Brian De Palma hates me. I've determined that is the only explanation for why he is slowly ripping out my heart and giving me an extreme migraine. I'm pretty sure I've alluded to this once or twice before (but I'm not going to go search for it), but James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia is one of my all-time favorite books. In my own little fantasy world of being a filmmaker, adapting The Black Dahlia to the big screen has been my dream project ever since I first read the book sometime around 1990. Discovering Ellroy and this novel was a virtual accident. I walked into a Waldenbooks in San Francisco, was browsing the mystery titles and ran across the book cover pictured here. It's the one and only time I've purchased a book in large part due to the cover art. That deco-stylized picture drew me in, and the description on the back sounded interesting enough, so I bought it. I read it. I loved it, later becoming obsessed with all things Ellroy and all things related to the real "Black Dahlia" murder case.
Of course, my story isn't all that unique. "The Black Dahlia" murder remains one of the most famous and baffling unsolved murder cases in the history of Los Angeles and even the country. In Ellroy's novel (which was the start of a series of '40s and '50s LA noir – including L.A. Confidential -- novels that weren't exactly sequels of each other but all existed in the same world and involved a few overlapping characters), two boxers-turned-cops best friends find their relationship become strained when they become embroiled in the murder case of Elizabeth Short, who before she was identified was called "The Black Dahlia." Ellroy's novel is fiction, but the details he uses about the "Black Dahlia" case are all based on his own obsessive research, a long-time venture for him due at least in part to his other attempts to solve the murder of his own mother, a search he writes about in My Dark Places. The Dahlia is just a catalyst for Ellroy's story concerning the dangers of obsession as one of these cops in particular falls in love with the Dahlia as he investigates the case.
Elizabeth Short was that kind of figure, or at least photo. An unremarkable in life wannabe starlet, in death she became fascinating due to the gruesome and bizarre nature of her murder. (Her body was found in an empty lot, cut in two at the waist, completely disemboweled and cleaned so not a speck of blood was visible. There's more, but you get the idea.) Just as main character Bucky Bleichert was instantly drawn to the Dahlia, I was drawn to the cover, which itself was little more than an altered version of the most famous photo of the living Elizabeth Short.
I know. By now you're wondering what any of this has to do with Brian De Palma, and why I think he must hate me. Well, De Palma is in pre-production on a film version of The Black Dahlia. If that were all of it, I'd have problems, but I wouldn't be having seizures. I was once an enormous fan of De Palma (more on that later). Many of his early films bordered on brilliant. He was heavily influenced by contemporary Italian cinema like that of horror-meister Dario Argento and neorealist turned European-mod master Michelangelo Antonioni. Of course, the influence of Alfred Hitchcock is the most apparent what with De Palma directing virtual remakes of Psycho (the phenomenal and underrated Dressed to Kill) and Rear Window and Vertigo (combined in the fantastic Body Double). His Carrie remains one of, if not the, best adaptations of any Stephen King novel. But De Palma truly hit his stride with The Untouchables and the criminally neglected Casualties of War (an extraordinary Vietnam War film that has been overlooked ever since its original release) before getting into trouble with Bonfire of the Vanities and then not being content to simply imitate Hitchcock but seemingly deciding to imitate himself imitating Hitchcock. He also decided to spend more time trying to work as a director-for-hire on huge budget films (the fun Mission: Impossible; the absolutely awful Mission to Mars) and less finding stories that fit his sensibilities.
But I digress.
Slightly. De Palma directing is potentially bad enough because I just don't think he's really all that interested in putting an effort into his films. De Palma directs for a paycheck because he doesn’t know what to do. But the real problem, at least regarding The Black Dahlia, revealed itself when it was announced that Josh Hartnett and Mark Wahlberg. (Wahlberg later dropped-out of the film.) Hartnett – who simply put, can't act!!!! -- will be playing Bleichert, the emotional center of the entire film. Hartnett – an actor of no subtlety – must play a role filled with internal turmoil, showing the obsession and descent into craziness that his character undergoes. Could they have made a worse choice in casting?
Additionally, if De Palma's films show anything, it's that the more he has to work with and guide the actors due to their own crappiness or try to improve a mess of a script, the worse the movie turns out. Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Robert De Niro didn't need his help -- The Untouchables was brilliant. Sean Penn, Michael J. Fox and a then-still-unknown John C. Reilly in Casualties of War. And David Mamet's and David Rabe's respective screenplays made his job easy as well.
De Palma's strengths are primarily visual – he's a better tone-setter than storyteller. Perfect examples are Mission: Impossible (which I really enjoyed but most people seem to have found the story ultra-confusing) and Femme Fatale (a simple rip-off of many of his earlier films that didn't enjoy the talent level of the cast or a convincing enough story, but enjoyed some critical success because it was a shadow of a reminder of the spellbinding films De Palma once made).
So while De Palma may be able to create a decent feel and mood for this late-'40s noir-style murder story, having Hartnett as the emotional center of the film is a travesty. This guy is more bland than Keanu Reeves, and Bleichert is a very complex character. Although he has since dropped-out, I wasn't too happy about Wahlberg either. I actually really like Wahlberg in specific roles (and after seeing I ♥ Huckabees, I'm one of many convinced that he should try to do more comedy), but this film wouldn't have been one of them.
Of course Wahlberg may have been preferable to the rumor last month that Paul Walker was lobbying to replace him. If there's a dumber, less-interesting, pretty-boy actor toplining films in Hollywood right now than Hartnett, it's fucking Paul Walker.
Next thing you know, the casting of Scarlett Johansson is announced, and while I'm as big a fan of hers as the next guy, especially post-Lost in Translation, she's just flat out wrong for the role of Kay Lake, whos is supposed to be so enticing a woman that she comes between Bleichert (who loves her) and his best-friend, Lee Blanchard (who's her lover).
Meanwhile, the straw broke my back yesterday when I read the latest news: Hilary Swank has joined the cast in the role of Madeline Sprague, the closest thing to a femme fatale in this story, who Bleichert learns had a brief affair affair with the dead Short, and becomes a second seductress (and more dangerous one) to capture Bleichert's attention. Swank is a good actress, and I'll definitely allow for the possibility of her surprising me more than the rest of this case, but she's also simply wrong for this role.
And to add to the misery, the film, scheduled to start shooting in April, will be produced primarily in Bulgaria. Yes, they claim that there will be some location shooting in L.A., and I'm sure the choice of Bulgaria (every time I say it, I still don't believe it) is primarily for cost reasons, but this is a story that oozes L.A., and even though many of the real locations have changed dramatically over the past 60 years, it's a story that should be shot as much as possible (not simply a few locations) in that town in order to capture that authentic feel. That's what Curtis Hanson did when he (successfully) tackled L.A. Confidential, the third book in Ellroy's "L.A. Quartet." Unfortunately, I don't know that De Palma has that much sense, at least not anymore.
The really depressing thing is that for a long time this film was being developed by David Fincher for him to direct himself. What a better movie that would be. Hell, you could stick his two Fight Club stars (Edward Norton and Brad Pitt) in there and be much better off than Hartnett (and Lord help us, please not Walker). And instead of Johannson, maybe Jennifer Connelly? Or Natalie Portman, if you're really trying to go young, although I think that's part of the problem with Johansson – she's too young-seeming for the role. Instead of Swank, Angelina Jolie? There are big names that would have worked and been so much better. (sigh)
Anyway, the film hasn't started shooting, and I'm already certain this is going to be a huge "what-might-have-been" train wreck. It depresses me. Seriously. Why do I think De Palma has it in for me? (Not so seriously, but there's story here.)
When I was doing the entertainment journalist thing and on what some call the junket circuit, I finally had the opportunity to interview De Palma. This was back in 1993 for Carlito's Way. At the time, I was 21 and an enormous De Palma fan. I had seen everything I could get my hands on, read several books about him and was probably more excited about doing this junket than almost any of the 200-odd interviews I had participated in or conducted over the previous two-plus years. I don't get starstruck by celebrities or filmmakers, but I was nervous about meeting De Palma, and I proceeded to do something that only the most pathetic of all film geeks (read: me) would do in this situation. I wrote him a letter.
I stayed up for something like two hours writing basically a fan letter on Regency Hotel stationary to Brian De Palma. I wanted to tell him how obsessed I was with movies and how his work especially spoke to and inspired me, helping to drive my goal of becoming a filmmaker. He and his film school colleague Martin Scorsese were the models of what I wanted to become as a filmmaker (in no small part due to the fact that I was just out of school, living in LA, and dying to move to New York, maybe to attend NYU). I was also hoping to find a job in film production at the time, so while I didn't include a resume in the envelope, I'm sure I was hoping that I might have a shot to become his assistant on a future film … or something.
So yeah, I wrote this stupid letter, and I sealed the envelope, and the next morning I went to the appointed suite for my little group to conduct its interviews. We went through them all, and De Palma came to us last. And what a fucking bastard he was. Sure, he had to put up with plenty of inane questions, but there were some good ones too about the film and filmmaking. Sure, you could see he was already tired from answering why he would make another film so similar to Scarface, just as the year before for Raising Cain, I'm sure he was asked why he had started copying his own films by simply combining Body Double and Dressed to Kill. Still, he so obviously didn't want to be there. He so noticeably hated talking about his film or even trying to place any real artistic import on it. This was the moment (for me) when I could have foreseen the rest of De Palma's career – selling-out and becoming not much more than a Hollywood hack, working-for-hire and little else. (To be fair, Femme Fatale may not have done it for me, but at least it seemed a bit like an attempt to return to a more stylized De Palma and was certainly not a big studio production.)
Still, although I had been disappointed by one of my idols, it only got worse, because being 21 and stupid, I still decided to give this big-shot director my little letter. So out in the hallway as he's waiting for the elevator, I gathered my nerve, walked up to him and introduced myself. I then told De Palma that I really enjoyed the interview and as both a film lover and student, I really admired his work. I then said I had a little note to give him. He sort of chuckled in a somewhat dismissive and arrogant way (as if to say, "Whatever, you little puissant"), said, "Thanks," turned and got in the elevator which had just arrived. I have no proof, of course, but I could just picture him crumpling up the envelope without even opening it, throwing it away, and then laughing to somebody about the silly kid who must have written him a fan letter.
But see, all of that is a good reason for me to hate Brian De Palma, not for him to hate me. So why the hell are you about to ruin my favorite book?!?
I don't hate De Palma the filmmaker though. I still love much of his work, at least the stuff from the '70s and '80s, and I don't actually even hate his rehashes into the mid-'90s. And every time I hear about a new Brian De Palma film, I hope for the best, truly wanting to be swept away into the world he creates; thinking that maybe this time, the good De Palma, the one who actually cares more about what's popping on screen than his next paycheck, will show up.
Maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment. The Black Dahlia will be his biggest test yet, but so far, before even one frame of film has been shot, he's failing miserably.