Friday, September 26, 2014

Actors Rule: The Last of Robin Hood and Love Is Strange

Dakota Fanning and Kevin Kline in The Last of Robin Hood.

In The Last of Robin Hood, Kevin Kline plays the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn in the last two years of his life, 1959-1961, when he fell for an aspiring L.A. actress named Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning). Beverly is only fifteen, but years of acting classes and singing and dancing training and auditions have given her physical confidence and a mature, working-woman comportment, and her mother Flo (Susan Sarandon) encourages her to dress like someone in her twenties. Flo has also secured a fake birth certificate for her, presumably so that she can do an end-run around the laws governing the hiring of minors. When the movie begins Bev is dancing in the chorus of a Gene Kelly movie. (The script doesn’t identify it, but it’s Marjorie Morningstar.) Flynn, a womanizer with a well-known penchant for young women, eyes her at the studio – he’s filming Too Much, Too Soon, the Diana Barrymore story, in which he plays John Barrymore – and sends his friend, the costume designer Orry Kelly (Bryan Batt, from the TV series Mad Men), over to the set of the Kelly picture to bring her over to meet him. On the pretext of having her audition for a Broadway play he’s signed to perform in, he invites her to his lodge for dinner and champagne and takes her to bed. He doesn’t find out she’s underage until his young assistant, Ronnie Sheldo (Matt Kane), realizes that the reason she looks so familiar to him is that she was several years behind him at Hollywood High. But by that time Flynn is smitten; though his lawyer, Melvin Belli (Ric Reitz), warns him he’s playing with fire, he won’t consider giving her up.

The movie, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, begins with Flynn’s death at fifty; he dies in Bev’s arms in Vancouver, where he was selling his yacht, but we don’t get that scene until much later. The filmmakers begin with Bev stepping off the plane to a crush of reporters, while Flo, caught behind them, calls out her name. Devastated, Beverly wants to avoid the press, but credulous Flo, who thinks she’s helping her daughter’s career, is happy to talk to them and pose for photos – until she gets fed up with the distortions that wind up in the tabloids. Without informing Beverly, she agrees to tell her version of the story to a writer named Tedd Thomey (Jason Davis), who persuades her that his book about Flynn and her daughter will preserve the truth about their romance into perpetuity. The Last of Robin Hood (the title is, of course, a reference to Flynn’s most famous role) is structured as if it were a series of flashbacks from Flo’s point of view, except it’s more complicated: the film keeps showing us what Flo doesn’t see and doesn’t know, because though she claims that she was in Bev’s confidence from the beginning, in fact months go by before she finds out that Bev and Flynn are an item. (Flynn, who has been squiring mother and daughter around Hollywood, ostensibly because he’s made Bev his protégé, takes them to New York when he opens his play – a stage adaptation of Jane Eyre in which another actress winds up being cast as Jane – and only once they arrive does Beverly explain to her mother about the sleeping arrangements.) There’s an idea here, but Glatzer and Westmoreland aren’t good enough writers to pull it off; the audience gets confused about when we’re in Bev’s point of view. And though the narrative is certainly compelling, as directors they don’t have the style for a period film of this complexity.

Max Casella as Stanley Kubrick.

What they do have are three fine actors and the ability – not to be underrated – to draw first-rate performances out of all three. The Last of Robin Hood opened and closed quickly without garnering much attention; you’d think that the quality of the performances would have been enough to work up some interest in the movie, but the only kind of conversation it sparked, apparently, was some fuss over whether or not it promotes pedophilia, a prime example of missing the forest for the trees. (The filmmakers’ refusal to pass judgment on Flynn for his feelings about Beverly is, aside from the acting, the picture’s most admirable quality.) Kline gets Flynn’s tossed-off elegant understatement, his simultaneously self-aware and un-self-conscious charm; the casting couldn’t be more ideal. Flynn’s feelings for Beverly go beyond lust; he commits to her and tries to advance her career. He secures her a tiny part in John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven, which he’s starring in, and when the final cut of the film winnows it down to just a line or two and Flo blames him for not doing more to help her daughter, he stars her in a pro-Castro film he’s directing in Cuba called Cuban Rebel Girls (surely the weirdest project Flynn ever attached himself to). The script doesn’t delve enough, but I think it’s clear that only at first her protégé role is just a blind for what’s really going on between them. He doesn’t seriously consider her prospects – her joining him in Africa for a couple of months for the shoot of the Huston picture is mostly a way of keeping her with him – but he realizes that he loves her enough to want to make her happy, and that means applying himself to her progress in show business. Continuing to court her after he finds out her true age is folly, but Kline doesn’t play Flynn as a fool, about his own career or his health (which has been compromised by his drinking and the drugs he takes, ostensibly for back pain), or about the emotional difficulties that go along with dating someone more than thirty years his junior. He talks to Stanley Kubrick (Max Casella) about playing Humbert Humbert in Lolita, but the discussion closes down when he insists that he won’t do the film unless Bev plays the title role, and Kubrick is unimpressed with her audition. Then, in Cuba, when she wants to go off on a motorcycle with a boy her own age, he begins to feel like Humbert – though the movie is unclear about whether she cheats on him or is just feeling restless (and young). In either case, when he comes down with malaria evidently she stops thinking about anyone else.

Susan Sarandon in The Last of Robin Hood.

In Flo, Sarandon explores the anatomy of a stage mother. Flo once cherished her own hopes for a career in show business (as a dancer), but the man she fell for, Herb Aadland (Patrick St. Esprit), crashed his car when they were both drunk and she lost her leg in the accident. She transferred her own ambitions to their daughter, though she’s had to steer them around Herb’s naysaying: where Flo looks at Bev and sees the possibility of stardom, all he sees is mediocrity. After all these years, Flo still waves the guilt card; “You owe me,” she reminds Herb when she makes plans for New York over his objections. But it’s the last straw – he walks out, and withdraws his financial support of their daughter, with whom he has no visible relationship. (This is one of the pockets of the narrative that could use some fleshing out.) Sarandon showcases the desperation, the undercurrent of fear and uncertainty, in Flo’s behavior; the line between her own damaged ego and shattered dreams and her real concern for her daughter is impossibly blurred. She’s naïve and deluded, tough and bitter, a patsy one moment and a bull in a china shop the next. Her most embarrassing moments are fueled by alcohol, and alcohol is undeniably a factor in her most unseemly eruptions (as when she follows Beverly to a party and stands out in the street, yelling to be admitted). She’s terrified of being closed out of Beverly’s career; she’s had enough of being closed out of the life she imagined for herself. When, at a party he throws for Bev’s seventeenth birthday, Errol announces their engagement, Flo whispers to her daughter, “We did it, baby, we did it!”

Fanning is even better. She gives Bev an authentic sweetness, but she’s wide-eyed, nobody’s fool. When she rehearses a dance for the Kelly picture, you can see her following her mother’s advice: though she’s part of the ensemble, she makes her presence bright and visible, always hoping for some director who will spot her and see star quality in the way her face catches the camera. But there’s a tension between her grown-up airs and the impulses of an adolescent whose mother plucked her out of Hollywood High to shove her into a show-biz career. She goes to dinner at Flynn’s without any notion that he wants to seduce her and afterwards, when Ronnie drives her home in the limo, as she puts on her earrings she’s teary and nervous and unsure how to respond to what’s just happened to her. It’s a delicate scene, and Fanning plays it superbly. When Errol dies and Flo convinces her to use the attention she’s received to advance her career – and Bev is so traumatized and wobbly that she doesn’t know what else to do – she gets a job singing at a nightclub, and though she isn’t much of a singer, she has a touching, vulnerable quality, like the young Kim Novak’s but with a thin been-around-the-block veneer. It’s a remarkable performance: underneath the efforts at self-protection she shows you the emotions of the little girl rushed past her childhood.

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange.

The Last of Robin Hood isn’t a very good movie, but the three actors are so vivid that it stayed with me. And that’s true, too, of Love Is Strange, directed by Ira Sachs, which stars Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a long-time gay couple who get married and then are forced to live apart, with family and friends, for financial reasons. Ben (Lithgow) is a painter who’s never made much of a success; George (Molina), a music teacher at a Catholic school, is the breadwinner of the family, but he loses his job when the bishop gets wind of the wedding. (George has never been secretive about his sexual orientation; he and Ben have even had his students over to their apartment. But once the relationship becomes a matter of public record, the diocese refuses to be placed in the position of sanctioning it.) They can no longer afford their Manhattan apartment, so George moves downstairs with a younger gay couple (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), cops whose noisy social lifestyle isn’t suitable for a man in his sixties, while Ben moves in with his nephew’s family.

The script by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias is tepid and semi-formed; it’s tender and sensitive, but more a series of sketches than a dramatic narrative. And Sachs isn’t much of a director. He has no sense of rhythm; there are some lovely moments, but he doesn’t know when to let them go, and sometimes you stare up at the screen wondering what you’re supposed to be looking at. And when Ben begins to live with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows), who’s a documentary filmmaker, his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), a fiction writer, and their unsettled teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan), the movie is so tentative about the characters and relationships that you’re not sure how to read the signals. Are we meant to think that Elliot is as inattentive a husband and as inept a parent as he comes across as? (Burrows is a lousy actor, and such a lump on camera that you feel almost offended for Tomei.) Is Joey’s friendship with a Russian kid named Vlad (Eric Tabach), whom Ben gets – to Kate’s discomfort – to pose for him, meant to give off homoerotic vibes? Tomei tries hard to find a character to play but there isn’t one, and she compensates with an awkwardly overstated performance.

Sachs and Zacharias must have been going for a found, lived-in quality, but they don’t know how to lay the groundwork for it. Only the two leading actors get there, and they get there right at the beginning of the movie, in the wedding scene: you look at them and immediately believe that George and Ben have been sharing their lives for nearly four decades. Molina and Lithgow’s performances are small marvels of observation and emotional synchronicity, and perhaps the subtlest work either of these master actors has ever done.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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