MOVIE: Bound by Flesh (2012)

boundbyfleshThis fascinating documentary uses the true story of the Hilton Sisters, famous conjoined twins from the early 20th century, as the framework for a presentation on the history of “freak shows” in America.

Born in 1908, the sisters, Daisy and Violet, were immediately rejected by their mother, who, upon seeing them literally “joined at the hip,” decided they were a punishment from God and would have nothing to do with them.  Her boss at the time, a woman named Mary Hilton, had offered to buy the twins from her, surely seeing in them right away the potential to make a few bucks. The mom agreed, and the sisters were taken away.

Mary owned a pub and immediately set the infants up in a back room, charging admission to come and gawk at them.  The moment they were old enough to start learning how to be entertainers, she had them take lessons in singing, piano, saxophone, tap dancing, and more, and began making them perform on stages across England by the time they were about 3 years old.

Her husband, Myer Meyers, got custody of the girls when Mary died, and immediately began a campaign of physical and emotional abuse to keep them in line. He forced them to perform almost constantly, limiting their exposure to others who might cause them to question their experiences.  For years and years, the girls were stars — isolated, lonely stars — ultimately branching out into vaudeville (and later burlesque), where they performed with a huge range of giant stars, including Harry Houdini and Bob Hope.

When movies exploded onto the entertainment scene, the sisters managed to land a couple of roles — starring in the cult hit Freaks and also a film loosely based on their lives (Chained for Life).  But their acting career never took off, for understandable reasons, and by the early 1950s, as vaudeville jobs began to dry up, Daisy and Violet found themselves reduced to performing their by-then very outdated acts at drive-in theaters screening one of their films, where they were often at best ignored and at worst hooted from the stage.

Though medical advances had long ago made it possible for them to be separated, they had always refused, something I completely understand, being a twin myself (never conjoined, but I would find it difficult to sever by choice any element of the bond my sister and I have).  Their later years were filled with semi-sordid staged marriages for media attention, an unwanted pregnancy that led many to speculate openly and graphically about what sex with a conjoined twin would be like, and final careers as clerks at a small-town grocery store.

As the sisters rolled into their 40s, they suddenly found themselves essentially penniless — a succession of greedy managers had walked away with nearly all their income and they’d lived a party-hardy lifestyle for many years as well.  The last few years of their lives, they lived reclusively in a small town in North Carolina, where they depended largely on the kindness of their neighbors for subsistence.  They never made it to their 50s.

This engrossing film tries to present both sides of the sideshow/freak show coin — the nasty, exploitative side, and the side in which terribly disabled people were given the chance to attain a degree of autonomy they would likely never have seen if not for their willingness to turn themselves into exhibits for entertainment.

It’s hard to say what the lives of the Hilton sisters would have been like without Mary Hilton’s eye on their market potential — if they had been loved by their mother, would that have been enough to make a happy life for them?  Or would they have merely been seen as “freaks” and rejected by others anyway, with none of the upsides of celebrity and fame?  They certainly had happy years, as well as hard ones.

I suppose that’s the question the film ultimately leaves the viewer with, really — was it worth it?  I wonder how they would’ve answered, and I’m sorry we’ll never really know. The story of their death is certainly a heartbreaking one, as well as a testament, again, to the intensely powerful bond of being a twin. “At least they had each other” seems kind of trite, except, you know what? It sure makes a difference.

Very interesting documentary about two very interesting young women living in a very interesting time.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Documentary
Director: Leslie Zemeckis

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One Response to “MOVIE: Bound by Flesh (2012)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    (Liz)
    Your thoughts on what kind of lives the sisters might have lived, and what would have ultimately been best for them, are very interesting and insightful. It’s too easy to pass judgement in a situation such as this, without looking at different perspectives, and facing reality. Also, the way you could relate to the sisters’ bond, because you’re a twin, too, made your points even more valid. You’re headed towards writing a formidable book. I don’t know what it will be about, but whatever subject you choose, it will be awesome!

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