Posted by Susan Doll on September 15, 2014
Recently, 57-year-old actor Stephen Bauer was photographed with his new girlfriend, 18-year-old aspiring journalist Lyda Loudon. The paparazzi pounced on the couple as they emerged from a restaurant. Afterward, the media mentioned their age difference in every paragraph of the stories about their May-December romance as a way to hint that their relationship must be aberrant or deviant. I briefly thought of Bauer and Loudon as I watched The Last of Robin Hood, an indie film about Errol Flynn’s end-of-life romance with teenager Beverly Aadland. Apparently, the press treated Aadland with the same combination of sensationalism and disdain.
Kevin Kline, who looks and sounds like Flynn, offers a believable interpretation of the debauched movie star. Flynn was only 50 when he died, but after a lifetime of “living every day like it was my last” (as he says in the movie), he looked decades older. The film begins when Flynn meets 15-year-old Beverly on the Warner Bros. lot, where she is in the chorus of the Gene Kelly film Marjorie Morningstar. Flynn sends costume designer Orry-Kelly to bring her to his office/dressing room, where he proceeds to offer her an audition for a non-existent part. He seduces the teenager, robbing her of her virginity. Flynn continues to pursue young Beverly, who looks and acts older than an adolescent, and the two become seriously involved. After he learns Beverly’s actual age, he beguiles her mother into accompanying them when they are out on the town in order to create the illusion that he is actually fostering Aadland’s career.
Susan Sarandon costars as Beverly’s mother, Florence, a stage mother who has groomed her daughter for stardom since she was two years old. Florence, like many stage mothers, is living her own dreams of stardom through her child. In the film, she is blinded to Flynn’s real intentions because he affords her access to Hollywood inner circles. Dakota Fanning plays young Beverly, who, according to the movie, actually loved Flynn.
I wish I could say that I loved The Last of Robin Hood, or that it was a low-budget gem, but truth be told, the film is weak. Like many indie directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland came to feature filmmaking through circuitous routes; perhaps their background in reality television did not prepare them for such cinematic subtleties as depth of character or meaningful dialogue. Glatzer and Washington are associated with the series America’s Next Top Model; Glatzer has also dabbled in Divorce Court and the WWE, while Washington has directed several videos whose salacious titles suggest something other than family entertainment (Rubber Is Natural; Red Hot & Safe; Naked Highway). To be fair, a previous feature film, Quinceanera, garnered attention at Sundance, which may have been the bait to lure Sarandon, Kline, and Fanning to this project.
The only depth to the characters is provided by Sarandon and Kline, who make Florence and Flynn believable and sympathetic. Despite their talents, none of the characters really stand for anything; nor are they used to explore any of the potential themes inherent in the material—the tragedy of aging movie stars, the dark side of Hollywood, stardom as a dual-edged sword, or the loss of innocence. Except for the vicious nature of the entertainment press, the story lacks a thematic thread, a driving point, or even a point of view. It’s a superficial treatment of a notorious moment in Hollywood history.
Kline offers a lightness of touch in his portrayal of Flynn as the still-magical star who trades on his celebrity to get women, favors, and deals. However, while this Errol Flynn is indeed entertaining, the interpretation is merely a version of Flynn’s own star image—convivial, charming, roguish. There is no hint of what might drive such a man to willingly pursue a lifetime of hedonism at such a high cost. Sarandon makes the most of the facile psychology behind her character’s behavior. Flo’s career as an aspiring dancer was cut short when she lost a leg in a car accident. The car was driven by Beverly’s father, who had been drinking. Viewers are prompted to believe that the Aadland’ marriage was founded on guilt and Beverly’s destiny was determined the moment Flo’s leg was amputated. The weakest character is Beverly, whose desirability drives the initial action. In the scene in which Flynn spots her on the studio lot, she commands our attention because she is depicted center frame in a flaming red dress, strolling toward the camera. Sadly, that is the only suggestion that Beverly was a force of nature who could entice and handle Flynn. Between a poorly contrived narrative and a lack of perspective on the character, Beverly gets upstaged by Flynn’s star power and Flo’s driving ambitions. Fanning has revealed in interviews that she could not personally relate to Beverly, which does not help her interpretation of this poorly written role.
Having said that, I would not have missed The Last of Robin Hood for anything, and I recommend it to fans of Old Hollywood. I just want to make potential viewers aware of its shortcomings. At the very least, it offers an entertaining encapsulation of a salacious scandal involving a notorious movie star. More interestingly, the character of Errol Flynn illustrates the power of star image—an interest of mine for many years. I believe that the star system from the Golden Age was far more sophisticated and remarkable than given credit for, and the farther we are removed from that era, the less that system is understood. Prior to our current era of paparazzi, Entertainment Tonight, and TMZ—in which stars are regularly pummeled with rumors, exaggerations, accusations, and unflattering photos—movie stars had a different relationship with publicity and promotion. The entertainment press was part of the star-making process; studios and producers allowed fanzines, columnists, and reporters controlled access to performers in exchange for positive accounts of their lives and careers. Back in the day, rumors and scandals involving divorces and adultery were spun by writers to elicit sympathy and understanding for the stars. Of course, this system did not work 100% but destructive publicity was kept to a minimum. This changed during the 1950s when the studios let go of their hold over the star system and stopped protecting their stars through the control of publicity and promotion. The Last of Robin Hood follows a Golden Age star and his circle of intimates who are at the mercy of this shift in press tactics during the 1950s.
Flynn is the perfect star to consider in regard to his image in the press because of his rebellious attitude, hedonistic lifestyle, and reputation with women. His “wicked, wicked ways” were spun by studio publicists and fanzines during the Golden Age into stories about a handsome lovable rogue who was just irresistible to women, at least until the statutory rape trial. In November, 1942, Errol “in like” Flynn was charged with two counts of statutory rape. Warner Bros. hired ruthless Hollywood attorney Jerry Geisler to defend Flynn, and the hard-boiled lawyer dragged the two girls’ pasts through the mud, permanently tarnishing their reputations. Though Flynn escaped the charges, historians are divided on the long-term impact of the case on the star’s fans. In The Last of Robin Hood, an attorney friend warns Flynn to stay away from Aadland, reminding him of the consequences of the rape trial. Despite this ominous warning, the impact of the new tabloid press on Flynn personally is minimal in the film. When he receives bad notices from his performance in a Broadway play, he shrugs them off; ultimately, death provides the old movie star with an escape from the barbed tongues of the press. However, Beverly and Flo are burned by accusations and rumors during the scandal, suffering permanent scars and consequences.
Another aspect of Flynn’s level of star power is the ability to get away with behaviors that would otherwise be scorned. Today, there is a tendency to romanticize the sexual exploits of stars like Flynn, portraying them as rogues rather than roués. The Last of Robin Hood takes that approach, ultimately granting Flynn dispensation because he is an old-school movie star whose specialness allows him his dalliances with young girls. This is an exemption from social mores that Stephen Bauer will likely not get.
I pass no moral judgment here; I am merely bringing up the contradictions and complexities of movie stardom. And, what about the underage girls who make themselves available to older stars or powerful industry figures? Are they innocent victims of lecherous men who feel entitled; or are they groomed by stage mothers to be mature beyond their years? In the film, after Flo discovers Flynn and Beverly have been sleeping together for months, she prepares to tear into him, but he reminds her of her own complicity in “aging” her daughter. In order to appear older, Beverly dresses in sophisticated styles associated with adult women, and she and her mother habitually lie about her age—like so many others had before them, including Ann Miller, Lana Turner, and Betty Grable. There seems to be something about stardom in the Dream Factory that attracts young girls who may be 15 but are going on 40, though that is no excuse for them to be taken advantage of by self-serving men who should know better.
What about the real story of Beverly Aadland, who died in 2010? Aside from the starring role in Flynn’s last feature, Cuban Rebel Girls, Aadland did not receive a career boost from being his teenage lover; nor did he live long enough to make her his fourth wife. Aadland may have been sophisticated in the ways of sex and romance, but she was ill-equipped to deal with rabid reporters. For reasons never fully explained, Florence revealed Beverly’s real age to the press, which only created more trouble for them. Authorities wanted to charge Flo for contributing to the delinquency of a minor because she knew of her daughter’s relationship with Flynn, but Beverly refused to testify against her mother. The headlines and harassment continued into 1960, with Beverly unable to stay out of trouble. On April 10, one of Aadland’s beaus, 20-year-old actor William Stanciu, was shot in the head with his own gun after he forced his way into Flo and Beverly’s apartment. It remains unclear whether Aadland, her mother, or Stanciu pulled the trigger, because Beverly’s version of events changed so many times. Stanciu died the following day from the wound.
Beverly became a ward of the juvenile court system, and she was placed with a foster mother. At age 19, she married for the first time, while Florence was convicted of four counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Flo, who was divorced by this time, was placed on three years of probation. Two year later, she spent 80 days in jail for failure to pay a fine related to the case. Florence died on May 9, 1965, of cirrhosis of the liver and intestinal bleeding.
Beverly attempted a career as a singer. She was booked into clubs that exploited her notoriety as Flynn’s Last Fling. By the time she married Ronald Fisher in 1970, she had already lived a lifetime of ups and downs; she was 28.
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