Leslie Zemeckis, actor, writer, producer and director, is very much of this time with a successful professional career in the disciplines in which she works. But she is fascinated by a major part of American entertainment history that few people today remember — vaudeville. And that fascination has imbued her project and career choices.
As a producer, writer and director, Zemeckis brings her documentary “Bound by Flesh,” about the storied Siamese twins and vaudeville headliners Daisy and Violet Hilton to Idyllwild CinemaFest 2013. At one time in the 1920s and 30s the Hilton sisters were the highest paid act in vaudeville. They were also, through most of their career, the victims and virtual prisoners of unscrupulous managers. Zemeckis delves into the culture of vaudeville and how these two sisters, conjoined and never desirous of being separated, were a marquee brand, apparently rich and famous, but actually poor prisoners. She brings to life an art form and two of its stars that transfixed American audiences in the first half of the 20th century.
Vaudeville presented to family audiences “clean” variety entertainment, with an emphasis on comedy, but also featuring dancing, music, skits and shortened versions of theater classics. In its 50-year heyday, over 25,000 performers trod the vaudeville boards. It was the spawning ground for many subsequently famous stage, movie and television stars: George Burns and Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Judy Garland, Helen Hayes, Jack Benny, Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle and Bob Hope. “Vaudeville really entertained our country,” Zemeckis said, “and the story of the Hilton Sisters as major headliners was a big part of vaudeville history.”
Zemeckis has a passion for those times. Her previous film “Behind the Burly Q” examined vaudeville’s more risqué cousin burlesque through interviews with many of the women who teased and titillated predominantly male audiences with sexual innuendo and minimal costumes. At its base, as in vaudeville, burlesque also had a comic purpose, often poking fun at the reserved upper classes.
“I got interested in burlesque and then talked to all these women who had been in it,” Zemeckis said. “They had not talked to anybody [as part of interviews]. And it [burlesque] wasn’t just strippers, there were also variety acts. They were these bright happy girls.” Zemeckis said she was grateful to have caught them for the documentary, since many have now passed. “At least 12 I interviewed are now gone.”
And to complete the picture, actor and performer Zemeckis has her own tribute to burlesque. She sings, dances and raises audience eyebrows in her cabaret show “Staar,” an homage to the great women who established careers in the genre — inspired by the salty suggestive comedy of Mae West and the sexy elegance of Gypsy Rose Lee. Zemeckis’ immersion and interest in vaudeville and burlesque, the entertainment forms that dominated American entertainment in the early to mid 20th century, is not that of a dilettante. She finds the money, writes the script, walks the walk and can strut her stuff.
Zemeckis said she is finishing up with the festival circuit for “Bound by Flesh.” “I’m looking forward to being In Idyllwild,” she said.
The book version of “Behind the Burly Q,” which she also wrote, comes out in early 2013.
Zemeckis is the wife of director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “Contact,” “Back to the Future,” and from the current awards season, “Flight.”)