by Matt Levine
Errol Flynn was one of the most notorious playboys in the history of Hollywood, a hard-drinking womanizer who resembled the devilish alter ego of the swashbucklers he played in classics such as Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). In 1942, when Flynn was accused of statutory rape by Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, Flynn’s salacious reputation in the eyes of the public began to overwhelm his lingering box-office clout (he was voted the fourth most popular star by Variety in 1940); though he was acquitted of charges after a nasty public trial, his public image would never be the same. At the tail end of his life, struggling to find work, unable to quit drinking, and alternately hooked on morphine and heroin (largely as a result of his chronic back pain), he leapt into another scandalous relationship: with 15-year-old actress-singer-dancer Beverly Aadland, seemingly with the tacit approval of Beverly’s mother. The Last of Robin Hood focuses on the last several years of Flynn’s life and his controversial relationship with Aadland, though it does so in surprisingly pat and timid ways. The film is simply a stolid drama at heart with no passion, no boldness.
Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Producers: Declan Baldwin, Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon
Writers: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Cinematographer: Michael Simmonds
Editor: Robin Katz
Cast: Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, Susan Sarandon, Max Casella, Patrick St. Esprit, Bryan Batt, Matt Kane, Jane McNeill, Ben Winchell, Jason Davis
Premiere: September 6, 2013 — Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 29, 2014
US Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Few of the film’s weaknesses can be attributed to the cast, however. True, none of the three leads really brings their character to life, but that’s largely the fault of predictable screenwriting and clumsy direction that always seems in a hurry to state the obvious. Dakota Fanning, as the unwitting nymphet Beverly, attempts a precarious balance of ruined innocence and wise-beyond-her-years steeliness; she’s painted as an exploited ingénue whose inability to resist Flynn’s wolfish charm ultimately dooms her. As Beverly’s mother Florence, Susan Sarandon is forced to play the artless role of a dedicated stage mom who predictably uses Beverly’s dalliance with Flynn to promote her daughter’s career as well as her own—an obsession that’s grown since she lost her leg to a dancing accident when she was younger. (It’s the kind of plot point that would be unforgivably obvious if it weren’t based in fact.) And as the Sea Hawk himself, the ageless Kevin Kline seems to effortlessly exude a gentlemanly predaciousness—we can never be sure if Flynn, in his waning years, truly finds love and solace in Beverly, or if she’s just another young conquest for him to attain. Our inability to read Flynn’s emotional sincerity is somewhat frustrating and dampens the film’s poignancy, but a mercurial, hard-to-read character at least provides The Last of Robin Hood with a dash of mystery.
The silver-fox amiability of Flynn actually turns out to be another flaw, though: for a man notorious for exploiting and bedding vulnerable women, Flynn never appears less than a gentleman. Even the scene in which Flynn first has sex with Beverly at his luxurious Hollywood mansion—against her wishes, though she hardly protests (perhaps hoping it will help her long-term career)—is tastefully respectful, providing only a medium close-up of Beverly as he thrusts three times on top of her, then cutting to a scene of her being driven home by his chauffeur. I’m not asking for Irreversible-style severity, but this is a case in which tasteful reserve actually hurts the film: it’s hard to see the central relationship as scandalous if the movie only treats it as a touchy but genuine May-December romance. At nearly fifty, Flynn was sexually exploiting a 15-year-old, but the movie is too cowardly to explore this unsettling (and not uncommon) union.
Admittedly, The Last of Robin Hood is more interested in emphasizing how eagerly the media sensationalized their relationship. As the film would have it, the real villain isn’t Flynn or the calculating Florence, but a tabloid press all too happy to paint Beverly as a tarnished slut and Flynn as a smarmy predator. The first scene of the film observes Beverly exiting an airplane to the shouts and photo-bulb flashes of an army of reporters; one of the last scenes finds Beverly pressuring her mother to avoid speaking to reporters (a promise she quickly breaks). The clichéd tropes of yellow-journalism—fedoraed journalists barking questions, close-ups of cameras flashing, magazines and newspapers spinning towards the screen, their headlines whirring sensationally—are all here, reiterating the obvious theme that trashy journalists are all too willing to exploit sexual scandal for their own gain. It’s an idea that was commonplace by the time the real-life Flynn started appearing in movies in the mid-30s, and sadly it’s almost all that The Last of Robin Hood has on its mind.
At times, the movie also seems to make a halfhearted effort to paint this warped domestic relationship as a Hollywood stand-in for the nuclear family, emphasizing the sordid values that have always supposedly defined Tinseltown. As a shrugging Florence approves of her daughter’s deflowering by Errol Flynn, the movie fleetingly suggests that their bizarre triangle is a new substitute for the American family. The most interesting and unnerving scene finds a naked Flynn covering his penis with a top hat, performing a lewd dance to the gleeful delight of both Beverly and Florence, a red rose dangling from his mouth. This subversion of familial closeness could have been an interesting subtext, even though it’s already been powerfully conveyed by Far from Heaven (2002), but it becomes clear that any commentary on the American family will be quickly suffocated by the film’s simplistic tone and characterizations.
The Last of Robin Hood’s late-1950’s setting has been fashionable as of late, but Mad Men this movie is not: the film’s absorption into its historical time period is at a surface level only. The writer-directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, hardly care what’s going on in Hollywood (much less American society in general) in the mid-20th century. This was a time of great upheaval for the American film capital, with moral constraints loosening and television eating up much of the audience; it would have been nice if The Last of Robin Hood had paid even scant attention to such transformation. But there are other satirical targets natural for a story such as this one—most explicitly the entitlement that extreme wealth and fame can provide, as well as the suppression of innate sexual longing in American society—that the movie lets fall by the wayside, piled up next to the tritely emotive characters. The film’s costume and set design are alluring, but in a way that suggests that the crew merely thumbed through an old fashion catalog and copied its style; The Last of Robin Hood never attempts to interrogate its late-‘50s setting, and some of its historical artifacts (like the Clip Art-caliber mid-century gossip mags splayed so dizzyingly across the screen) are simply awful.
A poorly-directed film with something clear and interesting to say is one thing, but The Last of Robin Hood is even worse: it’s hard to tell why Glatzer and Westmoreland wanted to tell this story at all. The two collaborated on the promising 2006 indie film Quincañera, which took its protagonist’s growing pains seriously, but their ease with young actors and the difficult process of sexual maturation is entirely missing from The Last of Robin Hood. There are hardly any subversive ideas bubbling up to the surface, aside from “the media is exploitative” and “celebrities can be backstabbing hypocrites”—concepts which can be easily gleaned by watching any cable news channel for about ten minutes. But even on a more visceral level, Glatzer and Westmoreland fail to capitalize on the subject matter’s lurid sensationalism or steamy sexuality: the film is neither melodramatic nor erotic, thus avoiding two of the most entertaining potentials in this story. What we’re left with is a dry, muted tale of a young, beautiful girl and a fading yet powerful actor who may be in love—or it could simply be pragmatic lust, though it’s hard to care about them whichever it is. There’s more burning chemistry and sheer filmmaking verve in one minute of any Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland scene than in all of The Last of Robin Hood.