Writer-producer-director Leslie Zemeckis examines the strange, tragic, roller-coaster existence of famed conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton in the absorbing, well-crafted documentary "Bound by Flesh."
During the first half of the 1900s, the sisters went from sideshow stars to vaudevillians to movie actresses (Tod Browning's "Freaks," "Chained for Life") and burlesque performers, sharing every single moment with an eerie codependence.
Zemeckis ("Behind the Burly Q") tracks the twins, who were joined at the hip, from their birth in 1908 to their death, just a few days apart, at age 60. The pair's childhood is aptly described here as Dickensian: A barmaid mother essentially sold her daughters to her boss, Mary Hilton, who in turn raised and managed the pretty girls with an iron fist.
Violet and Daisy, kept insulated and naïve by the greedy, abusive Mary and her husband, were circus attractions and musical performers who saw little of their substantial earnings. After Mary's death, her daughter, Edith, and Edith's cruel husband, Myer, took over the Hilton sisters' lives and careers until the women, then 23, sued and won freedom from their exploitive guardians.
The twins, however, were ill-prepared for the vicissitudes of show business — not to mention adulthood — and endured a succession of bad managers and crummy gigs as well as several stunt marriages, an unwanted pregnancy (Daisy's), self-destructive partying and, eventually, poverty. Their last years were spent living in Charlotte, N.C., dependent on the kindness of strangers. It's a fascinating, tabloid-ready tale of woe.
Zemeckis uses strong if repetitive archival footage and photos, as well as interviews with an eclectic gallery of authors, promoters, curators and observers who flesh out and contextualize the Hilton sisters' saga. Voice-overs by actors Lea Thompson, Nancy Allen and others add fun theatricality.
"Bound by Flesh"
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Playing: At the Arena Cinema, Hollywood.