The Daily Telegraph

November 12, 2004

Spacey makes a bigger splish splash

The short, extraordinary life of ’60s singer Bobby Darrin is finally getting the big-screen treatment with Kevin Spacey as director and star. David Gritten reports

For a decade now, some of Hollywood’s brightest screenwriters and directors have wrestled with how to adapt the story of singer Bobby Darin for film. This mission has been an open secret, with whispers about terrific script drafts by this or that writer. But it was all in vain; no one managed to get the “Bobby Darin project”, as it is known, off the ground.

Until now, that is. Actor Kevin Spacey has bitten the bullet and written his own draft of Darin’s story, directing it himself. Starring as Darin, Spacey (who has been taking vocal lessons) also sings. The film, titled Beyond the Sea after one of Darin’s biggest hits, started shooting rather quietly in Berlin in December and opens here on November 26.

At first glance, it’s curious that Hollywood would care about someone who has faded so completely from public consciousness. From 1957 to 1967, Darin had a stellar career, first as a pop idol (with hits such as Splish Splash and Dream Lover), then as a young Sinatra wannabe, belting out jazzy, finger-clicking versions of songs such as Mack the Knife and Beyond the Sea, and as a gifted cabaret performer.

But his fortunes dipped, and he struggled to emulate his early success in his final years. Plagued by heart problems from adolescence, Darin died aged 37 in 1973. Today few people under 40 have more than a vague knowledge about him.

It’s curious that Dean Martin and Andy Williams became modish during the recent vogue for lounge music, while the work of Darin, a more interesting and gifted performer, has never been similarly revived. Still, none of this deterred Hollywood from wanting to adapt his life story.

For years director Barry Levinson tried his best to bring it to the big screen, and, before Spacey, a long line of gifted screenwriters had struggled to capture the essence of Darin. Why all the effort? Partly because aspects of Darin’s life were extraordinary.

As a teenager, he did not expect to live long, a factor that seemed to fuel his original ambition, to be an actor. His family life also held a bizarre twist: the woman he long assumed was his sister, 17 years older than him, was later revealed to be his mother.

He was born Walden Robert Cassotto, and grew up in the tough streets of New York’s Bronx. He briefly studied drama in college, but dropped out to pursue acting professionally. Barely out of his teens, he began the process of reinventing himself as “Bobby Darin”.

Because of his strong, dynamic singing voice, he was quickly signed to a recording contract. His first hit, the novelty Splish Splash, came when he was only 21. Other rock and roll hits followed, though in truth Darin was not exactly teen heart-throb material; he had puffy features and thinning hair, which he concealed with a toupee.

Still, as everyone noticed in Hollywood, the kid could act. After a few brief cameos in films, he was given a lead role in 1960 in Come September, a frothy romantic comedy set in Rome. His co-star was Sandra Dee: blonde, pretty, innocent-looking, star of the hit surfer movie Gidget, and role model for millions of American teenage girls. She was just 17, and she and Darin fell in love on set.

Shortly after returning to the States, they eloped and wed, then set themselves up in Hollywood as the nation’s dreamiest young couple – in their day, they were Brad and Jennifer, Ben and J.Lo all rolled into one. Their son, Dodd, was born a few months later.

But this happy façade concealed deep troubles. Dee, it transpired, had been sexually abused by her stepfather, and struggled with alcoholism and anorexia. Darin was egotistical, bullying, and no stranger to women. The marriage lasted only seven years.

Darin’s career stayed buoyant throughout the mid-1960s, courting older audiences with dynamic cabaret appearances in Las Vegas and in clubs such as the Copacabana and the Coconut Grove. He had a decent acting career, too, starring as a troubled jazz musician in John Cassavetes’s Too Late Blues, and the Second World War drama Hell is for Heroes.

In 1964, Darin was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, playing alongside Gregory Peck in another war story, Captain Newman, MD. But Darin was badly shaken by flower power, hippies and the summer of love. Suddenly, his act looked hopelessly passé, and he vainly tried to bridge the gap between Vegas audiences and a new generation of radical kids.

“He had this denim tuxedo made up, and took to the stage wearing it,” says Paul Attanasio, one of the scriptwriters who worked on Darin screenplays. “I’ve always thought that was emblematic of his confusion, that denim tuxedo.”

After this sartorial and demographic blunder, Darin again reinvented himself, this time as a folk singer, opposed to war in Vietnam. He dropped the name “Bobby” (too trivial, too teen-idol); he was now to be known as Bob Darin. He even dispensed with the toupee. At one point, he gave away all his possessions and went to live in a mobile home in Big Sur, on the northern California coast. This was a low point, and he finally returned to cabaret and TV work.

But his health, always fragile, was now badly failing him; one of his backing musicians recalled that Darin had to suck surreptitiously from an oxygen cylinder on stage between songs. Darin had heart valve surgery in 1971, and died two years later, after more open heart surgery. (His ex-wife lives quietly in semi-retirement, and is now best known as the subject of Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee, the song from Grease.)

It’s clear, then, why Hollywood finds Darin’s life compelling. But one also hopes that Spacey’s film will lead to a re-appraisal of Darin’s great singing talent. It helps that Spacey is a fan. He has learned to sing like Darin, and does so at the drop of a hat.

In 2002 in Los Angeles, at a tribute to record producer Phil Ramone, who had coached him with his singing, Spacey broke into an a cappella version of Darin’s minor hit I Found a New Baby, and he recently performed Mack the Knife on Parkinson. The Bobby Darin film, one feels, is in safe hands.