Those curious for factual information about the Black Dahlia case – the infamous unsolved murder of small-time actress Elizabeth Short in 1947 – may be disappointed in the new film directed by Brian De Palma. The film and most of its fictional characters are based on the 1987 novel by James Ellroy.
But the bigger surprise for lesbian viewers may be how queer this film is, both in front of and behind the cameras.
It won’t appear that way at first. The film begins with two Los Angeles cops, both boxers in their pre-LAPD days, who are asked to fight each other in a charity match for political purposes. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Harnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) become partners after the match, assigned to the department’s Warrants Division. Along with Blanchard’s girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), they become family for each other.
Bucky and Lee are involved in a shootout with multiple victims which happens to be around the corner from a vacant lot where the body of wannabe actress Elizabeth “Betty” Short (nicknamed The Black Dahlia) is found. Spotlight-hungry Lee gets them assigned to the high-profile case.
**Warning: Some Spoilers**
During the investigation, Bucky watches screen tests featuring Short (The L Word‘s Mia Kirshner, playing bi once again onscreen). An interview with her former roommate uncovers the fact that Short and a woman named Lorna Mertz (Jemima Rooper, lesbian ghost Thelma on Hex) had been seen on Hollywood Boulevard speaking to a woman in a man’s suit with a man’s haircut.
Bucky visits a handful of lesbian bars and learns that several “sisters” bought drinks and meals for both Betty and Lorna. Bucky becomes involved with Black Dahlia-lookalike Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank, Best Actress Oscar winner for Boys Don’t Cry), after he meets her at one of the bars.
When Bucky picks up Madeleine (Maddy) for their first date, he is invited to dinner with her family. Father Emmett Linscott (John Kavanagh) is a construction tycoon who “owns half of Hollywood” and tells self-important stories about his connections with various show biz folk.
Mother Ramona (played by out lesbian actress Fiona Shaw, most recently known as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter films), objects to her daughter dating someone as common as a police detective.
At the dinner table, Ramona grows increasingly intolerant of her husband’s tales, first quietly seething, progressing to something resembling an epileptic seizure, until she finally explodes and exits the rooms to the embarrassment of Maddy.