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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 08:11 pm

Hollywood is murder

Homicide is more fascinating when it’s dressed up in a Tinseltown story

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Willem Dafoe, Greg Kinnear in Auto Focus (2002)

Murder is more fascinating when it is dressed up as a true Hollywood story, and two new theatrical releases dramatize a pair of legendary stories. Hollywoodland delves into the mystery of Superman star George Reeves’ reported suicide that many believe was actually a murder, and The Black Dahlia is a fictionalized account of the infamous unsolved butchering of a young starlet in 1947.

These aren’t the first film treatments of true Hollywood murders, though. Auto Focus (2002) details the murder of actor Bob Crane, which officially remains unsolved. The murder exposed Crane’s secret lifestyle, which in many ways was more shocking than its conclusion. Crane first gained notoriety as the friendly neighbor on The Donna Reed Show, which led to his iconic starring role on Hogan’s Heroes. There has never been a more likable presence on television, and it was a complete contradiction to Crane’s pornographic lifestyle. Greg Kinnear perfectly balances the conflicting sides of Crane’s persona, and Willem Dafoe is at his creepy best as Crane’s associate in smut. Auto Focus is director/writer Paul Schrader’s best film in years.

John Holmes’ connection to porn was his career, but it was his depraved lifestyle off screen that inspired Wonderland (2003). The news reports about Holmes’ being questioned in a murder involving a blunt object seemed tailor-made for jokes, but the film misses that irony and much more. Val Kilmer injects the role with bravado but never really seems to be Holmes. Director James Cox is more interested in the sensational aspect of Holmes’ downward spiral into drug addiction than he is in exploring the psychological underpinnings of his failed career. The lack of empathy diminishes the potential impact of the chaotic multiple murders.

Dorothy Stratten’s acting career was cut short just as it was beginning. Star 80 (1983) is a searing account of her brief rise and fall. Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) was a Playboy Playmate whose career progressed to movies. After a few bits parts in minor films (Skatetown, U.S.A.), she was given a major role as a robot in the science-fiction spoof Galaxina (1980). That doesn’t say much for her acting ability. Stratten’s career was guided by psychotically jealous husband Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), who murdered her and then killed himself two months after the release of Galaxina. Hemingway is certainly odd casting, but Roberts needs little encouragement to play crazy. Star 80 isn’t in the same league as Bob Fosse’s other showbiz films, Lenny and All That Jazz, but it is worth a look.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Sept. 26): The Lake House, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and Curious George.

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