It was back in the 1980s when I saw a picture of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the famous conjoined twins who had once starred on the stages of vaudeville. The sisters were featured in a book called Very Special People, sitting back to back on a piano bench, playing saxophones. They had large, dark eyes, and smiles that managed to look both alluring and sickly. They were tired, I imagined, from performing all the time, traveling from one flea bag theater to another. I also imagined they were tired from hauling each other around. Regardless, I wondered what it would be like to go on a date with them.
The sisters occasionally appeared in movies, such as Tod Browning's Freaks, and another called Chained For Life. By the time of the latter, the fatigue had caught up to them; they no longer had the weird allure of their teen years, but had grown into rather plain, middle-aged ladies. Still, I kept Daisy and Violet in the back of my mind, and when tossing out old books, I always kept Very Special People. The Hilton girls were in there. What secrets lurked in those dark eyes?
Decades later I barely recall their story. They were famous for a while, conjoined twins who sang and danced and charmed audiences. There were bad managers, and a cruel mother figure who put them on display since they'd been babies, and a battle for freedom that made some headlines. I vaguely remember a couple of sham marriages, and maybe even a pregnancy. Like many figures from that era of show business, the sisters ended up penniless. I never knew if they could actually play those saxophones.
The sisters have long since vanished from our country's collective memory. They've been replaced by new freaks, with names like Honey Boo Boo, and the Kardashians. There's even a new set of Hilton sisters, vapid hotel heiresses who symbolize the horrors of a new century, where the celebrities and the plebeians mirror each other in slack-jawed insipidness. Reality TV is the new sideshow. The new human oddities don't have to play instruments.
I was still struggling to recall what I knew of Daisy and Violet this weekend when I learned that a documentary about them was opening in theaters and available VOD. I wondered if they'd live up to my memories, if they'd still seem as cute and mysterious as they did when I was a boy. Would we see or hear any of that alleged musical talent?
The story of the sisters is a much sadder one than I remember, and it's beautifully told in Bound By Flesh, a feisty, smart movie by Leslie Zemeckis. Her previous movie was Behind The Burly Q, a study of the glory days of burlesque performers. That was a good one. Bound By Flesh is better. The old burlesque dancers seemed like a tough bunch of old birds; you couldn't really feel sorry for them, or even know them to any great degree. Daisy and Violet, though, are so vulnerable and lost that Bound By Flesh takes on an almost tragic tone. It's the story of two girls who waited fruitlessly for their fairy tale ending. That it never came is probably why they chose to remain bound, rather than undergo a rather simple procedure to separate them. When life seems so filled with pitfalls, wouldn't you stay tied to the one person you could trust?
Yes, it turns out there were some marriage attempts, and a pregnancy, some cruel managers, and a mean mother figure. There was a headline grabbing court case where the girls fought to get away from their showbiz family and live on their own. And yes, the girls were undeniably cute in their younger days, and according to Bound By Flesh, I wasn't the only one who wondered what it might be like to date them. But the poor girls were sheltered and naive, and had been conditioned at a young age to approach everything as a publicity stunt, even marriage.
The movie gets off to an odd start, with a blast of punk rock over the opening credits, and the early scenes are presented in a breakneck pace that is like listening to a manic person whispering his life story to you at a party. Some of the talking heads provided by Zemeckis to tell the tale have a bland, breathless way of talking, and the result is a little off-putting. But either I got used to it, or the pace slowed, for by the middle of the story I was hooked. By the time Daisy and Violet are broke, and Zemeckis flashes onto a piece of sheet music with the girls' faces outlined by a heavenly light, I was practically reaching into my wallet, hoping to find a few bucks for them. To know they spent their final years relying on the kindness of strangers and working in a grocery store gave the story some sense of a happy end, although the sisters' final days are unbearably sad.
There are plenty of film clips and still photos in the movie, including one dazzling shot of the young Daisy and Violet dressed in black, scuttling across the street like some kind of two headed spider, giving an indication of how strange they must have appeared in their heyday. There are also voice overs provided by Nancy Allen and Lea Thompson to approximate the thoughts of Daisy and Violet. When one recalls that they were "never petted or kissed" as babies, the real sorrow of the story hits like a brick. Bound By Flesh changed my feelings about Daisy and Violet. I now feel strangely paternal towards them. I wish I'd been around when they were babies, I would have petted them, and told them they were much more than cash cows.
Leslie Zemeckis has an interest in women who made a living with their bodies. For her next project I'd like to suggest the story of Mildred Burke, the queen of the lady wrestlers. It's a story that would combine the toughness of the burlesque era and the sadness of the Hilton story. I'm sure Zemeckis would knock it right out of the park.