Documentary filmmaker Henry Corra met teenager Regina Nicholson at a film festival. A burgeoning filmmaker and movie-lover, Regina (or “Reggie”) was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at the age of 16. Knowing her time was limited, Reggie asked Henry if they could make a film together. Farewell To Hollywood, where she shares a co-director credit with Corra, is the unsettling result.
Nicholson died last year at age 19, and the film ends up being the record of her final year of life, filmed in harrowing detail. Since she gets sicker and sicker over the course of shooting, the intent of the original project (to create something together) is lost along the way. There’s a conspicuous self-serving impulse behind Farewell To Hollywood on Corra’s part that makes viewing it an extremely strange and sometimes queasy experience. At times, he seems to be saying, “Look how I stuck by her when nobody else would. Look how she trusted me.” That sense is exacerbated by the fact that Reggie’s parents have second thoughts about the filming and end up banning their daughter from seeing him. They feel the relationship might be “inappropriate.” A camera will always be an intrusion, to some degree, especially in documentaries, but here it seems even more so. Should we even be watching this? Is Corra’s presence in the midst of this grieving family really necessary? What’s the purpose of this project?
Farewell To Hollywood starts with a scene of Corra and two friends scattering Reggie’s ashes underneath a swing on Catalina Island. Corra tells his friends that Reggie’s parents don’t know their daughter has died (per Reggie’s request), and he’s not sure what to do about that. The film then flashes back to when Reggie was still living at home in Long Beach, recovering from surgery and fighting with her mother about starting chemo again. Reggie is excited about the film, and all seems well, but soon Reggie’s mother starts to cling to her daughter, jealous of any time spent away from the home, and resentful that Corra is taking these precious last moments from her. She’s controlling and anxious, but she can hardly be blamed. The tense family scenes, filmed or recorded by Corra, are incredibly painful. The family is devastated, and Reggie is torn by these conflicts.
Corra inserts himself into her life, helping her find her own place in Pasadena (against her parent’s wishes), and eventually getting Reggie’s consent to make her health decisions. There are scenes of the two of them driving around in a convertible, in the dreamy sunset light, with close-ups of their happy faces smiling at each other. Corra cops to his lack of objectivity, at one point monologuing into a recorder as he drives around in the rain, wondering why Reggie hasn’t been returning his texts and calls. He compares himself to a lovesick high-school boy: “I’m attached, I’m mildly obsessed, I’m worried all the time…” It’s clear why her parents might be concerned.
Reggie is an undeniably captivating subject, humorous and smart, and the scenes of her succumbing to her illness are heart-rending. Her bedroom is lined with shelves of DVDs, the walls covered in movie posters. She says early on, “I’m never happier than when I’m watching a movie, or filming.” Farewell To Hollywood, though, doesn’t seem all that interested in her actual taste in movies, and conversations about film virtually never come up.
In lieu of such discussions, Corra inserts clips from Reggie’s favorite films (Silence Of The Lambs, Pulp Fiction, Apocalypse Now) into the narrative, sometimes creating an unfortunate juxtaposition of images, like associating Reggie gulping on her inhaler to Uma Thurman snorting coke in Pulp Fiction. It’s a haphazard, even offensive choice. The movie clips remain a device, providing no deeper insight or understanding.
There are many examples of great documentaries forced to change course mid-filming—Gimme Shelter, Capturing The Friedmans, Daughter From Danang—but Farewell To Hollywood entirely loses sight of its original mission. Granted, cancer is hell on earth, and destroys everything in its path. Reggie only had energy to participate actively in the filming for a short period. After that, Corra switched course to document that process. Corra means Farewell To Hollywood to be a tribute to his friend, to help her dream come true, even posthumously. Corra has often spoken about his interest in blurring the boundaries between filmmaker and subject, in his frustration with objectivity. In Farewell To Hollywood, it’s clear that a couple of steps back would have yielded a better film.