The Last of Robin Hood
Written by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
The Last of Robin Hood depicts the last romance of Errol Flynn’s life from the not-so-tender age of 48 until his death. Who was the lucky girl? Beverly Aadland. One person’s definition of luck is most people’s definition of statutory rape—something that Flynn had some trouble with before—as Miss Aadland was under 18 at the time. This is the crux of the conundrum behind the story and what would regularly confound a filmmaker in bringing it to the screen—even Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita screenplay was rejected and reworked by Stanley Kubrick. Fortunately for the audience, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are no regular filmmakers (see Grief, The Fluffer, and Quinceanera). They have written and directed a film about three protagonists (Beverly Aadland, her mother Florence, and Errol Flynn) with a vague outward antagonist—society. And somehow, through the grace of such strong characters and writing, it works.
Errol Flynn (the definitive Robin Hood, hence the film title) was one of the greatest movie stars of all time. By no means a true thespian (funny that he’s played by one of the few left in Hollywood—Kevin Kline), Flynn was not just a pretty face either. At 26, he was an overnight sensation in his first real Hollywood role of Captain Blood. By 48, he had starred in all kinds of films: comedies, war movies, westerns, sport movies, thrillers and swashbucklers. Offscreen, he really lived. From the jungles of New Guinea to war-torn Spain to sailing around the world on the Sirocco and Zaca to sharing a Hollywood bungalow with David Niven (dubbed “Cirrhosis by the Sea”), Errol Flynn was an adventurer, albeit with a few vices (alcohol, drugs, inappropriate women, rumored involvement in the slave trade). While making Too Much, Too Soon (the Diana Barrymore story, with Flynn playing his old friend John Barrymore), he spotted an intriguing blonde across the lot at Warner Bros.
Enter Beverly Aadland, a 15 year-old girl trying to make her way through a decaying studio system with a fake birth certificate in tow. Plagued by an prototypical show business mother and a well-worn regimen of acting, dancing, and singing lessons, she had yet to enjoy, let alone experience, life. You can see where this is heading… A not-so-dashing tryst. But whereas one (and Beverly) would assume that all Flynn wanted was a brief encounter, it turns out he was mad for the girl. Whether you believe he knew her real age or not (considering his 1942 statutory rape trial, it’s hard to believe that even he would be that foolhardy for “San Quentin quail”), the film’s narrative implies that he did not, believing that she was in her early twenties rather than a minor. Without spoiling too much, their romance progresses through Beverly’s initial hesitation, Florence’s disapproval (having believed that Beverly had merely become Flynn’s acting protégé) and necessary involvement to facilitate the affair, a few career setbacks, the predictable jealousies, Flynn’s fatal heart attack at the age of 50 on a Vancouver doctor’s bedroom floor, Florence losing custody of 17-year old Beverly, and more.
Inevitably, there will be naysayers about the film’s material, citing morality, legality, and other social constructs. But why should we let all of that get in the way of a good story? The Last of Robin Hood neither advocates nor denigrates its characters or their circumstances, but rather attempts to just tell the story and, in particular, to give a voice to the young woman who has been left to the annals of Hollywood lore as the last notch on the “In Like Flynn” legend.
The film has accomplished what Florence Aadland had intended to do in her tell-all book The Big Love—set the record straight. Unfortunately for Florence, she got in her own way of a decent book, with an obnoxious and abrasive personality that flies off of the pages, and would be the basis for the 1991 one-woman show starring Tracey Ullman. Glatzer and Westmoreland knew well enough to take everything Florence wrote and said with a few big grains of salt. They also integrate Stanley Kubrick and his Lolita adaptation shrewdly. The filmmakers use both The Big Love and Lolita to illuminate the interrelationships (Florence’s concern for Beverly’s well-being and reputation, Flynn’s interest in Beverly), but not so much as to obscure the characters.
Fittingly enough, Beverly still struggles for a voice between her mother and Errol Flynn. This may be due to her being a teenager standing between two fully-grown-and-then-some adults or possibly her naturally less dominant personality. Out of the three, Beverly is the only one who never wrote her story (Florence wrote The Big Love while Flynn wrote My Wicked, Wicked Ways), specifically shying away from the public eye from 1959 until her death in 2010. Almost immediately, we get the sense of Beverly as a young girl who had been through the showbiz mill a few too many times for her tender years, but not much else until the end.
That’s the real beauty of the film: the combination of the filmmakers’ attention to detail (they even nailed his handwriting) and the cast playing their characters so well that you know them and their motives almost instantaneously. Considering the subject, it could have easily fallen into something tawdry or melodramatic or been wrapped up so much in the facts that it forgot the story’s heart. But instead, The Last of Robin Hood gives the audience just enough to be interested, then intrigued, then slightly heartbroken, sometimes all at once. The filmmakers show rather than explicitly force the social issues at play; the disparity between ages, socioeconomic status, and worldliness. It’s the sort of film you can appreciate repeatedly because there are so many layers to the plot and production. There are nods to the era from the period clothing to the soundtrack (including Dakota Fanning’s spot-on singing of Beverly Aadland’s 1959 “Some Say” cover) to the three-way split-screen during the phone call between Beverly, Flynn and Florence. Also, Flynn fans can giggle over the obscure trivia like the John Barrymore corpse story, vodka as Flynn’s liquor of choice, Flynn’s lawyer referring to him as “Baron,” and more. They even got Sean Flynn (grandson of Errol) to play a pivotal cameo role as the grip on Cuban Rebel Girls.
Kevin Kline is superb as Flynn. He manages to capture both the essence and nuances of an older Flynn without falling into mimicry or a too-heavy reinterpretation or wolfishness with Beverly. Simply, Kline brings Flynn back to life. Not the on-screen persona, but the real Flynn, the one you can see in his later interviews and The Roots of Heaven, and that people imagined while reading My Wicked, Wicked Ways. This isn’t Flynn in his prime, but the world-weary man who saw that his end was near and would have been damned to go out on anyone else’s terms.
Susan Sarandon plays the concerned, overbearing show business mother to a T. She manages to blend Florence’s delusions and her well-meaning albeit not well-thought out behavior. Whereas Florence, in another actress’s hands, would have been a grating presence, Sarandon homes in on Florence’s earnestness in wanting what she thought was best for her daughter and a bit of her martyr complex. (Beverly’s birth made up for the loss of her leg.) Sarandon manages to carry that conviction throughout the film and gives Florence her due.
As the titular “Last of Robin Hood,” Dakota Fanning plays a vacuous character, an overworked and undereducated Hollywood teenager who was shoved onto the national stage and shrouded with a reddish light, both figuratively (her “illicit story” was in all of the papers) and literally (within weeks of Flynn’s passing, Florence booked her as a club act). In the film, Beverly’s unaffected vulnerability and Fanning’s ability to bring this to life after many years in the business redeem the character and the actress. As Beverly, Fanning cements her path from precocious child actress to a leading lady of tomorrow. Fanning’s next role is that of John Ruskin’s teen bride in the upcoming Effie Gray. Here’s hoping for some more meatier parts down the way.
While presenting a faded Old Hollywood story to a new audience, writing-directing team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland tapped into a deeper core of the story: three people in search of happiness, which, as the Beverly Aadland song goes, “is hard to find.” It is this bittersweet poignancy that stays with the audience long after the credits have stopped rolling. You still feel for each of the leads, however flawed or jaded or mistrusting. Simply, it’s a story of love; an old man’s last and a young woman’s first met by a mother’s only. This combination makes The Last of Robin Hood all the more heartbreaking. Rather than ending on a teary note, here are Flynn’s supposed last words, “I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” The same can be written about watching The Last of Robin Hood, one of the major highlights of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
– Diana Drumm
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.