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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Can Reese Witherspoon catch the Peggy Lee 'Fever?'

August 10, 2010 |  1:56 pm

Reese_witherspoon Variety's Pamela McClintock has the news that Reese Witherspoon has joined forces with Fox 2000 to produce a biopic about singer Peggy Lee, best known for her sultry slow-burn rendition of "Fever." Witherspoon is clearly the driving force behind the project, having personally secured the rights for Lee's story from the singer's estate.

As usual, Variety manages to make the whole thing sound like a snooze, saying the film "will explore the professional and personal life of one of America's most iconic recording artists." Of course, if you know anything about Peggy Lee, you know that she wasn't just iconic -- she was a real kook. In fact, it's amazing that Hollywood hasn't jumped at the chance to tell her story already.

She was born to an alcoholic dad and raised by a nasty stepmother who as Lee once recounted "hit me over the head with a cast-iron skillet and beat me with a heavy leather razor strap with a metal end." Lee was a complicated woman who had bad luck with men -- four marriages in all -- but was unfailingly creative when it came to her music, not just writing a lot of her best material, but closely supervising the songs' arrangements and production.

Like a lot of artists, she was a high-maintenance type. Later in life, when her health began to fail, Lee had a number of unusual spiritual relationships with men, fulfilled by long middle-of-the-night phone calls. But, when all else failed, there was that voice, which composer Alec Wilder once said had such a hypnotic air that Lee sounded like "a streetwalker that you'd pass by, but if you ever stopped, you'd never leave."

The best news for me about the project is that it is being written and directed by Nora Ephron, who is old enough to have a firsthand appreciation of Lee's artistic gifts and proto-feminist appeal. The film would mark an intriguing continuation in Ephron's fascination with complicated women, which stretches from "Silkwood," which she wrote in the early 1980s for Mike Nichols, to last year's "Julie and Julia," which starred Meryl Streep as Julia Child. I'm betting Ephron could coax a great performance out of Witherspoon, who seems to have a real affinity for musicians, having been at her best playing June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line."

Here's Peggy Lee, in the carnal flesh, doing her signature hit:

Photo: Reese Witherspoon at a cancer research fundraiser in Beverly Hills earlier this year.

Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press

 

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