Joe DiPietro’s “noir thriller” Hollywood has four or five different strands at odds with each other. It’s a mystery: who killed famed director William Desmond Taylor? It’s a history: of early Hollywood and the rise of the Hays Code of conduct. It’s often presented as a silent film, albeit talky, with piano accompaniment; it’s a lurid, ripped-from-the-headlines exposé (possibly the first national one at that); and, on occasion, a musical. There are also times when you’d swear the whole thing’s a spoof, even of itself. The world premiere isn’t a mess, exactly, just quite messy — more film blanc than film noir.
After World War I, silent movies grew with the Jazz Age in popularity and condemnation. Prohibition ruled the land (on the surface, at least) and conservative interests yearned to regulate morality in general — with Hollywood for starters.
It didn’t help Tinseltown’s image that Fatty Arbuckle, the silent-film comedian, was tried three times for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, and finally acquitted. Or that someone shot William Desmond Taylor in the back, also in 1922. And that, two years later, producer-director Thomas Ince died or was murdered aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, Oneida, off Coronado — shot either by a jealous Hearst or Charlie Chaplin, or was it an accident? Hearst’s papers said “accident” and sealed that tomb in record time.
The Taylor and Ince murders suggest a conspiracy against popular film directors. But the motives were more about the heart than the art.
On the night of February 1, 1922, after sipping verboten Orange Blossom gin cocktails at his Alvarado Court bungalow with Mabel Normand, William Desmond Taylor walked his star comedic actress to her car around 7:30 p.m. He left his door open. Then went back to do his taxes. Sometime between 7:45 and 8:15, neighbors heard a car backfire. The next day his “houseman,” Henry Peavy, discovered Taylor on the floor face up and dead. When Peavy turned the body over he found a big red splotch on the white shirt. Powder burns suggested that the murderer stood at close range and was five feet tall.
Before the police arrived, many of Taylor’s friends ransacked the bungalow. They ran off with photos and letters and other potential evidence — and not for souvenirs.
So, whodunit? Mabel Normand comedienne/drug addict? Or 19-year-old child star Mary Miles Minter, who had an “unyielding infatuation” for Taylor? Eddie Sands, Mabel’s pusher? Patricia Palmer, one of over 300 people who confessed to the crime? Or how about Charlotte Shelby, Minter’s controlling stage-mother, who had a snub-nose .38, just like the one used on Taylor and who bribed the D.A. to clam up.
King Vidor, obsessed with the case, tabbed Shelby. She wanted to shield Taylor from her daughter. Hollywood fingers the villain, too. But who knows? — since everyone plays the lead in their own movie.
To call Hollywood “noir” is misleading. The sleek, “dark films” of the ’40s and early ’50s drip with sloe-eyed menace. And they don’t have Will Hayes intruding on scenes and shouting “depravity.” Hayes (Patrick Kerr, trapped between a bumbling, Columbo-like detective and an anti-Semitic, reactionary moralist) came to clean up Hollywood’s act. He devised the Motion Picture Production Code for censoring films. “It’s not easy being a conservative in a liberal town,” he bemoans.
As written, Hayes is puddle-deep, more a vehicle to explore themes than a credible being. Same with the other characters. All are cartoony plot devices. In the second act, as if realizing they need shoring up, Hollywood adds an occasional backstory. But these attempts feel tacked on, as when Charlotte (playhouse favorite Harriet Harris) delivers a heroic, albeit gratuitous, diatribe about a self-made woman in a male-dominated industry. The attempts also halt the pace and blur the tone.
Director Christopher Ashley and his designers shore things up with theatricality. A sound stage becomes a free zone for fact and fantasy: flashbulbs flicker like silent-movie frames; Taylor (suave Scott Drummond) dies several times by different hands (but why does he wave good-bye and roll off the stage? It’s a funny bit, a literal “fade out,” but noir?). Kate Rockwell (Mabel) and Talene Monahon (Minter) wear some of Paul Tazewell’s jazziest costumes, but their characters remain vapid.
Among its many layers, Hollywood deliberately breaks many a Hays Code commandment, with its “don’ts” and “be carefuls”: “sex in an improper manner” — on a park bench, check; nudity — frontal, check; ridicules public officials — bribed D.A, check; “white slavery” (if you count how the studios ruled over child stars), check; offends religious beliefs, emphasizes violence, vulgar postures — wait! It may break all 13! Throw in F-bombs, and, Toto, we aren’t in a 1922 movie anymore.
But where are we? Hard to say since the script, like a remix in a mixmaster, can’t make up your mind.
Hollywood, by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Christopher Ashley; cast: Matthew Amendt, Wayne Barker, Jacob Bruce, Scott Drummond, Shaun T. Evans, Harriet Harris, Patrick Kerr, Katherine Ko, Jeff Marlow, Martin Meccouri, Talene Monahon, Kate Rockwell, Lee Sellars, Caroline Siewert, Terrance White; scenic design, Wilson Chin; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Brinkley; sound, Chris Luessmann; projections, Tara Knight
Playing through June 12; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 7 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.