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.
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.
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.
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.