While watching Bound by Flesh, a well constructed albeit overly talky documentary on the lives of early 20th century sideshow stars and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, it’s impossible not to think how their unusual and ultimately tragic tale would make for an even more fascinating narrative feature helmed by a director like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. All the pieces are there for an incredibly strange biopic: exploitative childhoods, fruitful careers as entertainers, the pursuit of love and happiness, a devastating downfall into obscurity and a futile attempt at a comeback. Call it the E! True Vaudevillian Story.
Still, as an all-encompassing documentary and without any of the bells and whistles of a Hollywood production, director/writer Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis) paints an intriguing portrait of a pair of ambitious women who never let their physical limitations stop them from dreaming on an incredible scale. It may not have the high production value of most documentaries these days (neither did Tim’s Vermeer last year, which also had a major connection to San Antonio), but like Vermeer it makes up for it with solid storytelling.
Born in England in 1908 and literally attached at the hip, the Hilton Sisters (far more accomplished than Paris and Nicky although not nearly as “freakish”), travelled around the world as a sideshow act and eventually made it to San Antonio, Texas in the 1920s where they were billed as “San Antonio’s Siamese Twins.” Later, they would move to New York City and then make a home in Charlotte, North Carolina. During their career as a variety act, the Hiltons were featured on the same stage as stars like Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin and eventually tried acting. They can be seen in the controversial 1932 film Freaks playing Siamese twins and in the 1952 exploitation crime drama Chained for Life.
Through amazing archival footage, photos, autobiographical writings and insightful interviews with people who know the story of the sisters, including local Witte Museum curator of collections Amy Fulkerson, Zemeckis is able make Daisy and Violet empathetic characters and not the anomalies they were made to feel like during their performances. While Zemeckis, whose other documentary Behind the Burly Q covers the Golden Age of burlesque, handles the twins’ terrible childhood experiences with kid gloves (the first 20-30 minutes are fairly weak), she manages to find her footing as the story advances. Bound by Flesh hits its high notes when Zemeckis explores many of the relationships the Hiltons created during their heyday and the reveals the struggles they faced, especially when the curtain closes on them before they are ready to bid farewell.
Bound By Flesh
Dir. and writ. Leslie Zemeckis; feat. Nancy Allen, Lea Thompson, Timothy Stack, Blake Boyd (NR)
??? (out of 5 stars)
Special screenings July 11-13 at Alamo Drafthouse Westlakes, 5:10pm