Stevi Costa does a double bill of The Black Dahlia and Hollywoodland, based on two of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murders, and wonders: “How is it that these films have managed to make true crime so damn boring?”
Let me begin this review with a confession: I fucking love murder, you guys.
I’ve spent the past month writing about American Horror Story: Freak Show for my dissertation, and then trying to forget my dissertation woes by binge-watching American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson and listening to episode after episode of my new favorite podcast, My Favorite Murder.
I love police procedurals and detective fiction. They’re my favorite guilty pleasure. I am simultaneously fascinated by the extreme terror that humanity is capable of, and comforted by the fantasy of justice that these genres perpetuate. When we see truly terrible things happen in fictional crime narratives, we know that by the end of the episode (or, in longer form, at the end of the season or series), justice of some kind will be restored. This is comforting because we live in a world in which justice is all too often not delivered. (People vs. OJ and Serial are excellent explorations of how justice can be bent and shaped by who tells the best story, for instance.) So unsolved mysteries and cold cases are especially fascinating because these things bend the paradigm of the genre. They deny us that comfort. They leave us with questions.
This week, amid my People vs. OJ binge-watch, I set out to review two films that tackle two of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved crimes: the Black Dahlia case and the murder of George Reeves. Back in the summer of 2006, Hollywood decided that they also fucking loved murder and released Brian DePalma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia and the lesser-known indie film Hollywoodland in the same week. The Black Dahlia covers two fictional detectives, Bucky Bleichart (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), who wind up on the Dahlia case, and how their investigation tears apart their happy love triangle with the beautiful Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). It is narrated in noir-style voiceover by super bland Josh Hartnett and focuses primarily on the investigation itself. Hollywoodland details both fictional detective Louis Simo’s (Adrien Brody) investigation into the mysterious death of TV Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) and imagines the relationships that Reeves had with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of famous studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), and a young New York tartlet named Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) that may have led to his death. Dahlia invents a totally wackadoo and hilarious solution to the case involving the mad wife of a Scottish real estate mogul, whose daughter Madeline (Hilary Swank) is the film’s femme fatale, while Hollywoodland leaves the murder unsolved, but heavily implies that Eddie Mannix may have applied one of his famous fixes to Mr. Reeves.
As I sat down to watch these two films about two famously unsolved murders, I wondered: How is it that these films have managed to make true crime so damn boring? One answer may be that both films try very hard to solve these cold cases, and therefore miss out on what’s actually so compelling about them: the mystery. But I think another is that the lead detectives in both are total drips, and that presents a larger problem for the genre. The thing that makes detective fiction work as a genre is the detective. They must be far smarter than we are (or just as clever, as part of the joy in reading/watching a detective story is solving the crime along with or before the characters do), and either completely gruff and tough (like the hard-boiled detectives in the Phillip Marlowe vein), sexy and streetwise (like Easy Rawlins, or Carl Hiassin’s comedic leads), or clever and resourceful (like a Veronica Mars). Even if the detective is kind of a dick (see Sherlock Holmes), the reader/viewer must respect them because we believe in their expertise. I don’t respect any of the detectives in Black Dahliawoodland (which is what I will now call this pair of films).
The first 30 minutes of Black Dahlia is exposition that sets up the love triangle between Blanchard, Bleichart and Kay Lake. Bleichart is a first-generation American with a senile German father. He really wants a job on a new beat, so he can make enough money to send his dad to a good old folks’ home. He is an amateur boxer, and he once fought Blanchard in a match – a match Bleichart famously lost. The chief of the LAPD decides that the two men – dubbed Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice by the local press – should have a rematch a publicity stunt for his re-election campaign. If Bleichart loses the fight, he’ll get a hefty sum of money. If he wins, he’ll get a job in Warrants. What’s a guy to do? Though Bleichart does not want to throw the fight, he loses anyway when Blanchard decks him in the mouth and punches out his front teeth. And guess what? Because Bleichart is such a noble dude, because he didn’t throw the fight, he gets both the money AND the job on Warrants as Blanchard’s partner. Daddy goes to a nice rest home in Reseda, and Bleichart and Blanchard become best buddies. They do everything together, and Blanchard’s girl, Kay, is always there. “Kay was always between us, but never in the middle,” Bucky’s voiceover declares. I love that line, in part because the love triangle is the most interesting part of this detective duo, and in part because it recognizes the ways in which women broker homosocial bonds between men in detective fiction as a genre. Bleichart and Blanchard come upon the Dahlia’s corpse while working another case, and Blanchard becomes obsessed with it because his own sister was murdered. The case drives a wedge between the two men, and drives Kay into Bucky’s arms . . . and then Bucky into the arms of femme fatale Madeline, who he notices dressed up like the Dahlia at a lesbian club during his investigation.
Bleichart and Blanchard are obvious doubles, and their mutual attraction to Kay is simply one way in which this manifests. They’re both bland white dudes with no interests or opinions outside of policework, and flimsy attempts at rounder characterization (Bleichart’s senile father, Blanchard’s murdered sister). They look nice in suits and hats, but nothing compels me about their personalities, or their capacity for police work. Rarely, in fact, do we see them doing actual police work. There’s one stake-out, which ends in a murdered suspect, and several scenes of Bleichart watching the old audition tapes of Elizabeth Short, but that’s about it. The film provides me with little reason to like these dudes, relying too much on its slavish devotion to the style of the genre, rather than its content. Aaron Eckhart is great, and really enlivens a poorly drawn part just simply by being affable, which makes it a real bummer that he’s the secondary lead and not our main detective. Instead, that part goes to Josh Hartnett, who people liked for some reason around the turn of the millennium, and who totally sucks. I can’t think of many actors that I find more boring than Hartnett.
Hollywoodland’s Louis Simo is also not much of a prize as a detective. The film tries to make me like him by drawing him as a lone wolf, a guy who used to work for some of Hollywood’s top investigative teams but has since gone rogue, but I don’t really buy his objections to working for “the man.” Simo is a loser detective, which is a tough character choice. I’ve certainly seen this work – the lone wolf, anti-justice system vigilante type – but Simo isn’t so much a loser because he disagrees with the corruption of the justice system or the Hollywood studios. He’s kind of just a loser: a divorced dad, a detective with no actual office who works out of his girlfriend’s apartment, a dude who left his former agency because he blabbed to the press. Brody tries to play him like he’s some hard-boiled, gruff and tough street cop who just can’t help but buck the system, which isn’t quite in the text, and I think it’s really hard to pull that off in box-cut button-downs and shabby tweed coats. Simo, at least, is clever. Because he’s not a cop, he does some down and dirty investigating, pretending to work for a movie star client in order to find out who bought George Reeves a gold watch engraved with the famous line from Sunset Boulevard, “Mad About the Boy.” (The ruse is that his employer wanted to have the same watch to remember George by, because they were such good friends.) Simo, too, can see that Reeves didn’t commit suicide, eyeing the extra bullet holes and blood spatter at the crime scene. But even the scenes with his ex-wife and son, which are attempts to make Simo likeable, don’t read as genuine because Brody is so committed to his grumbly hard-boiled persona. We’re meant to understand his devotion to this investigation means more to him than just money because his son is so deeply affected by Superman’s death, but it’s hard to buy. Brody just has no chemistry with kids, and kid actors are almost universally awful. So it’s kind of a lose-lose situation.
Aside from our boring-ass detectives, I like many performances in both of these films by the female characters. I’ve always loved a good femme fatale, and having seen Hilary Swank make her career playing boyish women or transguys, I enjoyed seeing her take on a combination of Rita Hayworth and Katherine Hepburn, filtered through Brian DePalma’s perverse lens. As Maddie, she’s both refined and elegant, as well as edgy and depraved. The character herself is interesting – an heiress so bored with her fortune that she dabbles in sex work, picking up johns and janes who might want to sleep with a woman who looks like the dead Dahlia. The idea of “slumming it” while actually earning money she obviously doesn’t need is interesting to her, and it makes her compelling. When we meet her fucked-up family, we understand how Maddie’s nighttime activities might be far more fun for her, and far more freeing. I like lots of Swank’s choices with this role, from her voice to her physical affectations.
I likewise think Diane Lane is great as Toni Mannix in Hollywoodland. Toni is a great role for an older actress. She’s totally in charge of her sexuality, and gets what she wants without being obsessively controlling. The watch she gives George is engraved with the very phrase that Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond engraves on a watch for her kept man, and I love this as an in-joke that both makes a point of how similar the George-Toni romance is to the Norma-Joe non-romance, but also how different it is. George likes Toni’s attention and affection, and Toni likes to give it. Nonetheless, she isn’t thrilled when George decides to move to New York after Superman’s cancelation, and is less thrilled to see him return to Hollywood with Robin Tunney’s Leonore Lemmon on his arm. Tunney is also great at playing a character who also looks a little like the Dahlia and is a total floozy, riding George Reeves like the meal ticket she knows he is.
The best performance in Black Dahlia, however, goes to Scarlett Johansson, to whom I must offer a heartfelt mea culpa. Johansson was one of those actors I greatly disliked in her early adult career, and I can’t really explain why. I’m not big on Ghost World, and I really hated Lost in Translation, so maybe that’s why? I didn’t love her in Match Point or The Island, and I didn’t see Girl with the Pearl Earring, or Scoop. As she’s aged, however, she’s taken riskier choices in her career, and stopped playing love interests quite as much, becoming an action hero in her own right. Her vocal performance in Her, however, is the best thing she’s ever done, and I hate that she didn’t get a supporting actress nomination just for that. Because Johansson convinced me of her range as an actor with that performance alone – with just her voice. Since then, I’ve paid attention to what she does with her voice in some of her other roles. Her comedic turn in Hail, Caesar! (the Coen Brothers film about Eddie Mannix and communism that does not involve the murder of George Reeves) is delightful, for instance, as is her soft and serious vocal tone for Kay Lake in Black Dahlia. She’s perfect as the good blonde with a shady past she’s trying to leave behind, teasing her boys at times while offering them both emotional support. The noir girlfriend is often a thankless role, but Johansson just nails everything about it.
One thing that I have a hard time buying in The Black Dahlia is the notion that Hilary Swank “looks exactly like” the actress playing the Dahlia, Mia Kirshner of The L Word fame. If the film phrased this as the two actresses looking like each other, but not exactly like each other, I’d have an easier time believing it. But the fact that Maddie continually insists she looks exactly like the Dahlia is a bit more difficult because Mia Kirshner and Hilary Swank don’t look alike at all. Mia Kirshner and Robin Tunney, however, do look very similar, so the fact that Robin Tunney’s first appearance in Hollywoodland is in a black sequin dress with a dahlia-esque black fascinator seems an intentional nod to the other unsolved Hollywood murder motion picture debuting one week apart. The use of the phrase “exactly alike” bothers me in the context of genre, and Black Dahlia’s otherwise slavish devotion to the trappings of noir detective films. Here is a breaking point: In a classic noir, if we were meant to understand that Maddie looked “exactly like” the Dahlia, the two women (or the narrative insistence of two similar-looking female characters) would be played by the same actress. Think Kim Novak in Vertigo (who, by the way, is also named Maddie). But the resemblance here is not exact enough to require that, and so the dead girl and the living heiress are played by different actresses. Maybe that’s because the film needs to make a greater point of Maddie pretending to be the Dahlia, and her insistence that she looks “exactly like” the murdered Elizabeth Short is part of that fiction. I am grateful, then, for this tear in the film’s adherence to genre, if only because it gives me an absolute batshit insane performance by the queen of batshit insanity Mia Kirshner, whose portrayal of Elizabeth Short’s audition tapes is so misguided and unhinged that they cannot be described and truly must be seen.
I can’t recommend either of these films if you actually like noir, detective fiction, or if you fucking love murder. (Not nearly enough murder or detective work in either, really.) But if you want to see some actresses have a lot of fun while some white dudes just cash paychecks, be my guest.
– I can recommend the podcast You Must Remember This, though, if you like old Hollywood gossip. Check out “MGM Stories Part 8: Eddie Mannix” for more about the Mannixes and George Reeves.
– The design in Black Dahlia is far superior to the design in Hollywoodland. Jenny Beavens (who won an Academy Award for her work on Mad Max: Fury Road and wore a rhinestoned leather jacket to accept it because she gives no fucks about what anyone thinks of her) is fucking killing it with the hats in Black Dahlia. Plus, she’s backed by production designer Dante Ferretti, who makes a lot of money making Scorsese look good. I didn’t even notice who did the design on Hollywoodland, but I did like Molly Parker’s high-waisted capris and one of Toni Mannix’s “sparkle fiesta” day dresses.
– I feel like I need to watch season one of American Horror Story again to compare Ryan Murphy’s take on the Black Dahlia to Brian DePalma/James Ellroy’s. All I can really recall is Murphy’s absolutely perfect use of Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” to punctuate the Dahlia scenes.
– The lesbian nightclub subplot in Black Dahlia brought me great joy. The lesbians seemed like they really had their shit together, unlike the white dudes investigating this case. Plus, k.d. lang is the vocalist at Laverne’s Hideaway singing Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” in a fetching tuxedo, surrounded by chorus girls performing some very sexy choreography. I giggled with delight.
– We gotta talk about Ben Affleck for a second. He is actually great in Hollywoodland, for the exact same reasons he’s great in Gone Girl. Ben Affleck is perfect when he plays handsome idiots, and that’s exactly what his version of George Reeves is. His Reeves knows he’s a looker, and maybe not the greatest actor, but at least a pretty good one. He’s confident using his charm to be seen, and noticed, but a little uncomfortable with using his paramour’s connections to earn him a place in Hollywood. He is disappointed, therefore, that all he can earn on his own is a role on a kid’s TV show. And Affleck handles all of this so well, maybe because it mirrors his own career. He’s a pretty boy who really ought to be doing real acting, but for too long was treated like a movie star because of his good looks. I think Affleck is a very capable actor, and good at handsome, vapid idiots, men who don’t recognize their own failings. That’s why he’s perfect as George Reeves, and even more perfect as Nick Dunne in Gone Girl. They’re both men with famously disingenuous smiles that hide mountains of disappointment and regret.