Dash and Lilly (1999)
Director: Kathy Bates
Starring: Sam Shepard (Dashiell Hammett), Judy Davis (Lillian Hellman), Bebe Neuwirth (Dorothy Parker), Laurence Luckinbill (Joseph Rauh, Lillian's Attorney), David Paymer (Arthur Kober, Lillian's Husband), Zeljko Ivanek (Mel Berman, writer), Ned Eisenberg (Bob Constantine), Mark Zimmerman (Walter Winchell), Victor A. Young (Harvey Chernoff, Theatrical Producer), Stephanie Morgenstern (Studio Secretary).
Made for TV movie
Writers Dashiell Hammett (Sam Shepard) and Lillian Hellman (Judy Davis) have a rough 30 year relationship as Hammett descends into alcoholism, while Hellman scores successes. The sophisticated, intellectual funny woman, Dorothy Parker, played well by Bebe Neuwirth.
It's the McCarthy era in America and the conservatives are looking to punish any and all leftists as possible Soviet spies, communist sympathizers and actual communists. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" That seems to be the question of the era of out-of-control and rabid fear bred by anti-communism.
Washington, D.C. At a hotel, Joseph Rauh introduces himself to the writer Lillian Hellman. He says he and she can talk in his office. There he tells her that the House Committee on Un-American Activities plays the game this way: heads, they win; tails, you lose. If you cooperate with the committee and name names of communists and other lefties, they will declare you a good American. If you don't cooperate, they hold you in contempt of Congress and throw you in jail. Lillian says she's not prepared to go to jail. Her partner, writer Dashiell Hammettt, tells her that she could not handle jail. She says she's prepared to tell them everything about her life, but she doesn't want to name names. The lawyer says she can write a letter to the Chairman of the committee, the Honorable John S. Wood, and see what they say about her offer.
Flashback. Lillian goes with a her husband Arthur Kober to the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Hotel. Bing Crosby is singing for the crowd. Lillian see a very distinguished looking man getting up from one of the tables. She asks her husband who is that? That's Darhiell Hammett. Lillian gets up from the table immediately and chases after the writer. Her husband says to himself: "Happy Hunting." She starts flirting with Dash almost immediately. They go to his limousine car where they sit in the back and drink liquor. Dash starts to tell her a story, but she stops him, insisting that he only tell her new stories, not old ones. To buy time for himself, he tells her to tell him about herself. She says she was raised in New Orleans and New York; joined a publishing firm at age 18; had an abortion at 19; married the guy at 20; he's a writer too; they came to Hollywood; he got her a job reading scripts to keep her out of trouble.
Dash asks her what makes her think that she's a writer? She says actually she's a failed poet, journalist and humorist. Dash says he thinks she's humorous. Lillian now asks him if she can drive the limousine. She will drive him to wherever he wants to go. He wants to go to his place. She can hardly wait. She kisses him.
Lillian prances into her home when her husband is just about to leave for work. He asks her if there is anything he could do for her? She tells him to give her a divorce. He tells her that he's happy for her. She says thank you and mentions that Arthur is the nicest man she knows.
Dash does not call Lillian for ten days. She is upset about that. And she says she is going to get fired for circulating a petition to unionize the studio. Just then a secretary tells her that Dashiell Hammett is here to take Lillian to lunch. Lillian rushes out to see Dash. He tells her he was in San Francisco. His daughter was sick. Yes, he's married with two daughters, but he hasn't lived with his wife in years. Long story short, they end up in bed again. They really like each other.
Dash and Lilly go out gambling. They have been together for nine weeks now. Dash makes Lilly extremely jealous and angry because of his flirting with the cocktail waitress.
When Dash shows up the next day, Lilly is just finishing her packing to go see her two aunts in New Orleans. She leaves.
Lilly takes the train. She goes with a gentleman she just met and has sex with him in the lavatory.
In New Orleans, Lilly receives a truck load of flowers from Dash. He telephones her and says he really misses her. He asks when she will be back and she says she doesn't know: she'll be in touch with him. Dash hangs up the phone. The prostitute he has in his room calls Lilly a ball-buster and once a ball-buster, always a ball-buster. Dash gets furious and starts abusing the prostitute for what she said.
When Lilly returns to Dash, she finds him in a hospital room. His right hand is all bandaged up and he has a cut on his forehead. Lilly demands to know what's this all about? Dash says he took a good look at himself and he saw a real drunk who has now given into beating up women. His hand was injured when he missed a punch and the wound on the forehead came from him landing flat on his face. He says he thought he had lost Lilly. Lilly tells him that he will never lose her.
Back to the present. Dash is in jail, while Lilly works on her letter to committee chairman Wood. She gets exasperated with the letter and decides to go have a drink at the bar. There she meets a friend, Bob Constantine. The Oscar winner says he got subpoenaed by the committee.
Lilly, in conference with her lawyer, tells him how brave Bob Constantine is about standing up to the committee. The lawyer tells her that Bob just named 16 of his friends, including his own brother-in-law, as lefties to the committee.
Flashback. Dash is surrounded by women at the bar who hang on his every word. Lilly is alone at the bar hating every minute of it. The writer Dorothy Parker stops by to ask Lilly if that's Dashielle Hammett? Lilly says yes. Dorothy says: "Wouldn't you love to bang his brains out?" She now walks right up to Dash and tells him who she is. Then she knells before his "genius".
Leaving the bar, Lilly tells Dash she resents all this sycophantic worship of him, while people just look through invisible her. And she complains about their drinking too much. Dash says that he will have to go back to work because they don't have any more money. But, not to worry, he says he always works best under pressure.
Dash writes detective stories about Sam Spade the detective. And now he has written a book based partly on their lives together. It's called "The Thin Man". And it gets made into a movie.
Lilly burns a manuscript that she now sees as "trite". Dash suggests that she write plays because all her reactions to life are so naturally theatrical. Lilly takes this as a criticism, but Dash says he's being serious. He tells her about a project that he was thinking of doing, but knows now that he'll never get to it. It's a story about two female school teachers who are falsely accused of being lesbians.
Lily writes the play The Children's Hour about the damage that a lie can cause.
New York, 1934. Now Lillian Hellman is a celebrity author and Dash has to stand on the side lines. He leaves the celebration early to go back home. Lilly is disappointed that he didn't stay. The next day she gives him a good talking-to about his leaving early. Then she cries and says that none of the fame means anything if he's not there to share it with her. Dash tells her: "Oh, you're going to be so sorry."
Back to the present. The lawyer likes Lillian's letter to chairman Wood, but he says they can't count on the letter working. He adds that Lillian joined a lot of leftist groups in the 1930s. Lillian says there were so many things wrong with the country during that time, and she and Dash were raking in the money. They were the King and Queen of Hollywood.
Flashback. In Hollywood a writer named Mel Berman comes to Dash and Lilly to say that there's been a lot of talk about forming a guild (a union). And the lower paid writers would like the higher-paid writers, like Dash and Lilly, to support the guild. The couple is interested and so Mel invites them to a meeting. Lilly leaves early because she is upset about Dash flirting with another woman. Dash follows her out of the meeting. Unbeknownst to them, the authorities are there to take pictures of the guests and to mark down their times of arrival and departure.
At home Lilly complains that she and Dash have not had sex for a long time. She then faints. Dash takes her to the hospital and the doctor and Dash both agree that she puts herself under too much pressure by trying to match Dash at everything. Dash even says that she's trying to be a she-Hammett.
Dash goes down to Tijuana to get a divorce from his wife. On his flight back, a man approaches Lilly at the airport and she decides to have a quickie with him. When Dash gets off the plane he is disappointed not to see Lilly there waiting for him.
Back home Dash watches some television. Lilly comes in and says she's sorry she didn't meet him at the airport. He asks her why didn't she come greet him at the airport? She says she doesn't know why. She asks him how did it go? Dash says he's definitely divorced now. Then he says: "The studio's dropped me, effective immediately." They say he's breached the contract for being late on a story. His agent thinks it's because he signed that petition for the Screenwriters' Guild. He asks her to marry him, but she says she'll take a rain check on that. Dash says it took them ten years to get here, so why rush things?
Lilly has finished a play and wants to put it into production immediately. She says that Dash has not been well. He has exhausted himself and she wants to buy a farm upstate so Dash can rest there and get better. So soon the new play, The Little Foxes, goes on Broadway.
Lilly tells Dash that she has stopped drinking. She has been having blackout spells and wonders if she's losing a lot of creativity by all this drinking. Dash tells her he's happy for her, but he wants no lectures on his drinking. When she says that alcohol has been bad for them as a couple, Dash throws a bottle of gin at Lily, which crashes into the glass window of the kitchen.
1942. WWII is raging on. Lilly drives a drunken Dash in the car back to their home and she gets irritated by his singing in the car. Dash fought in WWI and wants to fight in WWII, but now he's 48 years old. He wants to have sex with her in a hotel where they once had sex before. Lilly is not interested. So Dash says they'll do it in the back seat. Lilly resists him physically saying right now he's just disgusting. Dash asks her if she's turning him down? So he tells Lilly that's the last time she'll have a chance to turn him down. He gets out of the car and starts walking away. Lilly yells at him to get back in the car, but he just keeps walking.
The next day Dash comes home, minus a mustache. She asks him who stole his mustache and he asks her, doesn't she read the papers? The army has extended the age limit to 50 and so he went ahead and signed up. Lilly says that's equivalent of committing suicide for a man as unhealthy as Dash is. Dash warns her not to spoil this, the happiest day of his life.
Dash writes her from basic training and then he gets stationed up in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
1945. WWII ends. Dash comes home. The couple hug each other. But soon Lilly is telling Dash about her affair with a man in Washington, D. C. Dash doesn't want to hear about it. Lily says she got Dash a job working on the script of a new play. Dash just tells her he can't do that kind of thing anymore. He does say, however, that CBS wants to put his Sam Spade stories on. And he has an idea for a new novel. He says goodnight and it's good to be home again to her, then closes his bedroom door. Lilly is thinking that didn't go so well.
Dash is working, but doesn't seem too happy about what he's doing. He starts drinking again. He types slowly and contrasts that with the speed at which Lillian is typing. He gets frustrated and pushes the books off his desk onto the floor Lilly hears the big thud.
New York. 1950. Lillian has her hair blonde now instead of brunette. Dorothy Parker asks her if she's getting any sex lately? Lilly says not from Dash. She turned him down once. Since then, nothing. She is scared at the prospect that Dash may never want her again sexually.
Dash leaves a note on the breakfast table for Lilly. He says he has frittered away his talent. That upsets her.
New York. 1951. Lilly has a big Hollywood offer of a job writing for them, but she has to take a loyalty oath. She tells Dorothy Parker, so I told them to shove it. Dash is now teaching a writing course at a college. One day, while talking to his students outside, two agents hand Dash a subpoena to appear before the District Court in Manhattan.
Dash and Lilly see a lawyer. He tells Dash that the judge is going to ask him to name the names of those members of the communist party that recently disappeared after having their bails paid.
Back home Dash tells Lilly that he has no lists of names even in his head. They just asked him if they could use his name and he said okay. That was the full extent of his involvement in the matter. Lilly gets very sad. Dash says to her: "This is about the big guys kicking the stew out of the little guys. Same old story. Either you're on one side or the other."
Dash goes to court and is denied bail. He is taken to jail in handcuffs. They are transporting him to Ashland Federal Prison in Kentucky. Moreover, the IRS has slapped a lien on all of Hammett's assets for back taxes.
Back to the present. Bad news for Lilly. The committee has refused her offer and she is banned from releasing the letter publicly.
May 21, 1952. Lillian is called before the committee. She and her lawyer keep mentioning her letter and others want to see a copy of the letter, so her lawyer starts handing copies to the committee men and the press. One of the committee members ask that Lillian read the letter and Lillian does so, much to the consternation of the chairman. Walter Winchell bashes Lilly and Dash over the radio with right-wing invective. Dash is released from prison and Lilly is there to receive him.
Lilly is on the Hollywood blacklist. She goes to London to write a play. She tries to get it accepted under some other person's name, but they wouldn't agree to her monetary demands. Her ex-husband finally remarries and Dash and Lilly are there. Lilly tells her ex that Dash is on the wagon because his doctor guaranteed him that if he didn't stop drinking immediately, he will be dead in two months.
Lilly winds up having to be a salesgirl at a department store to make ends meet. And she had to sell their upstate farm. She's in money trouble because the IRS has put a lien on her assets too. One good thing happens. They put on Broadway Lillian's The Children's Hour and people see it as a condemnation of McCarthyism.
Lilly gets the devastating new that Dash has cancer of the lungs -- both lungs. She demands that the doctor not tell Dash, saying the man lives on hope and only poses as a cynic.
Lilly tells Dash that today is their anniversary day. They met 30 years ago. Dash has been told that he is suffering from an unusually virulent strain of the flu.
Dash passes away. His wish was to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but the government bastards are trying to deny him that right. They won't even leave Dash alone in death. Lilly says if they do that, she will call a press conference and tell everyone about the dastardly deeds of the United States' government. The government backs down. Dash gets a military funeral at Arlington.
Lilly goes home. The Thin Man is on the television and Lilly watches it with tears in her eyes.
I very much enjoyed the movie. Dash and Lilly were both a bit whacko. This made them very interesting characters to watch. And, in the movie, you see how McCarthyism caused so much pain and anxiety for the couple. Sam Shepard (Dashiell Hammett) and Judy Davis (Lillian Hellman) were both terrific in the film.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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