Errol Flynn just might be the role Kevin Kline was born to play, but “The Last of Robin Hood” doesn’t do either actor justice, reducing the matinee idol’s scandalous final fling — with 15-year-old starlet Beverly Aadland (an older-looking Dakota Fanning) — to a waxy, smallscreen-caliber intrigue. It’s as if co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland fell for this wild and crazy true Hollywood story on the strength of its sheer outrageousness and then grew too close to the surviving characters over the course of their decade-long research and development, defanging what could have been a saucy period romp.
The public likes its celebrity peccadilloes steaming fresh, suggesting tough travels for this long-petrified intrigue. If the identical scenario were to happen in Hollywood today, however, audiences would be ravenous for juicy inside details. But given the 1950s setting, you can practically imagine them asking, “Errol who?” as they pass over a project that superhumanly attempts to represent all three perspectives: Flynn’s last great love, young Beverly’s naive infatuation and her mother’s astonishing ability to ignore what was happening right under her nose.
As played by Susan Sarandon, Florence Aadland should have been the most fascinating character here. After all, May-December romances are something of a cliche in Tinseltown, where bright young things are easily enticed by any advantage their careers can get. But Beverly’s situation was unique in that her mother — a washed-up dancer with a wooden leg who’d been lying about her daughter’s age for years — was so blinded by whatever vicarious thrill she got from Beverly’s success that she practically thrust the two lovers together.
Flynn makes the first move, however, spying Beverly from across the studio backlot in one of cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ few striking shots: Fanning is seen reflected in a window, behind which Kline surveys a parade of young starlets. Simmonds typically brings a far more organic look to his Ramin Bahrani collaborations, disguising their low-budget origins, whereas here, one can’t help but recognize all the ways the production had to cut corners in re-creating the period (sets seem underdressed, rooms look overlit, and streets are empty, except for Flynn’s lone vintage automobile).
The directors based the script not only on Florence Aadland’s “The Big Love,” a highly suspect account of her daughter’s love affair, but also firsthand interviews with Beverly Aadland and her Hollywood High classmate Ronnie Shedlo (played by Matt Kane), who served as Flynn’s assistant. Shedlo was the one who drove the star to meet with Stanley Kubrick about playing Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” an irony almost too good to be true.
All of this research turns up fascinating details that might have otherwise been lost to time (including a hilariously campy reconstruction of Flynn’s “Cuban Rebel Girls” shoot), but interferes with the script’s ability to assume a single point of view, which would have given audiences an easier time of connecting with this creepy story. Nabokov himself surely would have appreciated the unreliable-narrator angle, had the co-writers opted to privilege either Flynn’s or Florence’s version of events (and viewers surely would have been smart enough to take their accounts with a grain of salt). Alternately, a “Rashomon” approach, in which similar events are seen through different sets of eyes, might have worked.
Instead, the script represents a too-tame middle ground, which gives the unfortunate impression that perhaps the filmmakers want us to empathize with this icky romance. For openly gay directors Glatzer and Westmoreland (who were on more comfortable ground with “The Fluffer” and “Quinceanera”), that’s an incredibly risky position to take, as homophobes level the argument that allowing gay rights opens the door to all sorts of other unconventional relationships — of which statutory rape by a straight, pushing-50 star needs no champions.