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A Russian Film Comes Up With a Crazy New Kind of Publicity Gimmick

Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky was something of a Russian Johnny Cash times Serge Gainsbourg — a folk hero and a scandalous star at once. And, like both Cash and Gainsbourg, he's getting a lavish biopic of his own in his homeland. Except this one (scripted by the late singer's son Nikita and opening in Russia in July with a title that roughly translates to Vysotsky: Be Thankful You're Alive) comes with an epic publicity gimmick: The filmmakers are refusing to identify the lead actor. At all. Instead, Vysotsky is played by an uncredited performer wearing elaborate, CGI-augmented latex makeup — reportedly cast from the singer's actual death mask, for extra creepiness. (That's him in the picture above.) The film's handsome trailer — see it after the jump — came out last week and doesn't clarify much: It has more glimpses of Vysotsky's famous blue Mercedes (one of the only two in eighties seventies Moscow; the other one was Brezhnev's) than shots of his face (he's the long-haired guy in the trailer’s second shot, papers in hand). But judging by the glimpses you do see, the mask/CGI is effective: He really does look like Vysotsky, as opposed to an actor in a wig.

Given that the singer’s son is heavily involved in the production, the decision to hide the actor could have been a creative choice: Let the viewers see the man himself, not a tribute band. But, of course, it also happens to be one hell of a marketing stunt. Needless to say, the Russian blogosphere is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing, i.e., obsessing to the point of measuring various leading men's earlobes to figure out who is under that mask. One source we contacted, a Russian film producer, maintains that the actor in question is Sergei Bezrukov, a reasonably big name who seems to specialize in portraying real-life characters but looks nothing like the iconic singer. For now, the studio doesn't seem interested in confirming or denying anything, and why would it be? Thirty years after his death, Vysotsky is still a bigger deal in Russia than anyone who could possibly play him, so the audience will come for the subject and not the star.