Just as video killed the radio star, celluloid ruined sideshow freaks. Whether cinema’s displacement of vaudeville and carnival attractions at the top of rural America’s entertainment heap was a positive development is up for debate in Leslie Zemeckis’s sympathetic but unambitious documentary Bound by Flesh, a cradle-to-grave portrait of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
The arc of the other Hilton sisters’ rise and fall — from their early heyday as one of the best-paid attractions of the Roaring Twenties to their ignoble last years eking out a living as small-town grocery-store clerks in North Carolina — should be familiar to anyone who’s wasted an afternoon watching cable specials about forgotten child stars. (Those E! True Hollywood Story installments arguably boast better production values.)
Zemeckis flattens the sisters’ eventful lives into the stuff of cheap weepies, complete with a Dickensian childhood, a Svengali-esque manager, and a desperate baring of clothes. One male biographer goes on for too long in his drooling conjectures about the logistics of the twins’ sex lives, making it clear that Zemeckis isn’t interested in offering a respectful study of discrimination against disability, but will indulge a bit in the circus appeal of her subjects.
If Bound by Flesh sorely lacks the perspective of the physically atypical community, it’s at least a fascinating look at the transformations in the entertainment industry in the last century. It never became improper to gawk at unusual-looking people, but audiences were taught to ignore deformity — and stare ahead only at beauty.