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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Knight at the Movies: The Last of Robin Hood; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-09-03

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Kevin Kline—who came to prominence playing the lead in a revival of The Pirates of Penzance and has played many larger-than-life characters in his subsequent film and stage roles—is an inspired choice to play the king of classic Hollywood swashbucklers, Errol Flynn. And then, of course, there are the physical and vocal resemblances that, even at the end of the debonair Flynn's decadent life, were still rather striking.

Kline, who says he has turned down previous opportunities to play the womanizing Flynn, at last essays the actor in The Last of Robin Hood. Physical similarities aside, Kline also captures the Flynn charm and devilish wit. Also, with his chest shaved and what appears to be several visits to the gym, he gives an approximation of the rogue's undimmed physical sex appeal that remained intact even as the hard-living actor was entering his twilight years—at the age of 50.

The last two years of Flynn's tempestuous life, which ended in 1959, were caught up in yet another sex scandal with an underage girl ( the actor had been narrowly acquitted of statutory rape charges in 1942 ), which the movie details. The object of Flynn's ardor was a dancer and Hollywood extra named Beverly Aadland who was 15 when the two first met ( played by Dakota Fanning who, ironically, is now a tad too old for the part ). In the film version, gay costume designer Orry-Kelly ( played by out actor Bryan Batt ), a longtime friend of Flynn's, introduces the aging lothario to his final conquest ( whom he promptly dubs "woodsy," shorthand for "wood nymph" ).

Gay co-directors, screenwriters and real-life partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have spent a decade working on shaping the scandal—which was hot stuff at the time and was further inflamed by the tabloids upon Flynn's death—into The Last of Robin Hood. The duo used the salacious, tell-all book about the affair, The Big Love, as the basis for their script. Written by the third principal in the affair—Aadland's starstruck stage mother, Florence ( played with genuine relish by Susan Sarandon )—the book's first line, "There's one thing I want to make clear right off: My baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn" sets the tone for a Jacqueline Susann-ish guilty pleasure.

Rare interviews by Glatzer and Westmoreland with the normally press-shy Beverly ( who lived quietly with her third husband up to her death in 2010 ) and Flynn's personal assistant Ronnie Shedlo unearthed several fascinating, previously unreported details about the affair that have been incorporated into the script ( such as Flynn turning down an offer to play Humbert Humbert in Kubrick's Lolita when the director refused to consider Aadland to play the title nymphet ).

While these new tidbits help freshen this decades-old scandal, the careful handling of the story has the unintended effect of sucking the life ( and practically all the juice ) out of what could have been a more-than-delicious piece of cinema trash. Had the co-directors gone the Valley of the Dolls/Where Love Has Gone/Madame X route, their movie would have been a lot more fun and Flynn's admittedly repulsive behavior a bit more palatable. What Glatzer and Westmoreland's film needed was a much healthier dollop of Flo Aadland's gushy, tacky tell-all approach.

Instead, the movie tries to present everyone's point of view—Flynn found something in Beverly to soothe his encroaching old age, Beverly loved the reflected glory of Flynn's life and came to love the sex, and Flo loved the prospect of life at the top. This wobbly balancing act simply distances us from Flynn, Beverly and, most regrettably, Florence. Especially problematic is that we never quite understand why Flynn was so enamored ( beyond the physical ) with the rather colorless Beverly, who doesn't have much vibrancy.

Like Kline, Sarandon is a great choice to play the part of the over-the-top mother, a former dancer who now sports a wooden leg thanks to an unlucky accident. Dazzled by the prospect of a movie career for her daughter, it seems apparent that Flo looked the other way while the unrepentant roué that Flynn had become took advantage of Beverly. The approach that Sarandon takes, while tough and overbearing at times, also gives us a peek at the vulnerable woman inside, a woman still aching because of her own deferred dreams of stardom. Fanning is a good physical match for Sarandon but is scarecrow-thin and has none of the ripe, baby carnality that the role ( and that the real-life Aadland sported ) needs.

Christine Vachon's Killer Films produced the film, but the skimpy budget for the late 1950s settings is not nearly as convincing as that lavished on Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes' 2003 masterpiece of kitsch drama from the same time period. ( Haynes was an executive producer on this film ). And the carefully constructed set pieces—one vintage car that is shown repeatedly, a few well-chosen extras in period costumes at a cocktail party, etc.—constantly remind us of the film's budgetary constraints which can't help but throw one out of the film.

Glazter's and Westmoreland's talents were much better served in their previous films—the queer-themed Quinceanera and The Fluffer—and perhaps the duo got caught up thinking that trying to humanize and balance the colorful trio at the heart of this Hollywood scandal of yore would give it some vibrancy and relevancy. Instead, it has unfortunately dulled its impact and left Kline, Sarandon and, to a much lesser degree, Fanning—three excellent film actors—in search of the juicy characters the tatty story seemed to promise.

Film notes:

Call Me Kuchu is Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall's probing documentary about the struggle for LGBT rights in the virulently anti-gay African country of Uganda and the tragic assassination of David Kato, the movement's leader. The film will be shown Friday, Sept. 12, at the Broadway United Methodist Church, 3338 N. Broadway, at 6:30 p.m. The screening is a fundraiser for the Chicago LGBT Asylum Project ( CLASP ) and there will be a free-will offering, with no one turned away for lack of funds. The Gay Liberation Network is sponsoring the event. 

Two more LGBT-festival faves from last year are being released on DVD. Two: The Story of Roman and Nyro is Heather Winters' charming documentary portrait of the twin sons of renowned songwriter and vocalist Desmond Child and husband Curtis Shaw. Their story—which includes the birth mother, her husband, her parents and various other relatives and friends—is a true example of a modern family. Arriving Sept. 2 on DVD is director DMW Greer's Burning Blue, a slick romantic drama that is a gay variation on Top Gun set at the height of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It's sexy and enlivened by its cast, which includes some easy-on-the-eyes male eye candy and several Broadway stage veterans.

Now available: The Best of Knight at the Movies: 2004-2014—a compilation book of more than 150 of my film reviews from a queer perspective for Windy City Times—is now available. Visit www.knightatthemovies.com .


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