Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Reel People: Guy Pearce is Harry Houdini

The film is Death Defying Acts, directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Harry Houdini was born in 1874 to a Jewish family in Budapest although Houdini claimed he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin where his family immigrated to in 1878. His birth name was Erich Weise. He was one of seven siblings and his father was a rabbi.

The Weise family eventually moved to New York City, upon which Erich (Harry) picked up a number of odd jobs, including an apprenticeship with locksmith. Harry began his magic career in 1894 as Harry Houdini. He shortly met his wife Bess (Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner) who was also a magician and she became his stage assistant.

Houdini billed himself as the "king of cards" at first doing a number of card tricks. In 1899 he made an elephant disappear in London with a pool beneath the stage. Shortly after he met Martin Beck who advised him to work on his escape tricks and booked him on the vaudeville circuit. Houdini's stagemanship became very impressive as he toured Europe doing a number of handcuff and lock tricks.

Houdini now had amassed enough wealth to live a good life with his wife in New York, and performing all over the world. In 1908 Houdini began tricks were he would lock himself in water filled containers that now carried with it, the possibility of death. He claimed he made his escapes by dematerializing. Over the years Houdini made many variations to these tricks.

In the 1920's Houdini became a "ghost buster" of sorts trying to prove spiritualists, psychics, and mediums had no spiritual power at all, but were relying on tricks to fool people. He would often work covertly with police and reports to capture these people in their con. He also worked with Scientific America to challenge anyone to prove that they had supernatural abilities. In Houdini's book A Magician Among the Saints Houdini Chronicled his efforts to debunk the Boston-based medium, Mina Crandon.

In his life Houdini also worked in and on a few movies. Houdini's films never amounted to any major success but he was later awarded a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.

Houdini died on Halloween in 1926. It is generally agreed that he died of appendicitis but there is debate over the cause, and also whether that was his true cause of death.

The upcoming movie Death Defying Acts occurs in 1926 in the later years of Houdini's life (he would've been in his early 50s). Along with Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Scottish psychic Mary McGregor who tries to con Houdini in a highly publicized seance to contact his dead mother. The film also features busy young British actress Saoirse Ronan, as the daughter of Zeta-Jones' character.

Will this biographical film earn some critical awards attention this year for Pearce's portrayal of this Real (Reel) Person?

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John DeMarco said...

Guy Pearce is an interesting choice to play the bulky Houdini, since Pearce looks anorexic in most of his films.

Out Of Jersey said...

I agree with John, Pearce is an interesting choice. then again Harvey keitel once played Houdini.

And I thought it was a fact the cause was from being hit in the stomanch when not prepared?

Terence Towles Canote said...

I have to admit that I have been fascinated by Houdini since childhood, although I have to agree that Guy Pearce is a bit thin for the part. Of course, I suppose he could always put on weight (at least if his metabolism isn't like mine...). Still, I'll probably give Death Defying Acts a look.

Will said...

Thanks for the heads-up here.
Like many young boys, I once wanted to be a magician like Houdini.
I watched a TV movie about his life maybe 15 years ago that I remember being quite interesting.
Gillian Armstrong is pretty talented. I'm giving this one a chance.

Anonymous said...

Just a minor late quibble. Saoirse Ronan is 100% Irish, not British. Just so you don't get it wrong in the future for when the lovely bones comes out.

da magish said...

Decent post but you just need to correct a few facts...

Harry last name was Weisz. (later Americanized to Weiss)

His wife Bess was never a magician, she was a showgirl in a group called the Floral Sisters.

He made the elephant "Jennie" disappear at the London Hippodrome around 1917 (Without the aid of a pool beneath. Which is what that statement sounded like.)

He never made any claims about escaping thru dematerialization...
other people did, and it in fact was something in a lawsuit in a German court.

And he DID in fact die of a ruptured appendix.
Just the cause of the rupture has been glamourize due mostly in fact to the old Tony Curtis movie of him dying in the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
In actual fact it was probabvly due to a blow to his side from a punch from a college kid challenging him backstage.

Sorry for the corrections... but we magicians are anal about such things when it comes to our hero.

; ]

Anonymous said...

Saoirse Ronan is IRISH, Ironically, her name means Freedom in Gaelic, as in Freedom from British Rule...and whilst I don't mind a blogger making the mistake, the fact that she was nominated for "Best British suporting actress" at the ALFS is damn right blood boiling.