen this very sweet side of him and how incredibly kind he could be.

“He was obviously a schizophrenic personality with these real extremes battling it out within him.

Phil Spector premieres Sunday on HBO at 9 ET/MT, 8 PT.

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