Hollywood loves an unsolved mystery – especially if its characters are real-life denizens of the entertainment industry. Hollywoodland (opening Sept. 8) tells the sad story of George Reeves, the he-man actor who shot to fame in the 1950s as television’s Superman only to die by his own hand. Or did he?
The Black Dahlia (opening Sept. 15), adapted from James Ellroy’s acclaimed novel and inspired by the real-life murder of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, looks at the complex mystery in noir-like fashion, even using a Laura-like plot-point in which a detective falls for a woman who looks a lot like the murder victim.
Though both films deal with explicit, famous, heretofore unsolved cases, they also study the often traumatizing vicissitudes of fame with all its delusions, desperation and distressing sadness. Hollywood seems to relish taking these nostalgic looks at its murderous underbelly – and so with that, here’s a look at seven films that cast a shadow on all that L.A. sunshine.
The Black Dahlia (2006)
The Case: On January 15, 1947, a mother and child discovered one of Hollywood’s most gruesome, saddest and notorious crimes. Beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short (nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” for her propensity to wear all black) was a struggling Hollywood starlet whose short life ended after being dumped in a vacant lot near Leimert Park near downtown Los Angeles. Her body was mutilated, cut in pieces and eerily posed like a broken mannequin. Equally horrifying, her mouth was sliced from ear to ear. Adding to the creep factor was the supposed killer who taunted police and public by sending newspaper-cut-out notes that challenged authorities to catch him. Though many theories regarding suspects abound (including the most ludicrous—Orson Welles!), her killer was never found.
The Treatment: Adapted from James Ellroy’s brilliant novel (part of his “L.A. Quartet”), the fictional story inspired by the grim case has Mia Kirshner playing the gorgeous Dahlia. The detectives on the beat (played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) endure the mocking killer while dealing with their own femme fatales—including Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, the mystery woman who looks a lot like The Dahlia.
The Skinny: Molding the sprawling words of Ellroy to screen cannot be easy, but in the hands of the right filmmaker (see Curtis Hanson and LA Confidential), the result can be absolutely inspired. I hope the same for the well-suited director Brian De Palma (no stranger to femme fatales) in what I hope will be a meaty, pulpy, sleazy and wonderfully nuanced look at old-time Hollywood and its colorful characters.
The Case: George Reeves, who starred in TV’s Adventures of Superman, was reportedly bereft over his typecast career and shot himself in the early morning of June 16, 1959. But did he shoot himself? Doubts remained. For one, he was set to marry his fiancée in three days and for two, many friends concluded the actor was simply not suicidal; that his life and career was on an upswing. Nevertheless, from the moment the police arrived on the scene to the death’s official inquiry, Reeves’ passing was ruled a suicide. Reeves’ mother, shocked and disbelieving, elicited the services of Private Investigator Jerry Geisler to investigate the mysterious death. Though nothing substantial was unearthed, rumors about Reeves being a murder victim linger to this day.
The Treatment: Helmed by Sopranos director Allen Coulter, Hollywoodland focuses mainly on the mysteries surrounding Reeves’ tragic death. Ben Affleck plays The Man of Steel who wished to be more, Adrien Brody is the tireless detective and Diane Lane heats up the screen as Reeves’ supposed mistress (a studio head’s wife).
The Skinny: Coulter and scripter Paul Birnbaum’s story relies mostly on the ensuing case and utilizes flashbacks to explore the poignancy and self-doubt of Reeves’ character. Affleck, cast as the handsome, All-American actor is (hopefully) the right choice to show the vagaries of fame. Digging into the murder theory, Hollywoodland wishes to showcase a seamy, shadowy Hollywood, a land of broken dreams and fickle taste. Ladle an intriguing mystery on top and you’ve got a potentially fascinating, sobering look at the land of make-believe—a fantasy world that came to a screeching halt when the newspaper headline read: “Superman Kills Self.”
Star 80 (1983)
The Case: The staggeringly sad story of Dorothy Stratten, a beautiful young blonde who went from being a Vancouver fast food worker to the 1979 Playboy Playmate of the Year and promising actress to a murder/suicide victim. It’s a depressing journey on more than a few levels. Stratten was said to be a shy, gentle teenager whose tragic involvement with petty con-man Paul Snider led to the end of her all-too-brief life. After pushing his girlfriend to Playboy fame, the seamy Snider grew obsessed and consumed with jealousy. Stratten moved up and reportedly sought solace and love in director Peter Bogdanovich while making his film, They All Laughed. On Aug. 14, 1980, Dorothy went to the estranged couple’s North Hollywood bungalow where Paul murdered her and then, killed himself.
The Treatment: Bob Fosse, coming off of All That Jazz, was an interesting choice to direct this story - and in an especially grisly touch, Fosse even filmed the death scene in the actual Hollywood apartment where Stratten and Snider spent their last days. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Village Voice article "Death of a Playmate" by Teresa Carpenter, the film starred Mariel Hemingway as the slain Playmate and Eric Roberts as the demented Snider. Hugh Hefner, reportedly unhappy over how he was portrayed in the movie (by Cliff Robertson), sued the producers of the film.
The Skinny: Star 80 (taken from the real life vanity license plate on Snider’s car) was Bob Fosse’s last picture and what a way to go out. Fosse, long fascinated by the dark side of fame, gets to the horrifying heart of the matter in a bleak film that is incredibly resonant and touching and yet strangely removed. Hemingway gives a delicate, heartbreaking performance while Roberts, in one of his most acclaimed roles, is stunningly pitiable, desolute and scary.
The Case: Adult film performer John Holmes’ odd, possible involvement in multiple murders revealed just how low a person could descend from an already lowly career. During the summer of 1981 in the hip enclave of LA's Laurel Canyon, four people were brutally killed in a rather unimpressive house on Wonderland Avenue. The most popular theory believes that the murders were an act of retribution for a robbery from underworld figure Eddie Nash. Holmes’, whose life had spiraled into severe drug addiction and a dangerous association with criminals, was cleared of any complicity in the murder. How deeply involved Holmes’ was remains a mystery.
The Treatment: Told from varied perspectives, Wonderland doesn’t entirely answer the extent of Holmes’ involvement in the murder but it leans heavily towards him more than likely holding a murder weapon. Directed by James Cox the picture cast Val Kilmer as Holmes, Lisa Kudrow as his long suffering wife and Kate Bosworth as his teenage junkie-lover.
The Skinny: Kilmer plays Holmes’ impressively with a type of purposeful doltishness that combines a weird naiveté with a rapacious sense of self-absorption. Boldly, he doesn’t make Holmes especially likable but rather, almost disgustingly pitiful. Though the messy, unsatisfying film dangles too many perspectives, Kilmer gives such a compelling performance, the result is unforgettable. And director Cox really picks up on Hollywood’s underbelly, artfully wallowing in the drugs, gloom and grub.
Auto Focus (2002)
The Case: Bob Crane, the once-beloved actor who played Col. Robert Hogan on Hogan's Heroes from 1965-1971, led a sad, addictive life that may have resulted in his murder. Crane, an amateur pornographer and sex addict who meticulously chronicled his escapades, often with best friend and partner in sleaze, John Carpenter (not the director). Crane was found bludgeoned to death in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1978. Though Carpenter was finally tried for the murder in 1994, he was found not guilty and the case has never been solved.
The Treatment: Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver scribe and writer/director of American Gigolo, was the absolute right director for this sordid story. Moving through Crane’s life (played by Greg Kinnear) from the church-going, married man—a guy who didn’t drink, do drugs or smoke— to his Hogan’s Heroes fame to his spiraling sex addiction and career depression, Schrader stuck to the unsolved mystery angle though leaning heavily towards the culpability of Carpenter (a remarkable Willem Dafoe).
The Skinny: Highly underrated, Auto Focus is not only one of Schrader’s greatest films but one of the most disturbing looks at the downside of Hollywood stardom. Abstaining from both easy moralization and simplistic sympathy, Schrader showed Bob Crane as a hollow man, a guy without enough self-examination to truly understand the depth of his problems. And Kinnear, in a career-defining performance, is absolutely brilliant in a daring role that mixed the actor’s natural likeability with an unsettling depravity.
The Cat’s Meow (2002)
The Case: A movie producer died (or was murdered?) aboard the private yacht of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst on Nov. 15, 1924. In a scandal that’s been discussed for decades, producer Thomas H. Ince was out cruising with Hearst, Hearst’s wife, actress Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin. Salacious stories abound—one wild rumor claimed that Hearst shot Ince, mistaking him for Chaplin who he supposedly suspected was having an affair with Davies. Another theory involves poison. Another, a heart attack. And still another that Ince died at home. Apparently, no one on the yacht was questioned and henceforth, no one has ever known the real story.
The Treatment: Peter Bogdanovich directed the mystery with Edward Herrmann as Hearst, Cary Elwes as the unlucky Ince, Kirsten Dunst as the breezy, poignant Davies and comedian Eddie Izzard as Chaplin. He also throws in famed gossip columnist Louella Parsons (played by Jennifer Tilly) and eccentric British novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) in his recreation of the Roaring Twenties.
The Skinny: An oddly lovable movie, The Cat’s Meow takes some liberties regarding Hearst. Hermann cuts a sympathetic figure as the insecure media titan while Dunst’s Davies is devoted and sweet. Witty, complex and rich with Hollywood references, the film is a treat for those who love a good scandal and an entertaining, intelligent study of Tinseltown.
The Wild Party (1975)
The Case: Silent screen star Fatty Arbuckle’s career was ruined after lingering suspicion over a case that made his name mud in the industry. In 1921, Arbuckle, who was enjoying the unprecedented (at that time) one million dollar a year salary, held a party with friends and several female companions at the St. Francis Hotel. One of those women, 26-year-old aspiring actress Virginia Rappe, would die three days later of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Guilt was cast on Arbuckle and though he was in the end completely cleared of any allegations involving Rappe, his future in the movies was destroyed. Newspaper editorials and grass roots boycotts citing Arbuckle as the epitome of immorality aided in never allowing Arbuckle to live down something he never, in fact, did.
The Treatment: Though loosely based on the Arbuckle case, The Wild Party should only be considered inspired by the events, not representative of anything that truly occurred. In fact, the movie was really inspired by the epic 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March. The films stars James Coco as an aging silent movie comic star named Jolly Grimm who throws a crazy party that gets seriously out of hand. A young Raquel Welch plays his younger lover who meets a tragic end. Pre A Room With a View and Howard’s End James Ivory directed with Ismail Merchant producing.
The Skinny: It may not present the Fatty Arbuckle tragedy as it mysteriously went down but The Wild Party certainly helped continue the myth and legacy of the famed comedian. Perhaps to damaging degrees. Proving that even decades later, shadows of doubt still lingered in regard to Arbuckle’s moral character, the subpar Wild Party gave viewers a murderously jealous silent screen star and a negative (though fun) look at how decadent and hedonistic 1920’s movie land could be. Nevertheless, it’s interesting the fascination persists. For a more in depth look at Arbuckle and his milieu, check out Jerry Stahl’s novel Fatty.
*Tweaked from my original column at Fandango.