Paradise Missed

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Dakota Fanning as Beverly Aadland and Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn in the fanciful and largely unseen “The Last of Robin Hood.”

I finally got around to watching The Last of Robin Hood, the 2013 curio made by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer and starring a powerhouse threesome of Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, and Dakota Fanning. When word of this production got out, fans of the late Errol Flynn asked: If you want to make a picture about Flynn, why focus on the last two miserable years of his life? Why not tell the story of Errol in his heyday? Well, it’s obvious that…

Actually there’s nothing obvious about why this film was made; I sat as it unspooled wondering who invested money in this production, and how the stars were convinced to participate, and who was expected to go see it, and why. It couldn’t get a distribution deal for the longest time and then when it did, release was limited. The very fact that I wrote two books about Flynn yet it took me a couple years beyond release to bother to see it says something about the desirability of the product, well, in this house, anyway.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The real Beverly Aadland soon after Errol’s death. She was a natural beauty and by all accounts a sweet soul. And I have to ask: Does she look 17 years old to you? Maybe a tad bit older?

In a nutshell, the plot centers around a Hollywood hopeful named Beverly Aadland toiling away at Warner Bros. in 1957, when she is spotted by Errol Flynn. He’s back on the lot where he was once a contract star, this time playing near-death John Barrymore and way past his prime. Errol arranges to meet Beverly, has sex with her against her will (assuming as he does that she like all other females wants to feel the sword of the master). Then she falls for him and the romance of their lives ensues. But there’s a catch: he’s 48. She’s 15. She swears she’s legal but she isn’t; her stage mother Flo had arranged for a fake birth certificate to back up the fact that this girl looked much older than her years. Really she did. When the real Beverly was 13, she already looked like a full-fledged adult.

There are things to like about The Last of Robin Hood. The production design has a nice 1950s feel, with icily muted color tones. The screenplay has a cheeky vibe for the first 45 minutes. The stars are perfect. These are Academy Award performers letting it all hang out and they nail it—down to Kevin Kline’s rendition of Flynn’s odd Aussie/Tasmanian/English accent. Dakota Fanning is Beverly Aadland—we get that she feels Beverly at a soul-to-soul level. Beverly’s mother, Florence Aadland, could only ever wish she were the babe-version portrayed by Susan Sarandon, a basically good-hearted mom (or is she?) who can’t resist the lure of Hollywood. Flo has no idea how overmatched she is by people like Errol Flynn.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

In a scene vividly and accurately capturing reality, Fanning as Aadland is ambushed by reporters in the wake of Flynn’s death by heart attack.

As for Kevin Kline as Flynn, I (and many others) always thought he would make a perfect Errol from the days of The Pirates of Penzance. But the years passed and it kept not happening. He absolutely nails it in Last, as in, he depicts the guy his fans always imagined Errol Flynn should be at age 48, this elegant, dashing, aging-but-dignified movie star back to conquer Hollywood one last time.

At one point early on Beverly sees Flynn’s jaggy question mark stitched into some garment he’s wearing and asks what it means. And he says it means he questions things, but this throwaway moment had the potential to represent a theme in the picture: The jaggy question mark represented his cynicism about those people who were out to get him, people like the reporters who went after Flynn for living with an underage lover. How hard would it have been for the writers/directors to have tied the question mark into the scenes of “poor” Beverly collapsing as the press mobbed her at the airport after Errol’s sudden death from a heart attack?

Oh, sorry. Spoiler alert.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the picture would have helped: Any resemblance between this Errol Flynn and the real one is entirely coincidental. In truth, you didn’t want to spend an evening with the real Flynn by this point in his life. He was so debauched people didn’t recognize him—not even his frequent co-star and past love, Olivia de Havilland. He was by now the sum of thousands of bad decisions in his life, including washing down hard drugs with a fifth of vodka a day to ease the pain of having no money and few prospects. And he was a mean man, as described by Earl Conrad in Errol Flynn: A Memoir. Only an enabler would say that Errol Flynn was screwed over by life; Errol screwed himself over with all those bad decisions, one of them being to chase teenaged girls around.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Sorry folks, but this is the real Flynn in 1959. Paunchy, boozy, miserable. Bev looks awesome, though, and check out the caption where it says she’s 22.

Which leads me to the most perplexing thing about The Last of Robin Hood. Why in the world did the filmmakers choose this story about a man nearing 50 but looking older (cue the creepiness factor) having a sexual relationship with a girl who ages from 15 to 17? In our politically correct world, are you kidding?? We can’t feel sympathy for the predatory male, or for the girl who’s date-raped but stays with her attacker, or for the mother who wants her daughter to be a good girl on the one hand but play the Hollywood game on the other. It’s a fact that Flynn and Aadland had a close relationship, and a successful one—proving once again that you fall in love with who you fall in love with, and after a certain point, if the love is grand enough, it’s up to the world to deal with it. Flynn-Aadland was a salacious story when Flo Aadland sold it in The Big Love, a sleazy paperback published shortly after Flynn’s death. In our more enlightened age—actually I don’t think it’s more enlightened at all; I think it’s a more judgmental age and just as morally uptight—the Flynn-Aadland story simply couldn’t have succeeded in feature motion picture form as anything other than somebody’s tax write-off. It’s just a shame the three leads were wasted in this sanitized, superficial little fantasy version of complex, real-life happenings.

Earl Conrad got to know Flynn when Errol came down with writer’s block as he was drafting his memoirs; his publisher, Putnam, called Conrad in to save the day as Flynn’s ghostwriter. It’s interesting that the writing of My Wicked, Wicked Ways wasn’t interwoven into the plot of Last because this ultimate project of Flynn’s life engaged him just as much as Beverly did. In fact there’s your movie—why the hell didn’t they make this one: Flynn, the writer of two previous books and numerous pieces for major magazines, is now incapable of writing his greatest book of all. And as he works with Conrad, whom he despises, Flynn the actor and man comes face to face with a lifetime of demons, until, grudgingly, he begins to accept Conrad’s help, and then genuinely comes to admire and rely on him. I understand this story well because I knew Earl Conrad and we talked about it often, and a compelling drama it was as Flynn found redemption and then, finally, his missing words, with Earl’s guidance. I think a lot of people might have paid money to sit down and watch that one, with Kevin Kline as Flynn, Dakota Fanning as Beverly, and you name the Conrad. Matt Damon, maybe. I’d have been first in line and cried a river.

bev6

Beverly had a difficult time of it after Errol’s death, as this caption attests. Depicted with the coroner and police lieutenant is, wait, not Susan Sarandon, but the real Florence Aadland.

12 comments

  1. Hi Robert – I watched this movie as well. Sets were great, costumes authentic -but the single impression that has never left me was Klein’s (as Errol) comment to Flo “The mother always knows”. Nasty. I don’t like to think of Errol Flynn as mean however I have always thought that he would have dumped Beverly in a heart beat if it suited him. Yes – a movie surrounding the writing of his memoirs would have been interesting. I want to know who he could NOT put in the book for fear of lawsuits!

    1. That’s a great point, Maria, to get inside those conversations about what he wanted to write and couldn’t–there must have been some serious debating over Damita content given the lesbian angle that emerged……and then was removed from reprints. He admitted to having sex with Lupe Velez because she was already dead, but he was just friends with the ones who were still alive in 1959, or that’s what I’m remembering.

      The letters from Flynn to Conrad with book changes and additions, and my conversations with Earl back in the day, lead me to believe that Errol brightened considerably as the Wicked Ways project got back on track, so he wasn’t just a mean SOB from 1957 on.

  2. Robert, your observation about a film about the relationship between Errol Flynn and Earl Conrad makes for fascinating speculation. For it was on his Jamaican estate when being probed with questions by the ghost writer that Errol came the closest to ever being on a psychiatrist’s couch. I think that the experience (trying as it must have been for both men, at times, particularly in the early months) proved to be something of a rejuvenating experience for the aging star, as he stretched his memory as best he could to tell his story, and re-examine his life.

    The truth can be very ugly, at times, but, to the public, the movies and Errol Flynn (his heroic screen image, at least) were all about fantasy escape, Errol was known to tell a tall tale or two (or three), and he could do it with such charm, even in those final years in which it was a bloated, debauched version of himself that shuffled past a mirror he undoubtedly avoided.

    Conrad talked about it in his memoir of the actor: the best of man and the worst – it was all wrapped up in this Jekyll Hyde package called Flynn. Booze and drugs and a million bad decisions will do that to a man.

    In that respect, I’m glad to see you write, Robert, that Kevin Kline gave us a dignified version of an aging star running out of time. Errol would have appreciated it.

    “Thanks, old sport,” I can almost hear him say, as he raises a glass in salute to Kline, “And, you know, there were times, at my best, when I really could be that fellow, too.”

    1. Beautifully stated, Tom. From your tone, I take it you haven’t watched The Last of Robin Hood either? My Errol Flynn Slept Here co-author Mike Mazzone quoted me a ridiculously low number for earnings in theatrical release. Something like $300K. Can you imagine? So in presenting a fantasy version of Flynn that a micro-sub-niche of his devotees want to imagine (I’m talking a couple dozen people), and placing that imaginary character in a sordid story of statutory rape, the filmmakers managed to find the perfect antidote for audience participation.

      Thanks also for understanding my vision of making a feature of the real tug of war that My Wicked, Wicked Ways must have been. Oh to have been a fly on those walls, or better still to see Kevin Kline and Matt Damon recreating it on a soundstage. Talk about wicked, revealing fun that would have introduced new audiences to Errol Flynn.

  3. No, Robert, I haven’t quite found the heart to see The Last of Robin Hood, even though Kline’s portrait is, I gather, generally complimentary to the old boy.

    I am in complete accord with you about the fascination of seeing something, anything, a documentary, a film, a book, about the Flynn-Conrad relationship. Your own conversations with Conrad could add immeasurably to the project.

    It’s apparent from that Flynn-to-Conrad correspondence that you were kind enough to share on the E & O blog that Errol clearly had respect and, I think, affection for the author in those final months of his life. It even sounds as though Errol even had some hopes (illusions?) about becoming a writer once again, too.

  4. I feel doubts that Kevin Kline could play the truer-to-life Flynn that you describe. I love Kevin Kline, but I don’t know if he could go to that place and make it real. I’m thinking, and I’m just throwing this out there with not much thought: Ralph Fiennes. Or even, if he were alive, Alan Rickman! Think Rasputin. I love the idea of the movie you envision, but I don’t see anyone really pulling it off. Daniel Day-Lewis! Nick Nolte! I guess I can’t imagine anyone really channeling That Man. I guess I’d have to see Kevin in this film, but I don’t want to.

    And actually, yes. She looks 17.

    1. First of all, it’s great to hear from you, Sarah.

      I’d be interested to see Kevin Kline try the dark Flynn. He always had the Flynn vibe, if not the Flynn demons. I never cared for Ralph Fiennes; since I own the rights to this picture that’s all in my head, Ralph Fiennes doesn’t get to be in it. Rickman, as much as I love the guy and will always love him, I’m doubtful. But it’s a moot point because no one will ever back my dream Flynn picture after the financial debacle that was The Last of Robin Hood.

      1. Never say never, Robert. Somewhere out there, some .001 per-center is wondering what to do with her extra change.

        Thanks for screening this movie for me. I’d always wondered about it. Maybe Kevin could do it. He was darker in that Robert Redford movie about the Lincoln Assassination. Yes, that would be interesting. I’d also like to know why he agreed to this movie, and if the focus of it changed during production.

        I guess Ralph will get over it.

  5. Robert, I caught Jack Marino’s radio broadcast from last Sunday. Your pal, Steve Hayes, was on it and much of the show was a discussion of Errol. Much of what they discussed you already know. But I think it should serve as a reminder that the Flynn who allowed this young kid, Hayes, to stay at his Mulholland home for a little more than two months was a largely different man, in many ways, from the one interviewed by Conrad.

    That doesn’t mean that he still didn’t have a number of exasperating character flaws then, too, of course, but Hayes remembers the Flynn he knew (circa 1949 to 1950 period, or so) with an almost violent affection. “He was a very generously hearted man” he said, “You couldn’t help but like him.” He went on to say that Flynn was what might be termed a “flake” today, but that was his devil-may-care attitude.

    He also recalled a conversation he had with Patric Knowles, a Flynn friend of the ’30s, in which Knowles said, “Errol’s a jerk, he’s unreliable, he can be a mean drunk, and he went on a litany of things you didn’t like about him. But I’d do anything to be him.”

    Of course, I doubt that Knowles would have felt the same way about being Flynn towards the end of the ’50s, but it’s important to note the differences in the portraits of the same man from two different people, Hayes and Conrad, who knew him the better part of a decade apart.

    Beverly Aadland did bring Errol some happiness in those last two years and she, years later in a 1988 interview, like Hayes, spoke about Flynn with genuine affection (yes, this the Flynn of those final years of “meanness”).

    He was a man, it seems to me, with a multiude of character flaws who still had the ability to charm people into forgiving him. That was more the case in his earlier years, perhaps, but even towards the end, when he was desperate for money and his prospects looked grim, as his healthy was failing, his intelligence and humour (much of it ribald) still stand out in his autobiography, as well as his Conrad correspondence letters. That should be remembered, too, in a fair assessment of him, along with the negatives.

    He spent his final hour, immediately prior his fatal heart attack, telling Hollywood anecdotes to a few people in a doctor’s apartment. Flynn, the raconteur, Flynn the showman, right to the very end.

    1. I love Steve Hayes. He’s one of the most interesting, accomplished, reliable, honest, stand-up humans I’ve ever met. Steve talks with such affection about the Mulholland Farm, Warner Bros. movie star Flynn of 1949 … and with an equal and opposite frustration to the Flynn of 1957 and 58, living at the Garden of Allah a miserable shell of himself. Steve only had to walk across the street from Googie’s to see Errol, and he was loathe to do it because it was heartbreaking.

      I’m happy to hear Steve is still spreading the Flynn message and that Jack is still thriving with his show.

  6. I finally saw The Last of Robin Hood, having unexpectedly stumbled across a DVD of the film in a library. I can’t say that this little drama really made that much of an impression upon me, possibly due to the fact that it is, for the most part, a low key presentation, with the emotions largely muted, not unlike the pastel colours of the film’s photography which almost seem to set the film’s mood.

    I take nothing away from the performances of the three leads in the film, though, as you wrote, Robert, Susan Sarandon is undoubtedly far more of a babe version of Florence Aadland than was the real one of history. Dakota Fanning is sympathetic as Beverly, and Kevin Kline brings dignity to an aging swashbuckler.

    The omission of Flynn working on his autobiography (and being stimulated by the project as the months passed, to the point of ignoring Beverly, at times) is curiously missing, as you lamented, Robert. There is only a passing reference to his book in the film’s epilogue.

    I also found it curious that the film would have the historical inaccuracy of making it appear that the doctor’s home in which Flynn died was a bungalow, rather than in a Vancouver apartment. I know it’s a small point, but why?

    The anecdote that he tells the party guests at the end is the famous one of John Barrymore’s body being brought to his home by Raoul Walsh as a gag. I have never read anywhere what actual Hollywood anecdotes it was that Flynn told in his last hour. I wonder how historically accurate this part of the film was.

    One moment in the film, though (a very tiny one, admittedly) nearly knocked me over. It’s when Aadland is being walked through a hallway to meet Flynn for the first time, and the actor playing costume designer Orry Kelly, who is bringing her to him, knocks on the actor’s door. “Are you decent?” he asks through the door.

    “Never,” comes back a voice from within, “Come in.”

    Aside from it being the kind of quick witted response that Flynn might have made, I was astounded that the voice coming from the room sounded so eerily like Flynn’s. I replayed that scene on the DVD several times and almost wondered if it was the real Flynn’s voice they had used. Kline’s Flynn voice in this film is very good, but no where else in the film did it seem to be quite so stunningly accurate as in his first words spoken.

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