Like so many scribblings that turn up on this here blog, the following is actually the culmination of several different conversations and a few other odd little things.
I don’t know how many people know this, I suppose anyone who knows me at all well, but for about a decade or so, I have had one hero who towers over most of the others in so many ways. Step forward, Errol Flynn. It is the centenary of his birth this year, a landmark I’d forgotten about until the other week.
During a mock exam for Theatre Studies in Year 13, I got bored and started reading My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Errol’s autobiography, instead of writing my paper. It had a lot of the big allegations (and truths) removed back when it was published, and there’s all sorts of things I wouldn’t believe if I’d seen them. It also made no mention of his fifteen-year-old girlfriend beyond a dedication to "a small companion".
I had a conversation the other day about another actor who seems to me to differ from Flynn in only one respect: he’s alive. If the internet gossip blogs are telling the truth (and sometimes they are, you know), he’s probably Errol for the 21st Century, right down to the rumours of being fond of occasional manlove. He also features in action movies, though more shouty than swashbuckling, and though not quite so beautiful (who is?) I think he’s sometimes almost as charming and charismatic on screen.
If he’s the New Flynn, then I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. I’ve loved Flynn for ten years or so, but it was, is and always will be, of the most absolute platonic sort, not because he’s long-dead, but because I don’t believe I could be in love with someone so completely unable to dedicate himself to one person, to love one person. There are things about Flynn that I dislike: the penchant for younger ladies, for one (if the internet is true, New Flynn just about fulfils this criterion too). The drugs for another (again the internet for New Flynn). I was never more disappointed in Flynn than when I saw a documentary and his daughter talked of his twenty/twenty-five year morphine addiction, though not because of the addiction. In My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn says he experimented, had a bad few weeks and was helped out of it by friends. It wasn’t the drugs that made me cry, it was the fact that he’d lied. The reason I’d loved that man wasn’t the legend, it was the way he had chosen a way to live and was unapologetic for it. He lived by his own rules and to the devil for anyone who wouldn’t let him. That’s what I loved and respected. And he lied just like everyone else, in the end.
I never felt sorry for him, this alcoholic, drug-addicted, serial shagger movie star, not ever. Even when I read between the lines of My Wicked Wicked Ways or read the actual lines in trash-biography books like Satan’s Angel, I never felt sorry for him, because he had lived the way he wanted to. Then I saw My Favorite Year and another of my heroes, PETER O’TOOLE, played a fellow called Alan Swann with such grace and pathos that I realised that for all his charm, charisma, beauty and outright wonder, Errol Flynn was ultimately a sad, pathetic little man just like the rest of us. He died as alone as the rest of us, for all the In Like Flynn escapades, for all his Cuban exploits, for all of his nose-thumbing to authority, Errol was like the rest of us. I could hardly bear the sorrow that day, although I’ve seen My Favorite Year many times since and of all the DVDs I’ve imported from America, it was the most important to me (Dancing Lady strangely low down the list!).
Still, the humanising of Errol Flynn has allowed me to see him with fresh eyes and I’m glad to say I love him no less. He is, and ever will be, the most beautiful man, I have ever seen. He makes Ben Barnes look like Sid James. Of all the movie stars I’ve seen grace the screen (ie, most of them), only Valentino has a power almost equal to Flynn’s in terms of keeping one’s gaze directed at him, and only him. I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on TCM and taped it off there before I got a copy of the video proper, and at one time I would arrive home from school, put the video straight on and watch it. Then rewind and watch again. I could probably quote the whole damn script given half a chance, and there are lines from it that will stay with me forever:
"Why, you speak treason!"
I think that one, brief exchange between Maid Marian and Robin Hood is what pulled me in. Who else could’ve pulled off a line like that? When it first came out, I thought Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was OK. Not great, but I liked the legend itself so I watched it. I can’t watch it anymore, not because of Costner’s performance, or Slater’s nonsense or the other awfulnesses, but because I’ve seen Flynn now and can’t go back. If only we could transplant Rickman’s Sheriff into the ‘proper’ film…
There’s something knowing about every film Flynn did, so that even when you’re watching some terrible films, Flynn lets you the audience know that he knows it’s terrible too. I’ve seen awful films elevated to enjoyable by that alone. This was not a po-faced "WHAT DON’T YOU FUCKING UNDERSTAND?" method actor, and yet he possessed each of his characters quite completely. I loved that about him from the first scenes of Robin Hood through to this morning, when I finally saw The Master of Ballantrae on TCM. Ballantrae is a bad film, but even with his face ravaged by years of hard living, neglect and dissipation, Flynn is still a movie star and yes, my eyes still followed him so intently that I can hardly tell you what the guy playing his brother looked like. I’d hardly even have noticed Roger ‘Colonel Blimp’ Livesey if it weren’t for the fact he was touting some terrible Oirish accent about with him. There is something about a man who had such a power even when his looks have mostly abandoned him.
So no, I really don’t care what shit Flynn got up to during his eventful 50 years. I don’t care if he murdered a native person in New Guinea and I don’t care if he was boffing 15/16 year old girls (partly because I think they were probably more than keen). I happen to not believe the unsubstatiated rumours of him being a Nazi spy, mostly because he appears to me to be far more socialist than anything – he went to Cuba for the revolution, for God’s sake! I don’t care about any of it, not because I’m heartless, but because watching him in those films, all I see is that face and all I feel is the waves of charm rolling from the screen.
He wasn’t as far as I can see a good man, but he was great in his way. He was unapologetic about the life he chose to life, and I don’t suppose he regretted most of it. Time will tell if the New Flynn actually is the New Flynn, but I don’t think I’ll live to see anyone truly fulfil the same place in the world. After all, Pirates of the Caribbean managed to resurrect the swashbuckler, but the role Errol once took had to be split between two people: Depp and Bloom. Incidentally, he’d already taken part in parodying the form with The Adventures of Don Juan in ’48.
He was a bastard who likely brought as much misery as joy to anyone who loved him at the time. I wouldn’t have much liked being one of his wives, or children, but I love him. There’s nothing you could tell me that could possibly change that, and that ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is pretty well the dictionary definition of a True Movie Star.