“There’s no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality,” growls Dixon Steele, the screenwriter suspected of murder in Nicholas Ray’s under-acknowledged classic In a Lonely Place. In this line, the character nails the ethos of the Los Angeles movie industry crime story, the Hollywood film noir, if you will. It’s a slippery, exclusive little genre in a town that enjoys airing its dirty laundry for all to see, because, in the end, it’s all myth-making: Stories of people who come to California for love, for fame and yes, immortality, but find something altogether darker.
Hollywood’s grim side will be particularly evident in the next couple of weeks, with the release of two new movies.
First, there’s Hollywoodland, a mystery that examines the death of George Reeves, a square-jawed character actor who found fame playing Superman in a 1950s TV serial. The picture is structured as a hard-boiled detective story, with gumshoe Louis Simo (a miscast Adrien Brody) investigating the suicide of Reeves (Ben Affleck, convincingly wooden), all the while suspecting it might have been murder. Reeves ran in dodgy company: He was the kept man of Diane Lane’s magnetic Toni Mannix, the wife of a studio head, and the boyfriend of the slightly unhinged Leonore Lemmon, played with eye-flashing verve by Robin Tunney.
Close on the heels of Hollywoodland is The Black Dahlia, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of the James Ellroy (LA Confidential) book inspired by Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murder, of ’40s starlet Elizabeth Short. It stars Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Hartnett and, as Short, Canadian actor Mia Kirshner (The L Word). A director often inspired by the lurid and voyeuristic, De Palma is well-suited to tell this kind of story.
Though based on actual events, much in these films is fictionalized, but truth isn’t the point. These are themes Hollywood loves to revisit, because audiences love to see the tabloid-dirty underbelly of all that glitz. Movies such as Star 80, The Player and Boogie Nights touch on similar themes, but none indulge in the vintage style that so suits stories set in Los Angeles’s formative years. These new movies are swinging for the same fences cleared so elegantly by the film version of Ellroy’s LA Confidential, about dishonest cops working in the dream factory where three officers, played by Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey, try to make a difference. And though it avoids the movie industry altogether, Chinatown is owed a debt in style and tone by all movies about LA corruption that followed.
Hollywood noir can be traced back to 1950, with two movies released within a few months of each other. In A Lonely Place, contains one of Humphrey Bogart’s best performances, as well as a host of his best lines, including this beaut: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” His Dixon Steele is provided with a false alibi by Gloria Grahame’s Laurel, who becomes his lover. But did he actually commit the murder? Maybe. The other crime drama that year was Sunset Blvd., starring Gloria Swanson as the paranoid diva planning a comeback, and William Holden as the corpse in the swimming pool, narrating the story in flashback.
In 1991, the Coen brothers took a shot in the dark with Barton Fink, their perversely fascinating look at a playwright (John Turturro) who takes his Broadway success to Los Angeles and finds decay, writers’ block and a friendly psychopath. Most revealing of Hollywood’s toll is John Mahoney’s portrait of a Faulkner-esque writer under contract with the studio.p>A ghost of former glory, he slaves anonymously in genre-factory hell, drinking and abusing his assistant (Judy Davis).
Canadian filmmakers explore this territory, too. Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies tells of another starlet’s mysterious death, and the involvement of a Martin and Lewis-style comedy duo, played by Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth. It wasn’t embraced by the critics, but Egoyan, our most detached and voyeuristic auteur, in his own way fits this material as well as De Palma. Detached is comfortable viewing in a morally ambiguous universe, especially one that trades in narcissism and the elixir of youth.
Hollywoodland opens Friday. The Black Dahlia opens Sep 15.