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Lana Turner? Nah.

L.A. Confidential

1997. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by James Ellroy. With Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, Danny De Vito.

L.A.Confidential vividly captures the way that movies (and, on the horizon, TV), hard-boiled crime fiction, and Los Angeles politics rhymed off of one another in the decade following the war. Not far beneath the sturface of the story is lurks the incestuous, corrupting relationship between filmed fantasy and civic boosterism. L.A. is not just another city with brutal cops and dishonest politicians; it's the city where everything is staged, including horrific crimes and police investigations.

One moment stopped me (or delighted me, I'm not sure which). It's when a pair of detectives come upon gangster Johnny Stompanato cozying up to Lana Turner in a bar with the great name of Formosa (a real place, I have since learned). Now, they and we have already learned about a ring of high-priced prostitutes who undergo plastic surgery in order to make themselves resemble big stars of the day. The heroine is said to be a Veronica Lake lookalike, and another important character has had a nose job to look like Rita Hayworth. So when detective Bud White spots Stompanato with a woman who looks like Lana Turner, he calls the woman a whore and scoffs at the cheap illusion. Unfortunately for him, it turns out (as those of us who know the Johnny Stompanato story have guessed) that the woman actually is Lana Turner.

Like White, we know this only because celebrity-savy detective Jack Vincennes tell us so. Otherwise, how is an audience to distinguish between an illusion that's supposed to be an illusion and an illusion that's supposed to be real? The two whores we've already met don't really look very much like Veronica Lake or Rita Hayworth, although the other characters in the movie seem to think they do. This Lana Turner looks equally ersatz. Like the others, she's simply a contemporary actress (her name is Brenda Bakke) selected and made up to suggest, in a gross way, someone who might have been a star in another era.

By insisting on a distinction between phony Lakes and Hayworths on the one hand and a supposedly real Turner on the other, L.A.Confidential brings our own fandom into the equation. A joke that would have been unproblematic in a novel—if the narrator informed us that Bud White had inadvertently mistaken the real Lana Turner for a Lana wannabe, we'd accept it—becomes quite complicated on-screen. We who watch movies know Lana Turner when we see her. There's a difference between "Oh, I see. That's supposed to be Lana Turner" and "That's Lana Turner."

I don't know if this is a weakness of the film, or a strength. But it sure is a zingy little moment for those of us who are interested in movies about movie-ness.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein