Despite its impressive pedigree, including director Kathy Bates and actors Judy Davis and Sam Shepard, this lavish, highly stylized production takes a simplistic love-conquers-all approach to the complex relationship between writers Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, ultimately betraying its bohemian subjects’ cynical nature. Bates’ directorial debut is visually stunning and thesps Davis and Shepard are very credible in their parts, but Jerry Ludwig’s screenplay seems written by a star-struck fan infatuated with these larger-than-life characters. Pic features plenty of smoking, drinking, gambling, philandering and even more drinking, but little new insight on one of the literary world’s most infamous couples.
Granted, history paints varying portraits of Dash and Lilly, but certain truths are self-evident. Both writers were tremendously gifted people capable of great stoicism and supreme cruelty. Their tumultuous relationship saw them through Prohibition, two world wars, the McCarthy era, writer’s block and critical success.
Pic frames this love/hate story around Hellman’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Lifelong liberals, Dash and Lilly were part of the Hollywood crowd blacklisted for their political beliefs. As Hellman frets in a Washington hotel room, the movie flashes back to when these two icons met and began what would be a 31-year affair.
Hammett, the man who redefined the mystery genre with gritty characters like Sam Spade, was Hellman’s intellectual sparring partner. Her specialty was narcissistic heroines with a strong social conscience. Their attraction was immediate, but their volatile personalities made for a destructive match. Oddly compatible in the worst of their traits, Dash and Lilly were forever out of synch.
When his career was winding down, hers was heating up; when she wanted to get married, he had no interest, and vice versa. Bates gallops through the early years of their relationship in a blur of public brawls, tawdry affairs and endless escapades. They dined with Robert Benchley, partied with Dorothy Parker. They would have lived an enviable life if they hadn’t made each other so miserable.
These were not particularly likable people, but that’s never been a requirement for good drama. Besides, when put to life’s real tests, Dash and Lilly rose to the occasion. But while this movie seems concerned that we like them or, at least, be awestruck by them, it would have been more enlightening to explore how and why these two egomaniacs survived despite each other.
It’s only in the latter half of the telepic, when Dash and Lilly have become more reflective and less combative, that we get any sense of their true personalities. Just when the real drama begins, the movie ends.
Decades-spanning sets and costumes are painstakingly detailed, lending authenticity, while the jazzy musical score is slightly distracting.