“Have you ever known someone who was disfigured?” Helen Mirren, as defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden, asks an anxious junior associate in Phil Spector, the new HBO film premiering Sunday about the murder trial and eventual conviction of the legendary music producer. “Like, really difficult to look at? You see them enough, eventually you grow used to it.”
It’s a notion that the film—written and directed by David Mamet in typical hard-nosed style—asserts over and over again. His face obscured behind dark glasses, his bald head clad in a variety of increasingly bizarre wigs, from a blond little Dutch Boy variant to a skunk-striped perm that would not look out of place on one of the more flamboyant members of your grandma’s B’nai Brith Sisterhood chapter, Phil Spector, as played by Al Pacino, appears to be every inch the “freak” his lawyers openly worry the jury will see him as: reclusive, deranged, and frightening, a proverbial Beast shut away from the world in his forbidding castle.
But Pacino’s intelligently controlled explosion of a performance imbues the character of Spector with qualities that disarm and ultimately endear Mirren’s Beauty. His bottomless rage is tempered by glimmers of humor and showbiz élan (not to mention indisputable musical genius); he has moments of lucidity and self-awareness impossible to imagine from a fellow showbiz oddity like the late Michael Jackson (who, at least in aesthetic eccentricity, is possibly his closest corollary, and whose acquittal on charges of child molestation Spector’s attorneys hold up, ruining Spector’s own chance at a not-guilty verdict—they let the freak get away that time; they aren’t going to do make the same mistake twice). This is a beast with the ability to make the irrational seem rational. In one scene, Mirren—who I really have to mention this, so I might as well do it here, is actually quite astonishingly bad at doing an American accent, marring what would otherwise have been a predictably excellent performance—watches ’70s-era footage of Spector playfully firing a gun into the ceiling during an interview at a recording session (right in front of the journalist!). The scene perfectly illustrates her acclimatization, and ours, to his behavior. That’s just Phil. How else was he supposed to get them to do what he wanted? And besides, nobody got hurt!
Except that in the case at hand, somebody did get hurt: Lana Clarkson, an aspiring actress who entered Spector’s Alhambra mansion-fortress on a date and wound up dead through a gunshot wound to the mouth. Was Spector responsible? As in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, the 2009 documentary that preceded it, Mamet’s script takes pains to point to forensic evidence that would seem to exonerate him—the angle of the shot, consistent with a self-inflicted one; the bullet lodged in the back of the skull, meaning the gore would have had to spew from the front, yet the white frock coat Spector wore remained pristine, wholly improbable, if not impossible, if he had been the one to squeeze the trigger—and yet Spector is hardly the kind of guy you couldn’t imagine would hurt a fly. His ex-wife Ronnie Spector detailed stories of terrifying psychological abuse in her memoir of their life together, alleging her husband held her a virtual prisoner in their home and kept a gold coffin in their basement in which he would threaten to display her corpse to the public should she get out of line. Numerous women testified that Spector, a known firearms enthusiast—with a Wild West-themed gun room, naturally!—held them at gunpoint to keep them from leaving his house before he wanted them to.
There’s a certain amount of lip service, from witnesses friendly and hostile alike, as to just why Spector might have felt he had to go to such lengths to secure the company of women. “He had size zero feet, he couldn’t get laid,” sneers one person. “How else was he supposed to get them into bed?” The man was a nebbish, this argument goes—the Jewish version of the Twinkie defense.
Spector, of course, denies such slander, and convincingly too. There’s a kind of palpable satisfaction in the character as Pacino plays him, a slight smugness as he faces the jeering crowds and listens to the testimony of his enemies that (like the hypochondriac who feels a slight twinge of relief at being diagnosed with a dread disease) at last his paranoia has been shown to be justified. No matter what happened that night, they want him to be guilty, and that’s what they’re going to get. As Spector arrives for the first day of his trial, resplendent in a flowing black coat with a priestly collar and an enormous Afro wig that has to be seen to be believed (he claims it to be a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, who “also suffered”), it’s impossible not to hearken back to another thrilling Pacino performance: Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, hopelessly facing down the noblemen who have no intention of giving him a fair trial. Circumstances be damned, he’s guilty by dint of being himself, and that’s enough. He is who he is. That’s just Phil.
Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.