Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Translucent Dahlia (Or — A Short Story That Should Stay Short)

Elizabeth Short died at only twenty-two years old, her list of accomplishments numbering few. I don’t count an arrest in Santa Barbara for underage drinking as a resume-worthy, but in her brief, mostly unremarkable life, it serves as a high point, sadly enough.


Of course, most people know her, in a sense, because in death she became the Black Dahlia, one of California’s most famous murder victims. And to this day, her killer has never been identified. Given that her mutilated body was found in 1947, it’s quite likely that Short’s killer has also died. But her legacy lives on, mostly as a result of the infamously grisly state of her corpse, the sensationalist reporters who covered the investigation and later writers who cobbled into her story a considerable amount of fiction.

And this, I say, is fucked up.

I've written here before about the strangeness of taking creative liberties with Short’s story — only one of the many problems I had with the 2006 Brian de Palma movie, The Black Dahlia. But I was reminded of this awkwardness again last week, when I watched American Horror Story. Yeah, I’m still watching it, not because I think it’s scary but mostly because I’m curious to see what campy heights (depths?) the writers will take the story.

On last week’s episode, Short, played by Mena Suvari, showed up as one of the ghosts haunting the Murder House. (Yes, that’s what I’m calling it, in the same way that I called Lost’s setting Four Toe Island. I simply don’t have a better name for it.) Not that the house needed a resident spook, exactly, since at least thirteen others were already hovering about, and since I'm nitpicking, where the hell was she in any of the preceding episodes? Lost in the linen closet? It’s not that big of a house. Whatever the case, she’s there in Los Angeles County’s single most problematic piece of real estate, rubbing elbows and other body parts with Moira the Nympho Hag, Jessica Lange’s ghost children and the crazy-eyed sister of the girl playing Lisbeth in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Awkward Christmas for the Mara family.) As a character, Ghost Dahlia is a little superfluous, maybe, but superfluity is tough to gauge in a Ryan Murphy creation.

Irrespective of American Horror Story’s status as the most Karo syrup-y campfest this side of Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, I have two main objections to Short’s inclusion as a character.

First, it wasn’t necessary to present her as the Black Dahlia when they could have just made her a Black Dahlia, so to speak. I understand that the writers have enjoyed riffing on historical crimes in Southern California history. That’s a good instinct on this sort of show. I didn’t have a problem with the second episode’s introduction of the R. Franklin character — the psycho who killed two women in the house in 1968, back when it was a dorm — because they futzed with the details of Richard Speck enough that the plot didn’t directly piggyback off Speck’s real-life murders. That’s what makes the Black Dahlia’s appearance “as is” seem so awkward. They could have easily made her a Black Dahlia-like character in the way R. Franklin was a Speck-like character. Why spare the victims of one tragedy the indignity of becoming camp caricatures but throw Elizabeth Short on the sofa with Moira (hot Alex Breckenridge version) for some titillating lesbi-action?

Secondly, in placing Short’s ghost in the Murder House, the writers had to explain that she died there. All the house’s ghosts were humans who died within the property boundaries, apparently, so it was deemed necessary to show her getting gassed unconscious by a dentist and expiring while the good doctor screwed her on the operating chair. The problem I have with American Horror Story inventing a character to be Short’s killer is the same problem I had with the The Black Dahlia revealing a histrionic Fiona Shaw as the culprit. It’s shitty. It gives the viewer a false sense of closure about a real-life murder, when the person who most deserves justice — the dead girl — doesn’t get that. It’s in bad taste. Again, I know — Ryan Murphy project. But there’s a difference between an eye roller of Glee musical number and appropriating the tragic end of some poor girl for the purposes of cheap entertainment.

I know biopics reinterpret the lives of important people. As I write this, I could run out to a theater and watch fictionalized, dramatized takes on both Marilyn Monroe and J. Edgar Hoover. But while these two earned their place in history as a result of how they lived, all Elizabeth Short has is how she died. (Seriously: Off the top of your head, how much do you know about her?) I don’t care that it’s been more than fifty years since some tossed the wreck of her body into some brush on the side of the road. I don’t think I want to see a fictional solution to her enduring mystery.

Alas, I’ve read that Suvari will be back for at least another episode, playing Elizabeth Short and not, like, Sharon Tate, though I would not blink if Murphy were to pull such a move. I can only hope the writers find a way to artfully intertwine her story with that of the other real-life personage who appeared in last week’s episode: the Pope. Yes, the Pope is a character in American Horror Story. I only hope he was majorly weirded out when he watched this episode.

Stray thoughts:
  • Upon appearing on this show, Mena Suvari can now count American Pie, American Beauty and American Horror Story among her credits.
  • Fiona Shaw from The Black Dahlia happens to be the same actress who played the female heavy in the Super Mario Bros. movie. Neat, huh?
  • I couldn’t think of a way to artfully work in “She looks just like that dead girl,” that infamous line from The Black Dahlia, spoken more than once about Hilary Swank’s resemblance to Elizabeth Short, who in the film is played by Mia Kirshner. I’d just like to point out that Swank looks no more like Elizabeth Short or Kirshner than she does Lucille Ball, and I’d like to point out that Suvari doesn’t much resemble Short either.

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