Many of us can relate to the awkwardness of pretending to be asleep while your roommate groans in ecstasy with a partner in your dorm room. However, not all of us can imagine living a life with an inescapable third wheel who prevents you from ever having a private moment. In Leslie Zemeckis’ second feature documentary, Bound by Flesh, we meet two women faced with such a situation, Violet and Daisy Hilton, two beautiful and talented twin starlets who were born joined at the hip. The film opens with the girls lamenting that no state or country will allow the legal marriage of one of the sisters to their loving partner. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the two sisters are inextricably linked, not just physically, but also emotionally, to the extent that even given the opportunity, separation is unthinkable.
Bound by Flesh unfolds chronologically from the conditions of their birth in Bristol, England and follows them on a winding and tumultuous path from freak shows, vaudeville, and the burlesque scene, to appearances at drive-in movies across the world. Through accounts by the twins’ goddaughter, various sideshow scholars, and one of their entertainment managers, we are given a window into the extraordinary lives of two women whose only advantage in life was also their handicap. Sold by their horrified mother at birth to an entrepreneurial midwife, the twins were put on display almost immediately and were later trained to dance, sing, and perform for increasingly large crowds. With their giant bows, perfect ringlets, and charming innocence, they were the highest grossing act in Vaudeville at the height of their careers.
Like many stars who lost their childhood to the spotlight, the twins were ill-prepared to handle fame and independence. After suing their legal guardians and winning emancipation, they indulged in everything they had never known, going to night-clubs and indulging in alcohol, cigarettes, and numerous lovers. In their attempts at normalcy and privacy, they even had a customized phone booth built in their home that would allow them to separate themselves from one another in order to have privacy with their lovers. Without the dictatorial influence of their former guardians, they endured a string of unscrupulous managers who ultimately left them desolate. Fighting to stay relevant in spite of the decline of the Side Show to the popularization of film, the girls starred in two exploitation films, Freaks (1932) and Chained for Life (1952), the latter of which was the girls last far-flung attempt to remain relevant in the entertainment world.
While the film is certainly a bio-pic on women of unique and unusual circumstances whose life experiences span the Great Depression and the pre-internet age, one can’t help but relate to the universal human longing for love, success, and freedom. The story of people dismantled by fame and the public’s grotesque fascination with both the “Other” and celebrity culture remains relevant today. Zemeckis presents us with a deeply humanizing and empathetic picture of two individuals whose bizarre life experiences can’t fail to evoke the viewer’s own need for love, approval, and freedom.