"Hollywoodland" & "The Black Dahlia" -
A black limousine glides noiselessly between the silent trees that line the narrow, twisting road. Its steady headlights briefly strafe the street sign ahead, reflecting the words, Mulholland Drive. Only a short time earlier and under a starless sky, the limo was cruising over Sunset Boulevard.
Wait a minute! Why am I putting words down to describe the opening of a truly memorable movie that's already been conceived, written, shot, edited, distributed and seen on the big screen? Could it be that my reverie of opening moments of David Lynch's mind boggling, "Mulholland Drive" provide the venue for two new movies just hitting screens across America? Yes, that must be it! But, not only is the location the same for each new film, the period in which their stories unfold are separated by only a few years' time. Both pictures are taken from actual events which have perpetuated the noirishness of Hollywood; each arriving in the wake of such acclaimed works as "Chinatown," "L.A. Confidential," "The Usual Suspects," and the scene-opener itself, "Mulholland Drive."
Each new title, "Hollywoodland" and "The Black Dahlia," conjures up images of glamorous stars, big studios, big bucks and other things that make life worthwhile, including murder and depravity. First, "Hollywoodland."
He was Stuart Tarleton in "Gone With The Wind," and Sergeant Maylon Stark in "From Here To Eternity;" insignificant roles for significant motion pictures. Later, he would play a significant character on the then-burgeoning medium of 1950s television, but never to be rid of his own internalized insignificance.
That changed on the evening of June 16, 1959 in the bedroom of his Los Angeles home when George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to the head. Yes, George Reeves, the man who played Superman on television, and was the hero of every young boy on any block in America. To this day, although his death was ruled a suicide by LAPD, no one knows for sure it wasn't an accident or murder.
Allen Coulter takes on "Hollywoodland" as his first big screen assignment, directing executive producer, Paul Bernbaum's screenplay. Parallel threads tell an inconclusive tale of Reeves' demise when, for my money, only one storyline would have been enough.
Adrien Brody actually has the lead as a composite of several men who tried to keep Reeves' death in the L.A. papers and sustain the notion that it was something other than a depressed film actor doing himself in. Brody, the Oscar-winner in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," plays Louis Simo, a seedy, publicity-seeking gumshoe of sorts who's retained by Reeves' mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith). Mrs. Bessolo (Reeves' real name) doesn't buy the police finding that her son killed himself. And Simo wants to make some money off of her need, as well as bring as much notoriety his way as possible.
Mrs. Mannix is also Reeves' lover. She buys him the Hollywood Hills bungalow where George's life ends. But Eddie doesn't mind about the relationship that his wife and Reeves enjoy; and in one scene, brings his girl friend along to dine with his wife and George. Nothing like a double-date Hollywood style, I always say.
Brody's Simo is sort of a modern day TV series character with appended family problems: ex-wife (Molly Parker) and an impressionable young son (Zack Mills), who is shattered by the death of the Man of Steel. This part of the story, as I said earlier, is unnecessary for what the film is really about, since the other roles are cast like you'd imagine they'd be for a 50s noir Hollywood myth movie. Moreover, the parallel stories confuse in terms of whether one is pure flashback about Reeves or a construct of Louis Simo's mind as he wonders about the life and the probable motivations for the death of television's Superman. Later frames of the movie imply the latter.
Checking out the alternatives for Reeves' death requires the listing of another character: Leonore Lemmon (actual name), Reeves' younger, single, girl friend whom he was about to marry. (Ms. Lemmon was present at his home when Reeves succumbed.) Robin Tunney plays Leonore, and, if she'd been given more face time in the picture, may well have stolen the show. It's one of the best performances in an all 'round well-acted film.
So now, your multiple-choice quiz on what happened in George Reeves' bedroom late one spring night in 1959 not far from Mulholland Drive.
An honorable mention goes to the well-aging Joe Spano (Hill Street Blues) for his remarkable, yet understated turn as Howard Strickling, a powerful, behind-the-scene damage control man for MGM. Spano's brief times on screen bring to mind the Bush family's real-life aide-de-camp, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, minus the Texas drawl.
"Hollywoodland," a title that somehow says, "There must be something better," has another problem. All of its supposition is really fascinating; unfortunately, more fascinating than the layout of the film allows it to be. The mood, albeit, is quite good. And there's a slight difference in the way Coulter crafts its look and feel from the "current" time in which Brody is seen, to the material pre-dating it with Affleck---a la CBS' "Cold Case." And the original music by Marcelo Zarvos is just really fine; as fine as any film noir music track. Reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's score for Polanski's "Chinatown," it's awash with muted trumpet and flugelhorn which ride atop a lush, strings bed of seventh chords (major and minor) for all of us to wallow in---painfully, of course.
The Short murder has yet to be solved, although there've been several who either believe they know who killed the wannabe actress, or have "solved" the case through fiction on the page. That's how James Ellroy figured out whodunit in his 1987 novel of the same name. Josh Friedman, who also wrote the screenplay for Stephen Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," has taken Ellroy's book and provided Brian De Palma with a new project to direct.
There's quite a cast who play the real and fictional characters in "The Black Dahlia." Josh Hartnett (Bucky) and Aaron Eckhart (Lee) play two tough LAPD dicks working the Short murder. Scarlett Johansson (Kay) and Hilary Swank (Madeleine) are steamy, young woman either connected to Hartnett and Eckhart in a personal way or through the investigation. Scarlett does her Lana Turner and Hilary does either Paulette Goddard or Hedy Lamarr, I'm not sure which. Swank's character, in the movie, is sort of a look-a-like of the real-life Short, as played in the film by Mia Kirshner. She, in turn, has some of the striking facial qualities of the actual victim, who is called Betty in the motion picture. (Got all that?)
Even more confusing is the over-freighting of what really happened in 1947 with the film's fictional threads in order, I guess, to fatten up the script to make a movie that runs just over two hours---well, that's too long. But we've got Mr. Over-the-Top himself here: Brian De Palma in the director's chair. Mr. De Palma is about as subtle making a movie as Richard Strauss was writing orchestral music.
I found myself laughing in "The Black Dahlia" sometimes, especially when a well-known contemporary singer shows up (in tuxedo and top hat) crooning Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" in an L.A. Lesbian nightclub. Then theres another scene made for chuckles when Madeleine takes Bucky home to dine with her wealthy family. I wondered, while watching it, that maybe, those few minutes of "Dahlia" were directed by Mel Brooks. It would've fit well for Harvey Korman to appear from the kitchen as the butler serving the meal. The scene's a scream, but not one of horror.
The film does edge toward Horror, however, with the fictional sequence which reveals the who, where and how of the torturous, tragic killing of Betty Short. And even with its grisly affect, I found myself almost laughing at the scene's heavy-handed style regarding the death of a real person nearly sixty years ago. I hope the family and/or heirs of Elizabeth Short (She's interred in an Oakland, CA cemetery.) have been generously compensated.
Another honorable mention should be filed in this report---a line that will long echo through the Halls of Hollywood. When, after Hartnett says to Swank in a dim motel room, "I've been pointing my gun at a lot of people this week and I haven't shot anyone yet," Ms. Swank, in Oscarian splendor rejoins, " Well, I know you'd rather f*** me than kill me!"
After a quick and collective "Amen," all of us filed from the screening room out to the black limo waiting to take us up to David Lynch's place.