Here is a downbeat, three-character period piece with some pertinent insights into our modern era. Unofficially inspired by Mrs. Florence Aadland's 1961 book The Big Love and other sources, it relays the sad story of Beverly Aadland (the author's daughter), an obscure chorus-line dancer in movies such as South Pacific (1958) and Marjorie Morningstar (1958). Beverly had her one brush with fame at the tender age of 15, when fading icon Errol Flynn -- a man 33 years her senior and a notorious roue -- saw her, decided that he needed more than anything to possess her, and took her as a lover and protege. According to Florence's book, he also planned to make Beverly the fourth Mrs. Flynn. Just before his death at the age of 50,†Flynn wrote a makeshift supplementary will that bequeathed a large sum of money to Beverly, but because the Hollywood star neglected to sign the document or initial the pages prior to dying, attorneys tossed it out.
As co-scripted and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (the pair previously made QuinceaÒera), the onscreen dramatization of these events begins around 1959 or 1960, just after Errol's demise, with Florence (Susan Sarandon)†dictating The Big Love to co-author/transcriber Tedd Thomey (Jason Davis). It then flashes back to 1957, to observe the history of the two-year relationship between Beverly (Dakota Fanning) and Errol (Kevin Kline). The dramatic focus of the picture involves Florence's aggressive attempts to push her daughter into the limelight by any means necessary and at any cost, including the sanctity of her own marriage. We learn that this stage mother inducted her child into the industry right from the cradle, in such capacities as an infant soap model. So extreme were her attempts to "sell" Beverly that when Flynn began a transparent seduction of the girl that would have qualified as statutory rape at the time -- vis-‡-vis many casting-couch-style promises of turning his discovery into a star -- Florence deliberately looked the other way. She also failed to acknowledge one small obstacle to her daughterís pursuit of fame: Although Beverly was physically attractive enough to make it onto the screen, she was one of the least capable actresses in movie history.
While the picture is set in the late í50s, the ingredients are here for an analogous critique of the contemporary American obsession with fame and celebrity, and up to a point, we do get this. The fact that the material stops short of a full-scale evisceration of Hollywood -- of the kind, say, that was present in Graeme Clifford's harrowing Frances (1982) -- is attributable to two factors. One is the gestalt of Beverly's journey itself -- the story doesn't lead up to any personal cataclysm for the young woman, merely considerable heartache, disappointment, and a lack of name recognition for posterity. Another mitigating element is the complexity that Kline brings to the role of Flynn. It would have been all too facile for the film to portray the one-time matinee idol as a creepy, lecherous rake with an ephebophiliac streak (and that may have been the original intention), but Kline transcends the apparent boundaries of the script by lending undercurrents of poignancy and sympathy to his interpretation. His Flynn seems to reach out to Beverly not as sexual prey, but as the reattainment of youth that has irrevocably passed him by. And although it would be naive to tag the Errol character as innocent of any manipulation, he seems less a skirt-chasing villain than a self-deluded victim of the same hunger that has consumed Florence and Beverly, albeit on the other end of the spectrum: If they are desperately attempting to latch onto fame for the first time, he's trying everything in his power to obtain it once again in middle age, even if that means achieving it by discovering and mentoring a new starlet. Florence and Errol share a crippling blindness -- both in regard to Beverly's lack of talent, Florence to the full extent of Errol's physical involvement with her daughter, and Errol to the depths of his own self-centered motivations.
The Last of Robin Hood actually recalls two earlier, more accomplished movies: Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy and Bob Fosse's Star 80. Both predecessors are about ne'er-do-wells and their lust for public recognition and approbation regardless of the consequences, as well as the heartbreak that lies in the chasm between the media darlings and the nobodies, the haves and the have-nots. If Robin Hood feels less memorable, that is only because it is a smaller film by its nature -- slighter in its developments, lower-key in its observations. It's a minor work, albeit one with some haunting truths at its center and superb performances by the three leads that help lift it above the realm of mediocrity.
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