For nearly 60 years, one story has captivated the horrified imagination of a city and inspired scores of newspaper, book and screenplay writers to ponder the dark, diabolical impulses of humanity. This cautionary tale has served as warning to wide-eyed starlets who come west to chase their dreams of Tinseltown. And it all began with an unremarkable girl hungry for stardom.
In life, she was called Elizabeth "Betty" Short, a 22-year-old aspiring actress from the East Coast who wore a delicate flower in her raven hair and became many things to many people--dear friend, beloved sister, estranged daughter, frequent girlfriend and accused prostitute.
On January 15, 1947, she was discovered brutally splayed in a vacant lot near Leimert Park in downtown Los Angeles. Naked, cut in half at the waist, her organs were removed and blood drained from her small body in an attack so grisly that most images were kept from the public. Her killer had bludgeoned her, sodomized her and had slit her mouth from ear to ear in a sickening, clownish grin. False accusations and confessions still abound, and Betty's remains one of the most gruesome, unsolved homicides in the City of Angels' history.
In death, she would become newly christened and forever remembered as The Black Dahlia.
Forty years after her killing, crime novelist JAMES ELLROY ("L.A. Confidential," "American Tabloid") wrote "The Black Dahlia," a best-selling whodunit with Betty's murder as its crux and boom-era L.A. as its backdrop. Weaving a story of obsession, body doubles
and those who became fixated on the brutal homicide, Ellroy hoped the book would help exorcise demons from his own mother's 1958 strangulation.
Now, master storyteller BRIAN DE PALMA, director of such classic crime dramas as The Untouchables, Scarface and Carlito's Way, and suspense thrillers Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, films screenwriter JOSH FRIEDMAN's (War of the Worlds) adaptation of Ellroy's classic. Known for his works' multi-layered themes of unrestrained passions, doppelgangers, vivid violence and ruinous obsessions--motifs and throughlines he shares with Ellroy--De Palma would become the most likely of filmmakers to finally bring the tragic, lurid tale to the screen.
The Black Dahlia weaves a fictionalized tale of lust, love, corruption, greed and depravity around the brutal murder of the fledgling Hollywood starlet that shocked and fascinated the nation in 1947 and remains unsolved today. In the film, we meet Betty Short in the heyday of post-World War II Los Angeles. Corrupt politicians manipulate dirty cops who help ruthless gangsters fund seedy filmmakers as they prey on young actresses desperate to find their place in a fantasy world.
Enter onto the scene two ex-pugilist police officers, Lee Blanchard (AARON ECKHART) and Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (JOSH HARTNETT), the poster boys for 1940's LAPD. The new partners' first homicide case starts with a call from their supervisor, Detective Millard (MIKE STARR), to investigate the slaying of the ambitious silver screen B-lister Betty Short (MIA KIRSHNER), just as they are leaving a deadly shootout.
Blanchard and Bleichert, like the rest of the fascinated city, become drawn into the lurid world of the Dahlia's L.A. While Blanchard's growing preoccupation with the Dahlia's murder threatens his relationship with girlfriend Kay Lake (SCARLETT JOHANSSON), Bleichert finds himself irresistibly drawn to the enigmatic Madeleine Linscott (two-time Oscar® winner HILARY SWANK), the daughter of one of the city's most prominent families--who just happens to have an unsavory connection (and resemblance) to the Dahlia.
Blanchard spins into obsession trying to solve the case, seeing in Betty the chance to redeem himself for letting down the other women in his life that he failed to protect.
Bleichert, too, begins to question his own footing as his feelings fluctuate wildly between two disparate dames: the seemingly innocent Kay and the knowingly seductive Madeleine--whose unhinged mother, Ramona (FIONA SHAW), proves to hold more than a passing clue to the mystery.
Determined to be famous, destined to be infamous, Betty Short affected more lives dead than she possibly could alive. She dreamed of being photographed for the big screen but wound up the pin-up girl of tabloid autopsy photos. Now, director De Palma brings his signature style and sharpest directorial instincts to take us into her world and the ones that revolved around her story.
True crime meets urban legend when The Black Dahlia arrives on the big screen.
Possessing The Black Dahlia: Betty's Journey to the Silver Screen
Elizabeth "Betty" Short was born July 29, 1924, in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. Like many young aspiring actresses in boom-era World War II, she was chasing a big dream: to make it in Hollywoodland. At the age of 19, she headed west to California, bouncing from her father's home in Vallejo to the city of Santa Barbara before heading south to L.A.
During her time in the city, her tale briefly reads like that of many an ingénue. She auditioned for a number of screen tests, lived for a time at the Chancellor Arms Apartments and was rumored to have frequented hotspots like the Pig & Whistle on Hollywood Blvd., the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Blvd. and the Biltmore Hotel on Grand Ave. Indeed, it was at this very hotel, on January 9, 1947, that Betty was allegedly meeting a gentleman friend. It was the last time she would be seen alive.
Because of Betty's raven hair, her penchant for dressing in black, habit of wearing a beautiful flower in her hair and the 1946 release of the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake film The Blue Dahlia, she was given a nickname to tease her in life and own her in death. People became fascinated with her lurid tale, one seemingly plucked straight out of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel. Indeed, most who became involved with the case became obsessed with either saving or trashing the Dahlia's reputation.
The gruesome murder of the young girl took Hollywood and the country by storm in 1947. The entertainment capital was filled with mob bosses, dirty studio executives, corrupt cops and people willing and ready to take advantage of a young woman…and the juicy details of her murder. For months, the L.A. Examiner, Los Angeles Times and every rag that could make up or scrape up a story about Betty splashed headlines across their mastheads--from "Who Killed Betty Short?" to "Black Purse, Shoes: Hot Dahlia Leads." Hers would become a story of Hollywood legend…and occupy one young boy's imagination for a lifetime.
Betty entered the mind of novelist James Ellroy when he was just a child. Only 11 years old when he received Jack Webb's crime anthology, "The Badge," from his father, the L.A. native was entranced by Webb's 10-page summary of Elizabeth Short's demise. His mother, Jean Hilliker, had been strangled only months before in a brutal (and to this day unsolved) crime, and the boy's inability to openly grieve her death transferred into an obsession with the Dahlia.
Ellroy, like many others before and since, would chase the story of this iconic Hollywood girl for years. He recalls, "I bike-tripped to the Central Library. I scanned the Dahlia case on microfilm and gorged myself on vanished L.A. I time-tripped '59 to '47 L.A. I made L.A.-now L.A.-then. I began to live in the dual L.A. that I've lived in ever since."
In fact, Ellroy would wait to write his seventh novel--the first of his L.A. quartet--1987's "The Black Dahlia," until he "built story-telling muscle" with his earlier works, "Brown's Requiem," "Clandestine," "Blood on the Moon" and "Suicide Hill." The author admits he "needed to brace myself for life in L.A. '47."
For Ellroy, the Dahlia wouldn't rest with the end of his book. He would go on to write a 1996 novel entitled "My Darkest Places," a memoir of his mother's 1958 murder. "I had to go through a very long journey with Elizabeth Short and write 'The Black Dahlia' before I could get to my mother. Elizabeth Short was always the fictional stand-in for my mother. And my mother and she transmogrified, it was quite a heady brew. They are as one, in my mind, much of the time."
Screenwriter Josh Friedman was originally tasked to hone Ellroy's 300-plus-page "The Black Dahlia" into a filmable screenplay for director David Fincher--initially attached to the project in 1997--and producers Rudy Cohen and Moshe Diamant. "David and I worked on it off-and-on it for several years," Friedman notes. "I would write a draft, and we would talk about it…then we'd work on other projects."
Eventually Fincher departed the film and, according to Friedman, "Brian De Palma came on, and it was like a locomotive. At Brian and Art's (producer Linson) urging, we made some significant changes to the script, and we were off."
Of his source material, the screenwriter offers, "I tend to not think of it as a genre book, but simply as historical fiction. I went with the way Ellroy told the compelling story…he has such a unique way of interweaving. I very much kept to the structure and the attitude of his characters engendered in the book."
"James creates a whole noir world, and the way he tells his stories are very complex," director De Palma adds. "His language is so lush. Josh was a very good barometer of what you could and couldn't do with his work. He lived and breathed Ellroy's complex, dark material for a decade, forcing the material into Ellroy-ese, never taking the simple route. Art and I worked with him for close to a year before the script was ready to go."
De Palma acknowledges that he wanted to tell not just the story of the Dahlia but explore the world of fictionalized characters in 1947's L.A.--those who were profoundly affected by the crime. He responded to Friedman's interpretation of the "triangle of Bucky and Lee and Kay. There's a history between Bucky and Lee that goes back to the Zoot Suit Riots and culminates in the first section when Bucky throws a fight in order to get the money to put his father in an old-age home."
A filmmaker known for plot-twists and switchbacks, De Palma also loved that "in the material, everybody lies. In any sensitive dramatic scenes where you think someone's revealing something, they're usually revealing the opposite of what they said before. Everybody's a compromised character, and you watch Bucky descend into this hell and get caught up in it."
Now comfortable with the screenplay (and suitably financed for overseas distribution), the director and the producers began looking for a domestic distribution partner. A meeting with the then vice chairman (now chairman) of Universal Pictures, Marc Shmuger, would clench the deal and the studio signed on for domestic rights to the film during production.
Producer Art Linson reflects, "It's a tradition in Hollywood that movies that are dark are hard to get made. What distinguished this from a traditional murder is the effect it had on everyone around it. This movie is not about just about who did it, it's about the obsession and impact it had on the lives of the LAPD and women connected to these detectives."
He offers, "There are few directors left who understand what films noir even are. Brian has the perfect grasp of this material. His sequences play to the great visual style needed for Dahlia."
Most notably after securing foreign financing for the film, the production team had but one small task: find a cadre of actors who were outstanding freshman Hollywood players, but also had the acting credentials to pull off Ellroy and Friedman's lines…and the ability to channel old souls from the films noir days gone by.
Enter five young actors named Josh, Scarlett, Aaron, Mia and Hilary.
Casting Films Noir
A challenge with The Black Dahlia was in finding a group of actors who could flesh out a modern film noir--and give nods to the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall and Fred MacMurray/Rita Hayworth thrillers of the '40s and '50s--without becoming caricatures of the very roles that inspired their performances. De Palma and the producers would turn to five young-yet-established actors and a collective of seasoned performers who could play the assortment of toughs, lovers and deceivers from Friedman's screenplay and Ellroy's mind.
De Palma admits of working with certain talent, simply, "Great actors will create something that will completely surprise you."
Long involved with Dahlia's production was Josh Hartnett, cast as Bucky Bleichert, whose world begins to spin out of control the minute he becomes attached to the case. De Palma felt that the actor could easily reflect Bucky's inherent good intentions found in the script. "Even in this corrupt world, there's such a decency about Bucky," he observes. "Like in the old noir movies in which Bogart played, he has this moral weight."
"Josh is becoming a man," offers Linson. "To see him grow up from the young kid in Virgin Suicides to becoming this detective with a very complex life--in love with two women and haunted by a murder--is fantastic."
Hartnett was attracted to the challenging role because it wasn't a "morality tale after all. The characters have certain flaws that they'll follow to the end, and no one deviates from those."
Friedman's rat-a-tat period dialogue wouldn't be the only challenge for Hartnett. The physicality of the part would require the actor to train for four hours a day for seven months to play seasoned boxer Bucky (known in the ring as Mr. Ice) who happened to have a light-heavyweight record of 36-0-0.
De Palma's films are known for trios or quartets who come together in curious ways. Drawing side number two to the Bucky-Kay-Lee love triangle is actor Aaron Eckhart, someone De Palma describes as a "young Kirk Douglas." The director knew he wanted to cast a performer who could give a manic quality to Mr. Fire, Lee Blanchard. The actor chosen would need to fuel the Benzedrine-popping, hotheaded cop with an explosive sense of regret and rage…a man who could provide a strong parallel to Bucky's by-the-book detective. As the Dahlia case unfolds, we learn that Lee has had a string of women in his life that he couldn't save, including a sister who died at 15.
Eckhart chose the physically challenging role (with Mr. Fire's own boxing record of 43-4-2) because Blanchard is "a fast-talking, hard-drinking, quick-witted, no-bull kind of guy--which is very fun to play as an actor."
Discussing his interest in the films noir era of the '40s, he relates, "Their cadence was faster than they are today. If you watch Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, they have this way of speaking that was rapid-fire."
His partner-in-crimefighting Hartnett laughs, "Aaron would be a great Iago. He doesn't hesitate to go over the top in a performance. He's a big personality who has this onscreen presence that makes you believe he could bring down anyone in his path."
With the testosterone-fueled roles cast, De Palma was next on the lookout for three dames who could play anything but damsels in distress. Of his leads, the director commends "the girls are just magical, so mysterious. There's always something unsaid."
To find his Kay Lake, the wounded lady that Lee takes in and Bucky covets, De Palma decided he needed a young woman with a world-weary look in her eye. He had met Scarlett Johansson years earlier when she was in the film The Horse Whisperer. The actor had made such an impression on him, he tucked into the back of his mind the idea of one day working with her.
Producer Linson finds Johansson a reminder of an era gone by, specifically "an old soul. There's something that is a visual throwback about her. She has that look that pulls you right back in time." Giving credence to his observation, when filmed through cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's lens, Johansson startlingly evokes an era through sheer physicality.
The actor offers, "When I read Josh's script, I just connected with the type of passion you find in Kay. She is this painfully lonesome, woefully romantic woman who just wants to be kept safe from harm. She never knew she'd find in Bucky the opposite of what she sees in her boyfriend, Lee."
Canadian actress Mia Kirshner--best known for her role as Jenny on the past two seasons of Showtime's The L Word--had actually come in early to read for the role of the duplicitous Madeleine Linscott. De Palma was so taken with the actor's performance that he and Friedman enhanced the scenes with the Dahlia and cast Kirshner in it. "She's really quite stunning," he comments. "When I saw her test, I said, 'Mia, I have to have you in this movie. We're going to build up the character of the Dahlia, and I want you to play her.'"
The actor notes that "as a kid in Toronto, I used to go to the library and pull out books of old movies and look at pictures of Vivien Leigh and Hedy Lamarr. My Dad and I would watch old movies on Saturday night, and I grew up very much having a reverence for noir."
Kirshner had heard many of the stories about the fabled actress she would play, but was keen to make up her own mind as she explored the woman who was Elizabeth Short. She felt it important to humanize the tragic Betty, believing her story a "cautionary fable for young Hollywood actresses." Kirshner offers, "I really tried to find the essence of Elizabeth. After reading as much as I could about her, I saw a very soft, romantic, intelligent woman."
For the role of devious and alluring Madeleine Linscott, De Palma would need an actor who not only could pull off a femme fatale, but one who favored Mia Kirshner in looks. Ellroy's material was quite specific about the fact that the Dahlia is killed because of not who she was, but who she resembled.
Double Oscar® winner Hilary Swank was fresh off her role in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby when she signed on to play Madeleine, a woman who has no concept of the word "conscience." De Palma, a longtime fan and purveyor of femmes fatales, wanted an actor who could handle the complicated role of "a poor little rich girl who will lead these
guys right to their doom." He says, "I think Hilary's a classic spider woman--she can play a character who is extremely vulnerable and extremely evil at the flip of a switch."
Of Swank's casting, screenwriter Friedman chuckles, "If you can get someone who has won two Academy Awards® to play onscreen in your film for 25 percent of the time, it's a dream come true for a writer."
Kudos aside, Swank was simply thrilled she was off the grueling training regimen required to turn her into boxing champ Maggie Fitzgerald. "Madeleine would never drink egg-whites for breakfast," the actor laughs.
Swank chose the role because "Madeleine was so different from anything that I've ever done. She comes from high class, affluent background--slumming along and doing whatever she wants--a spoiled, Daddy's little girl. But behind all of that, she's a very troubled person who is actually searching for love."
Playing mother to the pack of oddities known as the Linscott family is acclaimed British actor Fiona Shaw. The woman who fanatically shifts between snobbish clarity and operatic binges, Mrs. Linscott would need to be played by a performer who could, in a heartbeat, turn on (and off) her maddening charms.
De Palma recalls of one of the film's signature scenes--the dinner where Bucky is introduced to the Linscott family--"Fiona would give Josh a distasteful look that says, 'What is this policeman doing in my home?' With her tricky exposition, she reminds me of Vanessa Redgrave. She makes the character so much fun."
MEET THE PRINCIPAL CAST MEMBERS
DOPPELGANGERS TO DIOPTIC CAMERAS: DE PALMA'S TAKE ON THE DAHLIA
RECREATING HOLLYWOODLAND: LOCATIONS, COSTUME AND MUSIC FOR THE FILM
AFTERWORD HILLIKERS: AN AFTERWORD TO THE BLACK DAHLIA BY JAMES ELLROY
READ MORE ABOUT BRIAN DE PALMA, SCREENWRITER JOSH FRIEDMAN AND PRODUCER AVI LERNER