Avery Cardoza’s PLAYER
Swingin’ On A Star
With two Academy Awards under his belt, Kevin Spacey continues to surprise us with the unique and varied characters he portrays. Now, starring as Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea” (which he co-wrote, directed, and even sings in), Spacey sets out to bring the pop idol, and his appeal, back to life.
By Don Hollinger.
For an actor with such an “everyman” aura about him, Kevin Spacey has the remarkable ability to make us believe him as a full spectrum of characters. That startling last scene in “The Usual Suspects” is proof positive that the man possesses a chameleon-like capacity to physically change on film. We watch as the crippled, soft-spoken con man Verbal Kint transforms, right before our eyes, into the strutting crime lord Keyser Soze. In “American Beauty,” the “sedated” Lester Burnham seems to grow muscles and a predatory glint as he begins the seduction of Mena Suvati. The two parts won him Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor for “Suspects” and Best Actor for “Beauty”), and yet the parts couldn’t be any more different.
Not since Dustin Hoffman’s heydays as Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy” and Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate” (made only two years apart), has a Hollywood actor commanded such a broad sweep of roles. It’s a talent that Spacey, to his credit, has nurtured by keeping a large part of his private life to himself.
“The less you know about me,” Spacey has said, “the easier it is to convince you that I am that character on screen. It allows an audience to come into a movie theater and believe I am that person.”
Transformation may be an actor’s greatest tool, and in his latest film, the Bobby Darin bio-pic “Beyond the Sea,” Spacey has upped the ante considerably. Not only does he star as the real-life pop idol, he also directed and co-wrote the film. And the voice you hear singing all those Darin classics – including “Dream Lover,” “That’s All,” and the title track – is not Bobby’s but Kevin himself. It’s Kevin you hear on the sound track CD, singing no fewer than 17 of Bobby’s hits, and he’s even touring the country with a 19-piece band to promote the film. Acting the part of a hugely famous star is one thing; re-creating mega-hits like “Mack the Knife” and making the audience believe what they’re seeing – and hearing – is quite another.
Spacey seems well aware of the dangers of multi-tasking in a movie – critics can be brutal with actors who feel they have to do it all. At the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Kevin acknowledged the pressure: “If this film works, it’s because of the vast talents of a great number of people. And if it doesn’t, there’s nobody to blame but me. And I accept that going in. My eyes are wide open. “This wasn’t about an actor’s ego, wanting to get my rocks off by singing in a movie. This was about trying to do something that would honor [Bobby] as an entertainer,” Spacey continued. “I was after the essence of Bobby, where the attack and phrasing and musicality of it are right. I wanted to get to that place where those who know Bobby would say, ‘Is that Bobby, or is that…'”
Coincidentally or not, there’s a scene in “American Beauty” in which Bobby Darin sings “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” and it is meant to suggest that Lester’s wife in the film (played to suppressed perfection by Annette Bening) is somewhat to the south of hip. Her musical tastes are even blasted by their daughter (“Do we always have to listen to this elevator music?”) right before Lester flings a plate of asparagus at the wall.
It is, perhaps, an indication of our post-mortem forgetfulness of a performer who left us too young – Darin was only 37 when he died during open-heart surgery in 1973. From his roots as a bubble-gum pop star (with hits like “Splish Splash” and “Queen of the Hop”), to his swinging, Sinatra-like versions of standards such as “Hello Young Lovers” and “Moon River,” to his puzzling re-invention as the folk-singing Bob Darin (minus the hairpiece and tux, singing protest songs, of all things) – Bobby Darin’s repertoire stands in its own mysterious category. He was one part Elvis, one part Sinatra, one part Bob Dylan.
Rock stars didn’t fare well in Vegas in those days-even Elvis flopped when he opened at the New Frontier in 1956. But three years later Bobby Darin became the youngest entertainer to headline in Vegas when he opened at the Sands at the age of 23. Newsweek captured the essence of his struggle for recognition: “I said to myself I had to be a star at 21 or I’d blow my brains out. Well, I’m a year later [sic] but I guess that’s all right.” The magazine compared him to Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. rather than Elvis, and stated that Bobby “felt that he came on a little too old for the teenagers.” This despite the fact that “Mack the Knife” was the biggest-selling pop record at the time. “I didn’t fit,” said Bobby.
Genius loves company. True, Darin’s music is hard to categorize. While Elvis fell into sappy sound track material and Sinatra recorded forgotten albums by Rod McKuen, Bobby’s popularity actually grew with hit versions of “Hello Dolly” and “Call Me Irresponsible.” Even his take on the folksy “If I Were a Carpenter” became a success. Yet Darin has become something of a forgotten man next to, say, Ray Charles (also the subject of a recent film, “Ray,” starting Jamie Foxx), whose career and varied catalog most closely resemble Bobby’s. Charles, who began as an R&B singer with hits like “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road, Jack,” also recorded many standards, including soulful versions of “Stella by Starlight” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine.”
But Ray lived three decades longer than Bobby – long enough to get away with recording “Over the Rainbow” with Johnny Mathis a little over a year ago without losing a blip in his coolness. (In a bit of Hollywood altered reality, the two stars – or four? – sang an eerie duet at the Toronto festival. Jamie Foxx, as Ray Charles, performed “Splish Splash” with Kevin Spacey, as Bobby.)
But Bobby, for having died so young, faded into black-and-white kinescope memories of a couple of catchy tunes and one anthem: “Mack the Knife.” It’s a lack of recognition that Spacey, with the movie and CD, is hoping to correct. “This is all about Bobby,” he has said. “It’s about trying to reintroduce people to his catalog and hoping that this film will ignite a kind of recognition of his body of work that’s just been denied too long.”
Spacey credits his musical tastes to his parents’ record collection: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, and Darin. “By the time I was in my teens, I thought Bobby Darin was of all of them, the greatest,” Spacey said in an interview. “I thought he was the coolest cat in the room.”
As for his singing, Spacey performed in musicals as a teenager, even playing Captain Von Trapp to Mare Winningham’s Maria in Chatsworth High School’s version of “The Sound of Music.” He continued singing in college and in summer stock, starring in “Damn Yankees” and “West Side Story.” Record companies have approached Kevin in the past about recording an album, but it wasn’t until he fulfilled his 12-year-old dream of bringing Bobby’s story to the screen that he agreed to sing professionally.
And it wasn’t an easy road. Everyone from Darin’s parents to his manager, Steve Blauner, objected to anyone but Bobby singing his songs. Studios weren’t exactly lining up to finance a film about what they considered to be a comparatively forgotten singer. “Every door slammed in my face,” recalled Kevin. And yet Spacey, who at 45 is already eight years older than Darin was when he died, persisted, and the result is evident on the screen. There are moments – glances, gestures, vocal inflections – when, aside from make-up and wardrobe effects, the Spacey/ Darin transformation is complete. The fact that you know it’s Kevin’s voice solidifies the blending of actor and character. Were Spacey to lip-sync the songs, the “real” Bobby Darin would invade the film and fracture our willingness to believe that what we’re seeing is true. Inadvertently, by mastering the role so completely, Kevin Spacey has once again raised the bar for future performances by actors in films.
Still, for Spacey, it’s all about the subject. In an interview last fall, he summed up the life of Bobby Darin: “Bobby wasn’t just a singer. He wrote songs, he was an actor nominated for an Academy Award, he did impressions, played drums, guitar, harmonica, vibes, piano. He was probably the last great entertainer… and, besides Sammy Davis Jr., probably the best we’ve ever had. Because he died so young and did so many things in his career, he’s been kind of forgotten. We’re hoping this movie will turn the spotlight on his career and introduce him to people who may not know him.
“But, you know, it’s Bobby’s time again. Darin fever is about to hit.”
Avery Cardoza’s PLAYER January/February 2005
Pages 42-45. Photos on pages 3, 14, 42, 44.