One of the things I am sorry to have missed is seeing Kevin Spacey appear in the part of Henry Drummond in London's Old Vic production of "Inherit the Wind" - a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, based on the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which enjoyed a three-month run in London at the end of last year.
I was sorry, first of all, because the topic is, well, topical: The "creationists" are still out in full force (for example, Aryeh Deri, who declared at the recent Herzliya Conference that, "the idea that the world was created as a result of a collision must vanish. We must realize there is a Creator and one power running the world").
But there were also theatrical reasons for my disappointment, as well: Spacey was recreating a role performed exemplarily by his mentor, Jack Lemmon, in the 1999 TV version of the play. On celluloid, the part was immortalized by Spencer Tracy. Rumor had it that the name of the legendary actor was the inspiration for the stage surname of Spacey, who admired him greatly. But it turns out that "Spacey" is the maiden name of the actor's mother.
Furthermore, Spacey is that rare phenomenon of an actor who has bridged successfully, and seemingly with ease, the "great divide" between England and the United States. Born and educated in America (although he didn't finish his acting studies at Julliard), he made a career in theater in New York and London, went on screen, where he won two Academy Awards (for a supporting role in "The Usual Suspects" in 1995, and best actor in 1999's "American Beauty"), and became artistic director of the Old Vic in 2003, which he turned into a thriving theatrical establishment for the first time since the early 1970s, when it was the home of the National Theater. He also won his Shakespearean spurs (again, in London), in the title role of "Richard II" (although he was overage - the character was 33 and Spacey was 55).
Why am I reminded of Spacey, all of a sudden, especially after missing him on stage? Because due to the vagaries of the programming people at the HOT cable company, I chanced, recently, to see a movie produced, directed and acted by him in 2004: "Beyond the Sea." A lifetime project for Spacey, it is a biopic about the late singer Bobby Darin, and Spacey sings (and dances in) all the movie's musical numbers himself. Plus, the CD of the soundtrack is a gem.
For those of you who may not know, Bobby Darin was an enormously successful singer-composer in the 1950s and '60s, who was responsible for hit-parade songs that won over the teenybopper crowd ("Multiplication," "Splish-Splash," "Dream Lover," among others), but was also an accomplished nightclub performer and entertainer. Indeed, he filled the Copacabana in New York, and various famous halls in Las Vegas. Like Spacey, Darin also bridged a "great divide" - in this case, between the pop scene and big-band nightclub acts. Darin's greatest hits as a performer included Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife" and Charles Trenet's "La Mer" ("Beyond the Sea"). He also married matinee idol Sandra Dee, and was nominated for an Academy Award for a supporting role in "Captain Newman, M.D." (but lost to Melvyn Douglas).
The movie "Beyond the Sea" was a commercial flop: It cost $24 million to make, but grossed less than $9 million worldwide. While Spacey got great reviews, many critics said that at 54, he was overage for the part: Darin died during heart surgery in 1973, at age 37, having performed for several years with a respirator ready backstage.
Nevertheless, the movie is still a breathtaking achievement - for Darin lovers and Spacey admirers - in particular because it highlights a less-known facet of the late singer-entertainer's life: his political commitment. For example, it turns out that, when launching what was to be a spectacular entertainment career in 1959, when he was set to appear at that mecca of nightclubs, the Copacabana, Darin insisted that a black comedian open his act, for the first time in the Copa's history. That show broke all attendance records.
During the late '60s, Darin protested the Vietnam War, supported the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., and campaigned actively for Robert Kennedy, whom he met shortly before the latter's assassination in 1968. (Darin was apparently the last to leave Kennedy's funeral, lingering at the grave site for seven hours.)
Darin subsequently sold his house and moved into a trailer for a while, returning later to the stage with a different repertoire and stage persona. After years of performing in a tux in front of a big band, entertaining fans with his energy and brash personality, he came on stage without a toupee, with a mustache, in denim. Accompanying himself with only a guitar, he sang songs he had written, such as "Long Line Rider" (about convicts tortured to death in an Arizona prison) and "Simple Song of Freedom," which included the lyrics: "Now, no doubt some folks enjoy doin' battle / Like presidents, prime ministers and kings / So, let's all build them shelves / Where they can fight among themselves / Leave the people be who love to sing. / Come and sing a simple song of freedom / Sing it like you've never sung before / Let it fill the air / Tell the people everywhere / We, the people here, don't want a war."
The audience was in an uproar: They wanted him to sing "Mack the Knife" and swing - and he refused. Later, when he was not allowed to perform "Long Live Ride" on the eponymous Jackie Gleason TV show, he walked off the set. In the Spacey movie (and in real life), the audience walked out on him in the Copacabana in early 1969 and in L.A. when he performed there.
From this, Darin gleaned an important insight (reportedly expressed by him, but wrongly attributed to Sandra Dee, in the film), summed up by his only son, Dodd Darin: "He learned a great lesson: 'People hear what they see'. He could go out to Vegas in '68 and do an act in his jeans, with no hairpiece, and they'd walk out. He would go back six months later, do the exact same show - not change one note - wear a tuxedo and the rug, and be 'Bobby Darin' [and receive a] standing ovation."
In the movie Darin-Spacey performs a gospel version of "Simple Song of Freedom" with a choir in Las Vegas, and has the audience in the palm of his hand.
Darin's comment, that "people hear what they see," seems trivial, and trite, but is true nonetheless: We usually trust our eyes more than we trust our ears. Which is why the testimony of eyewitnesses is believed, even though people sometimes think "there is more than meets the eye." But, this works both ways. If you want to convey a message, you need people to hear what you have to say, and you must also look the part: When people like what they see, there's a chance they will hear what is being said - and maybe even understand the message. Or not.
Remember that the next time you see a politician who comes across well in visual terms on TV or before a live crowd. Or, alternately, when you try to listen to someone who cannot put two words together. Try to see what you hear. To listen, as it were, beyond the "see."
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