Dream Project

17 Sep

At the 2004/05 Oscars, Jamie Foxx, a North Texas native (born and raised in Terrell), triumphed in the Best Actor category thanks to his extraordinary work as the late great–blind–singer-musician Ray Charles in the musical biopic, Ray. I was thrilled for Foxx, and had actually been rooting for his eventual success for several months, well before Ray had even been released. I no longer remember the exact circumstances,  but I saw footage of him in some coming attractions featurette, sitting blindfolded at a piano with no less than the real Ray Charles (who passed away in June of 2004, a few months before Ray premiered). Something about Foxx’s devotion to the task, and the fact that he was being coached by Charles, just got to me, and from that point, I had a hunch that great things were in store. I didn’t know then, but soon found out, that Foxx was/is a talented pianist in his own right, that he had studied piano for years and had attended college on a music scholarship. Foxx was no doubt the best man to play the iconic Charles, and his dedication to the task was and is apparent. The Oscar was fully justified, even against the likes of Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda).

"Mack" Facts: number 1 on the charts for 9 weeks, beginning in October of 1959; in the top 10 for 52 weeks; 2 million copies sold; Bobby Darin's 4th gold record and biggest selling single; 2 Grammy awards

At the same time, another musical biopic provided an all-out showcase for its two time Oscar winning leading man though to much less hoopla, and that movie was Beyond the Sea starring Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin, the Bronx born dynamo who crooned his way to stardom in the 1950s and passed away in 1973 at the age of 37. Darin (nee Walden Robert Cassotto) first hit the charts in 1958 with “Splish Splash,” a novelty tune he wrote in less than twenty minutes. Soon, he progressed to more sophisticated fare, such as “Dream Lover” (1959), “Mack the Knife” (1959), and, natch, “Beyond the Sea” (1960); the latter is the Americanized version of the French classic, “Le Mer,” while the rousing “Mack the Knife” originally appeared in The Threepenny Opera (by Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill) and became a #1 smash for Darin, netting two Grammy awards: Record of the Year, and Newcomer of the Year. Other hits include “Lazy River,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” and several others. Posthumously, Darin has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  and honored with a yet another Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. Darin also enjoyed success in the movies, earning rave reviews and an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). He was also nominated for a Golden Globe for 1962’s Pressure Point. When filming his first movie, Come September (1961), in Rome, Darin met and wooed America’s favorite blonde haired pint sized movie queen, Sandra Dee. The two were married for about six years and had one son, Dodd. Darin was also a political activist who had campaigned for the late Bobby Kennedy; he also hosted his own weekly TV variety show on NBC in 1972-1973.

When Kevin Spacey won the Best Actor Oscar for 1999's American Beauty, he joined Jack Lemmon and Robert De Niro as the only actors that had progressed from winning Best Supporting Actor to winning Best Actor. Denzel Washington has since made that same leap; meanwhile, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman have done the reverse. For better or worse, Nicholson did one better by bouncing back to Best Actor status.

Kevin Spacey, of course, is the frequently brilliant actor who made a name for himself onstage and in TV before conquering the big screen. In the eighties, he appeared on Broadway with Jack Lemmon in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Lemmon soon became a mentor, and he and Spacey worked together in the telefilm, The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988). Around the same time, Spacey earned the adoration of the critics–and fans–when he played the recurring role of “Mel Proffit” in the series Wiseguy. The actor’s stock took a huge leap in 1991 when he won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers–and then watched as his role was awarded to Richard Dreyfuss for the film version. The next year, he made his first significant dent in the moviegoing consciousness playing Kevin Kline’s wily neighbor in Consenting Adults, a performance which netted him a Saturn nomination from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. From there, he went on to the likes of The Ref, playing one half of a bickering couple opposite Judy Davis–and alongside Dennis Leary as well. In 1995, he was all over the place with roles in Swimming with Sharks (Independent Spirit Award nominee), Outbreak, and the spectacular one-two punch of Seven and The Usual Suspects. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the latter though I will freely admit, I’m not at all a fan of the movie despite its Academy lauded screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie. (Too gimmicky.) 1997 brought top notch work in such high profile pics as LA. Confidential and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Two years later, Spacey once again dazzled critics and Oscar voters alike with a startlingly vivid  portrayal of a man undergoing a mid-life crisis in the suburban satire, American Beauty–the wicked flipside of upscale domestic dramas, such as 1980’s Best Picture winner, Ordinary People.  Spacey not only scored the Best Actor Oscar, he made the rare leap from Oscar winning supporting player to Oscar winning leading man, something that only his mentor (Lemmon) and Robert De Niro had likewise accomplished at that time. Furthermore, like Ordinary People, American Beauty also snagged the evening’s top prize. That noted, I’ve always believed that, Spacey aside,  the film is both a bit much and extremely overrated.

The irony of advertising: yes, "Spacey Dazzles" in Beyond the Sea, but the effect of this poster seems to be that his face needs to be obscured in order to quell suspicion about him being too old to play crooner Bobby Darin.

The naysayers insist that Spacey was and is too old to play Bobby Darin. Their argument is based on simple math: Darin died at the age of 37, yet Spacey was approaching 45 at the time he filmed Beyond the Sea.  That’s not a huge discrepancy. No, the real beef is that Spacey was about 20 years older than Darin was when he had his first big hit, and actually, that’s not a problem for me either.  First of all, for reasons various and sundry, Bobby Darin “matured” more rapidly than other men his age. What does that mean? Simply, Darin suffered a bout of rheumatic fever as a child and was told he would be lucky to live past the age of 16. Yes, he defied the odds, but his health was poor–a constant battle as the movie accurately portrays–and that no doubt aged him. As recounted in the book Dream Lovers by Dodd Darin (the son of Darin and Dee), Life reporter Shana Alexander once described Bobby as a “rather worn young man of 23” (123). Furthermore, Darin reportedly started losing his hair when he was “very young.  By the time he was on the stage performing, he was already wearing a toupee” (67). Plus, as Dodd Darin explains repeatedly in his book, his father was afraid he was going to die before he accomplished all that he wanted to do, so he pushed and pushed himself, both publicly and privately, burning the candles at both ends. Even Dick Clark recalls that Darin had a “maturity” that other “teen idols lacked,” which no doubt played a part in Darin’s decision at the ripe “old” age of 23 to move away from rock ‘n’ roll to standards, music he felt would be best appreciated by adults (104-105).  Another reason Spacey’s age doesn’t bother me–besides what I see as a credible likeness anyway–is Spacey’s passion for the project.  After all, Spacey doesn’t just portray Darin in Beyond the Sea, he also directs it, serves as one of several producers,  and shares screenwriting credit with Lewis Colick (whose original draft reportedly dates back to 1987). Indeed, if it had not been for Spacey, a film biography of Darin might have never been made. After all, according to the Internet Movie Database, no less than Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp had at one time been attached to filming the Bobby Darin story. I have almost no memory of the former though I definitely remember the buzz around the Depp project, which was to have co-starred Drew Barrymore as Sandra Dee (touchingly played by fresh-faced by Kate Bosworth in Beyond the Sea).  Well, for whatever reason, those earlier films never got made, but at least Spacey had the dedication and the drive to see Beyond the Sea to its completion, so good for him.

Of course, the skeptics still want to write the whole thing off as a great big Kevin Spacey vanity project, but that also doesn’t bother me because I feel that after winning two Oscars in five years, Spacey is entitled to indulge. Furthermore, as reported in Variety, Spacey “received not one penny as star and director of the $24 million pic; some of those $ are his,” so good for him, whatever his motivation. Plus, if the film were really a vanity project, why would Spacey surround himself with well-seasoned pros, such as Caroline Aaron, Brenda Blethyn, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, and Greta Saachi, not to mention young, hot, and gifted real-life jazz musician Peter Cincotti?  Finally, the set-up for the film actually allows for some leeway since, taking a cue from the likes of Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All that Jazz, Beyond the Sea is presented as a film-within-a-film, that is, a film-in-the-making about the life of Bobby Darin, in which the mature Darin directs and stars as himself. Come again?  See, that way, the audience knows from the beginning that this is the story of a fully grown man playing a much younger version of himself, and no further suspension of disbelief is required, but just to seal the deal, even the movie’s adult Darin faces questions about being age appropriate from a skeptical reporter.

The whole film-within-film thing might seem too gimmicky or confusing for some viewers; after all, the story skips around a bit, sometimes shifting locations and even time frames within a single scene. Additionally, there are some sequences in which Darin retreats into his own private space and engages in conversation with his boyhood self, winningly played by William Ullrich. This all makes sense considering the enormous identity crisis Darin suffered beginning in 1968 and on through 1969. Of course, like many other legendary entertainers, such as Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, Darin had to come to terms with the strange reality of a manufactured persona sometimes at odds with whom he believed himself to be as a person. In Darin’s own words, poverty-born Walden Robert Cassotto was an “ugly, short, balding double-chinned Italian with a big nose and puffy eyes” (122),  but onstage, he was a showbiz enterprise: “Bobby Darin,” a slick, tuxedo wearing showman with smooth moves and a voice that drove women wild, so, yes, there was that; however, Darin’s identity crisis didn’t stop there. As a grown man, he learned something about his family that even further challenged his sense of who he really was. Between that and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Darin felt the need to retreat, and to rethink who/what he wanted to be, which he did by giving away all his possessions and moving to a trailer out on Big Sur. It’s all there, however condensed, in Beyond the Sea, and the staging of this episode in Darin’s life gives Spacey a chance to show some of his strongest acting; moreover, the movie eloquently makes the point that it was, in fact, Walden Robert Cassotto who passed away in 1973–and not Bobby Darin, per se.

In this sequence, yellow-suited Bobby Darin woos Sandra Dee (played by Kate Bosworth) to the strains of "Beyond the Sea" while filming Come September in Rome. This sparkling musical number was actually filmed at the Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, Germany.

As good as Beyond the Sea is, and as great as Spacey is in it, it still suffers a few lapses. A lot of Darin’s story is simplified, and key players are omitted entirely, including a romance with singing sensation Connie Francis (predating Darin’s involvement with Dee). Also, even though the movie shows Darin and Dee in the process of separating, it backs away from showing that the pair actually divorced, and that Bobby briefly enjoyed a second marriage before his quite sudden death. Furthermore, the movie sometimes look like it was filmed on the cheap even though Spacey’s team includes such notables as cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Oscar nominated for 1997’s The Wings of the Dove, and 2003’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring), costume designer Ruth Myers (Oscar noms for 1993’s The Addams Family and 1996’s Emma), and production designer Andrew Laws (2003’s retro inspired Down with Love).  Part of the dilemma, as it were, is that in order to get the film made, Spacey had to seek out foreign investors, which necessitated filming in Europe. Much of  Beyond the Sea was shot during the winter at the enormous, not to mention legendary, Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, Germany–not that there’s anything wrong with that, except that the movie often looks darker than it should, and  too enclosed for comfort. There are surprisingly few exterior shots, and many of those were clearly filmed against wintry gray skies. The overall effect is a little disconcerting, none more so than a brief foray into what is intended to be Rome, but is in reality a park on the grounds of Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace. It’s a lovely, photogenic, backdrop, but it’s also obviously not Rome, and while the big set piece, an energetic rendition of “Beyond the Sea,” is a lot of fun, the shots don’t always match: sunlight here, not so much there.  Of course, this was Spacey’s directorial debut, so maybe a director with more experience might have been able to present a more persuasive re-creation.  On the other hand, there are some visual flourishes that work quite nicely, including a nice bit of shorthand when Darin comes to a reckoning about his identity by using a gold record as a mirror. Lovely. Plus, there’s a gorgeous shot of what is supposed to be Big Sur but is actually Dover, England of all things.

Beyond the Sea is wonderful entertainment that works on two important levels. First, it is a sincere tribute to Darin, one that serves as a fitting introduction to a blazingly talented man whose short life was fascinating and complex. After all, I’m willing to bet that someone somewhere reading this blog never knew until this very moment that Darin had ever been nominated for an Oscar. Right? Additionally, Beyond the Sea doubles as a stunning showcase for Spacey. Of course, it’s no secret that this actor excels at playing driven men, as exemplified by flashy performances in films such as  A Time to Kill, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, 21, and the recent hit comedy, Horrible Bosses, but Beyond the Sea allows Spacey  to portray the gentle frightened man-child beneath the cocky shell.  On the other hand, Spacey rarely gets the chance to perform as traditional romantic leading man, so Beyond the Sea is a nice change of pace; moreover, playing Bobby Darin allows Spacey to reinvent himself as a real showman: when performing in nightclubs and on TV, he perfectly captures Darin’s moves and mannerisms, but he really comes alive in the more intricately choreographed production numbers, righteously hoofing it up with athleticism,  grace, and skill. Watch out for those high kicks! Perhaps the bigger question is whether Spacey has the chops to match Darin’s vocal prowess, and the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Spacey’s voice is surprisingly supple, and, to my ears, he’s almost always perfectly on pitch. No, he doesn’t sound exactly like Darin, but he does incorporate  enough Darinesque inflections to create an effective illusion. It also helps that, per Spacey’s DVD commentary,  the musical arrangements heard in the film come straight from Darin’s own charts, thereby ensuring the utmost verisimilitude. Furthermore, his rendition of “The Curtain Falls” is powerful in its own right. I actually get chills every time I hear it. I’d say that as a first-time big screen song and dance man, Spacey equals or outmatches Roy Scheider, who was Oscar nominated for playing choreographer-director Bob Fosse’s alter-ego in All that Jazz, and/or Richard Gere, who won a Golden Globe–but no Oscar nom–for his spiffy turn as Billy Flynn, the tap dancing lawyer in Chicago.  Meanwhile, even though Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey did not face-off for the Best Actor Oscar, they did compete against each other at the Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy–Foxx won, natch–where their fellow nominees included an actor in a third musical biopic–and that would be Kevin Kline as composer Cole Porter in De-Lovely. De-lightful.

The paperback edition of Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee by their son Dodd Darin

I am by no means a Darin scholar, but I am a lifelong fan. I’ve listened to his music all my life, and I’ve seen a few of his movies; plus, I used to watch him on TV.  I  even read Dodd Darin’s book when it was first released several years ago. On the other hand, I confess that I’ve never seen Darin’s Oscar nominated Captain Newman M.D. in its entirety though I have found clips from it on YouTube, which I decline to post here for fear that it’ll be yanked off, and I’ll be in trouble of some kind. Even so, I can attest that Darin approaches brilliance in one long scene, in which  his disturbed soldier undergoes hypnosis with the help of a little sodium pentathol,  the gentle assist of Angie Dickinson, and the kind but firm care of Gregory Peck as the titular doctor. What I thought would be a hokey display actually turned out to be startlingly raw and seemingly true to life, as if Darin had channeled something from the great beyond….beyond the sea….

Thanks for your consideration…

The following link will redirect you to the Official Bobby Darin website, a comprehensive fan-organized collection of photos, statistics, updates on all things relating to Darin, his music, etc. The site has been up and running since 1997 and continues with the cooperation of  Dodd Darin and Andrea Darin, the widow of the late superstar, as well as Steve Blauner, Darin’s friend and manager–who still represents the late singer’s legacy: http://www.bobbydarin.net/

Also…  http://www.bobbydarin.com/

To read more of the Variety article quoted in this entry, please click here –  http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117909280

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3 Responses to “Dream Project”

  1. Karen 19 September 2011 at 9:25 am #

    Finally! The Spacey critique…. what a nice Monday treat.

  2. listen2uraunt 20 September 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    There is actually a good footnote to this story that even I couldn’t find a way to include in the body of the article, which is that Kevin Spacey attended the same high school as Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham–and the same time. The school was Chatsworth High in the San Fernando Valley; moreover, Spacey and Winningham actually played Captain Von Trapp and Maria, respectively, in their school’s production of The Sound of Music, so, so you can see that Spacey’s interest in musical theatre is nothing new. Furthermore, according to the IMDb, Spacey and Mare Winningham were also co-valedictorians.

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