Film Review: Farewell to Hollywood: The Life and Death of Reggie Nicholson

Riveting, deeply troubling documentary about the final three years of a terminally ill young woman as she struggles to complete her autobiographical film.
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Farewell to Hollywood: The Life and Death of Reggie Nicholson is unbearably sad, at moments horrifying, and relentlessly compelling. It is a profoundly disturbing documentary on many levels.

Los Angeles-based Reggie Nicholson is a 16-year-old tomboy, suffering from a virulently aggressive bone cancer, who has had a lifelong love affair with the movies and is now determined to make a brutally candid film about her final days. To that end, she joins forces with veteran director Henry Corra, known for his transgressive films that are to some tastes exploitive, not least for the line he crosses between himself as filmmaker and his subjects. He doesn’t buy into the notion that he should be an “objective outsider” and becomes an active participant whose presence informs the story’s evolution. He dubs his esthetic “Living Cinema.” His documentaries include The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan, Same Sex America, Umbrellas and, most notably George, an exploration of Corra’s own autistic 12-year-old son.

In Farewell to Hollywood, he is Reggie’s mentor and artistic partner—each is given credit as writer, director and cast member—as well as her intimate friend (perhaps even lover, though that’s not stated) and finally her advocate and protector who takes on the role of a parent. It is not clear whether he literally has power of attorney or health proxy, but their relationship suggests that he may. Much of their interchange occurs on Skype and through texting, though they occasionally appear together in person to talk about family conflicts, medical crises and favorite flicks. Reggie is especially fond of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction and Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Well-known snippets from these and other movies are interspersed throughout.

The film centers on the final three years of Reggie’s life as she endures painful medical procedures that prove useless and battles with her parents, neither of whom is able to cope. At the same time, she is trying to establish a degree of independence and complete her film before she dies. Her maturity, intelligence and bravery are stunning and her sense of humor (it is dark) is keen. As she loses her hair thanks to chemotherapy, she decides to finish the job—taking the inevitable into her own hands, literally—by pulling out one tuft after another until she is totally bald. She grins wryly as she dons a long, flowing golden-haired wig, noting that blondes have more fun. She accepts that she is going to die—and calmly plans her own funeral—though in one scene she breaks down and it is heart-wrenching.

Whatever marital and family tensions existed in the Nicholson household before are strained to the breaking point in the face of Reggie’s imminent demise; her parents’ agitation is only exacerbated by Corra’s involvement in their daughter’s life. Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson are clearly suffering, though their inability to step up to the plate—morphing into unspeakable brutality towards Reggie—is perhaps the most shocking element in the film, even more disturbing than the graphic close-ups of Reggie’s arm being repeatedly punctured with IV needles for chemotherapy treatments, and her vomiting following those treatments.

When Reggie turns 18 and informs her parents that she wants to move into her own apartment in Pasadena to finish her film, they are understandably terrified that she’ll no longer be under their watchful eye, made worse by the finite time left for them to share with her. They’re also afraid she’ll stop treatments that they themselves are ambivalent about. But unable to articulate those feelings (and it’s an amalgam of conflicting emotions), Mrs. Nicholson curses her, says she doesn’t care if she lives or dies, while Mr. Nicholson asserts he will cut off all her medical insurance if she moves. It never ceases to amaze how unembarrassed people are—whatever their underlying anguish—to reveal their worst selves in front of a rolling camera. Perhaps that unkind lens no longer exists for them or its presence has simply become a source of indifference.

Many documentaries, let alone one as delicate as Farewell to Hollywood, raise the red flag of exploitation. Though it is presented as a testimonial to Reggie’s wishes, including the display of her corpse at the end, one wonders to what degree she was an equal partner in its creation, and what role, if any, her disease and medications played in her judgment. One can also quibble about its manipulative elements. How can you remain unmoved by the wretched unfairness of a likeable young person dying and handling it with such grace? But ultimately, the debates feel trivial and irrelevant juxtaposed to the actual film, which packs an emotional sucker punch.

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