Winner of this year’s Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book, William J. Mann’s Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood deals with the still-unsolved 1922 murder of noted director William Desmond Taylor. Like its subtitle suggests, Mann’s book is juicy stuff, detailing the underside of the Hollywood Dream Factory in the City of Angels.
Always on the lookout for a good story, the movies themselves have already drawn on the Desmond case for inspiration, most notably William Castle’s Hollywood Story in 1951, an interesting but now ignored B-movie. (Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard also includes a nod or two to the notorious scandal.) Here’s hoping the success of Mann’s book will finally prompt the kind of film the fascinating subject deserves.
Reading Tinseltown led me to revisit some fairly recent films that also dealt with real-life Hollywood crimes, still unresolved like Desmond’s murder. One of the very best is Hollywoodland (2006), which focuses on the suspicious death (murder or suicide?) of George Reeves, TV’s first Superman.
Ben Affleck, rebounding from a series of duds starting with the major stinker Gigli three years prior, gives a terrific performance as Reeves, the doomed typecast actor who was unable to put the cape and tights behind him. Whether Reeves shot himself or was murdered as a result of his affair with Toni Mannix, the wife (Diane Lane) of influential Hollywood producer Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) is the puzzle for a nosey reporter (Adrien Brody) with several problems of his own.
Complex and intelligent with a multilayered screenplay and solid production values, Hollywoodland should’ve been (but wasn’t) among the 2006 Oscar contenders in any number of categories. The same sorry fate attended the excellent 1981 film True Confessions, starring Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro as brothers (a cop and a priest) caught up in a brutal murder, loosely based on the infamous Black Dahlia case of 1947.
The real-life Black Dahlia was Elizabeth Short, a young woman whose horribly mutilated body was found “posed” on a vacant Los Angeles lot. Her personal connections with the movies were mostly, if not entirely, in terms of her hope to be a star, but the sordid details of her death made the poor woman tabloid and movie fodder.
In fact, the name “Black Dahlia” was reportedly attached to her by a reporter because of a contemporary noir thriller called The Blue Dahlia, written by Raymond Chandler and starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
In 2006, Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, based on a novel by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), made the story of Short’s death its central focus, but the highly, even wildly fictionalized version has little veracity. Nonetheless, De Palma’s film does link the tragedy of Short to the nightmare fantasies of Tinseltown, not unlike True Confessions. If one views the film as De Palma conceived it – an extravagant, stylized, and outlandish noir thriller as much about the movie world as the crime itself – Black Dahlia makes more sense.
The most recent reappearance of the Black Dahlia was in the “Spooky Little Girl” episode in Season 1 of American Horror Story with Mena Suvari (American Beauty) as Elizabeth Short’s ghost. Doomed in life but immortal in pop culture, the poor woman is to going to be haunting us for some time. According to an article in TIME earlier this year, the list of suspects is still substantial.
Meanwhile, the cameras continue to whir.