"You Don't Know Jack," a new HBO film about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. "Dr. Death," boasts a cast with two Academy Award recipients and an Oscar winning director. It had so much advance buzz that one of those stars, Al Pacino, was featured in a profile on "60 Minutes" that drew an audience of 11 million viewers last Sunday. Overall, No feature film in the last six months has enjoyed more launch-week publicity.
And yet, the Oscar-winning director, Baltimore-born Barry Levinson, says he doesn't think he could make a movie like "You Don't Know Jack" for theatrical release any more.
"Here's the reality of it, because we're talking about a changing landscape in terms of what theatrical is and what supposedly television does,' Levinson said in an interview last week. "I mean, theatrical would never make this movie … Theatrically, they don't want to do movies about people any more… So, HBO has taken over a certain area that theatricals have abandoned completely."
(Levinson and Pacino as Kevorkian on the set of "You Don't Know Jack." HBO Photo.)
Good for HBO and good for the audience, because this docu-drama about a pathologist who made headlines in the 1990s assisting terminally ill patients looking to commit suicide is one great film. And we would be poorer as a culture if productions like this, which not only entertain but also help us think coherently as a society about matters of life and death, were not getting made somewhere in the media by and with our finest artists.
For Baltimore viewers one of the best things about this engaging look at the slightly eccentric but highly-principled Kevorkian is that it has strong echoes of such Levinson feature films as "Diner" and "Tin Men," two of the most beloved productions from his Baltimore Quartet. In fact, one of the film's best scenes is set in a diner, a Bob's Big Boy in Detroit, where Kevorkian lived and helped people die. And even though Levinson did not write the screenplay, his sensibility infuses every frame of the scene.
As Kevorkian and his sister engage in an intense, emotional and life-altering argument, Levinson frames the two of them in the diner booth so that the viewer is always aware of the oversized statue of the cartoon-like Big Boy standing right outside the picture window.
The juxtaposition of the Big Boy and these two passionate characters in heated debate not only reminds you of how foolish we can all be in what we think of as our most righteous moments, it is also a more cosmic reminder of the absurdity of life and death -- not to mention the goofy crassness of popular culture. I'm not trying to place Levinson in the Theater of the Absurd here, just trying to suggest that as much as Levinson can make you smile, he is doing it with serious commentary -- not cheap Hollywood "Mall Cop" humor.
Of course, it is easier to look like a great director when you have an inspired leading performance like the one Pacino delivers as Kevorkian. Everything you think you know about the over-the-top, roaring, sexually-charged, East-Coast-man performances by Pacino over the years, forget it. That Pacino is gone, as he sheds all that on-screen persona to become Kevorkian -- and remind you that at 69-years-of-age (he turns 70 on Sunday), he is still one of our greatest actors. Give him the Emmy for best lead performance in made-for-TV movie or mini-series now, and be done with it.
In that diner scene, Pacino plays opposite Brenda Vaccaro, who has a key role as Kevorkian's sister, Margo. Their argument is a jazz performance -- two splendid soloists, playing off and against each other, pushing each higher, higher and never stepping on the other's notes.
And, again, Levinson keeps pumping more and more energy, emotion and passion into the scene with the camera. If anyone thought that Levinson, who turned 68 this month, was at or near the end of his career, they won't after seeing this splendid film. This is the work of a great, vital and engaged American artist – in conversation with some of the screen's most creative performers, including Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, in addition to Pacino and Vaccaro.
"When we were in rehearsal, Brenda Vaccaro said, 'You know, I came across this big argument,'" Levinson said. "And it was in one of the books she was reading about Kevorkian . It said there was a big falling-out [between Kevorkian and his sister] in Bob's Big Boy."
Levinson says he and screenwriter Adam Mazur talked about the argument and then they had a researcher check it out factually. And the book Vaccaro was reading was right: It was an important and dramatic moment in Kevorkian's life. Kevorkian never married, and his sister Margo provided emotional and practical ballast. Without her, Kevorkian tended to go "off keel," as Levinson put it.
"So, that scene in Bob's Big Boy evolved out of the rehearsal process," Levinson says. "And one of the good things about having good actors, smart actors, is that they can bring up some things like that, and you go, 'Hey there's something valid here.' And it really enhances the film as it evolves."
True enough, as far as the contribution of the actors goes. But the genius of that scene really flows from the method Levinson has used in some of his best works, ranging from other biographical treatments like "Good Morning Vietnam," to the epic "Avalon." That scene is a microcosm of how Levinson managed to give us the history and the issue of physician-assisted suicide – without losing the man in "You Don't Know Jack."
"When you do these kinds of movies, there would be nothing worse than to make it like this is some big, important piece of work, " Levinson says. "And what I mean by that is that it needs to be as human as possible. So, the conversations that take place, like the one in the Bob's Big Boy scene where he [Kevorkian] and Margo really go at one another and argue like brother and sister might, you want that to be a messy conversation. It can't be manicured."
And that messiness is created in rehearsals, Levinson says: "Where I just wanted to break it down so that it felt like normal conversation where you're just making up stuff."
Nobody breaks on-screen language down for the ear like Levinson – not Quentin Tarantino in feature films, or David Simon in television, two of the best in their respective realms.
"So, that scene does include stuff that is of the moment and is partially ad-libbed into the text, " Levinson says. "And I couldn't even tell you where the text ends and the ad-libs begin, because they're so messed together -- which is kind of what I want just for my ear, so that it sounds like an argument that's a little bit irrational and emotional and kind of all over the place. I thought that would be an element that would make it as human as possible."
You thought right, Barry. And the result is a compelling and intensely human film about an out-of-the-mainstream man who is on an emotional and important mission that affects us all. Just the kind of film they don't show in theaters any more.
The film premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. Saturday. It also airs at 5:45 Sunday and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, with another 10 showings through May 16.