George Reeves considered himself a serious actor. He had a small role in Gone With the Wind opposite Clark Gable, and later he would appear alongside Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity. Yet the world would always remember him as Superman. For several seasons, Reeves played the Man of Steel on the 50’s TV series. The show was so popular that it was impossible to think of Reeves without thinking of that famed costume he wore. Hollywoodland is loosely based on the life – and death – of George Reeves, and it suggests that behind the cape was a man who got what he wanted (fame) but not how he wanted it. Did this fact drive him to commit suicide? Or did someone else put a bullet in his head?
Adrien Brody plays Louis Simo, a low-rent private investigator hired by Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), after the LAPD quickly rules it a suicide and moves on. A few facts are known: Reeves had a small gathering of people at his house. He went upstairs to the bedroom, a gun fired, and 45 minutes later his houseguests called the police. Simo’s investigation leads him to, among other people, Reeves’ fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), who seems to have a suspicious amount of resentment toward the man she intended to marry.
Meanwhile, Simo is continually thwarted by the efforts of Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), a studio head at MGM. He doesn’t want the P.I. poking around and asking questions that might make his studio look bad. Flashback scenes also reveal that Reeves (Ben Affleck) was carrying on an affair with Eddie’s wife, Toni (Diane Lane). After meeting at a posh Hollywood party, the slightly older (and much wealthier) woman takes the young actor as her boy toy, providing him with money and a home. When his career is struggling, she encourages him to take the job as Superman. He does, and when the show starts airing, millions of children look up to him as an idol. At first, it’s appealing; then it quickly becomes apparent that the stigma of being Superman is keeping him from getting better jobs. He’s left with a washed-up career and a girlfriend whose husband is growing intolerant of their affair. There’s some underlying resentment too, as he partially blames her for talking him into the role.
Hollywoodland calls to mind two other films. One is L.A. Confidential, as both are noir-ish mysteries set in and around the old studio system. The other is Auto Focus, which also explored the unseemly death of a vintage TV star (in that case, “Hogan’s Heroes” actor Bob Crane). This movie doesn’t quite measure up to either of them, but they all fall in the same general category; in other words, if you liked one, you’ll probably like the others. All explore the dark side of show business that exists beneath the glitz and glamour.
Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter (“The Sopranos”) take an interesting approach. Rather than having a straightforward depiction of the life and times of Reeves, they create a character who is, in many ways, his mirror. Like Reeves, Simo finds himself somewhere other than where he originally intended to be. We learn that he was fired from his previous job for selling celebrity information to a tabloid, and we see that his relationship with his ex-wife (Molly Parker) is strained at best. Simo wants to be a good father to his son, who idolized Reeves on TV. Somehow the P.I. thinks that if he can solve this case, personal and professional redemption will come his way. There is a scene near the end where Simo imagines himself in the room with Reeves at the time of death; no words are exchanged, but volumes are spoken.
The casting of Ben Affleck is unexpected, but I think it works because he too has things in common with Reeves. After an initial burst of critical and commercial success with Good Will Hunting, Affleck got sandwiched into bland “action guy” roles in bad pictures such as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Paycheck. He even donned a superhero costume for Daredevil (although I kind of liked that one). The career that began with such promise had suddenly veered into parody. Unlike Reeves, Affleck has been able to bounce back, yet he brings a certain amount of baggage with him that works for the character. He is nicely mirrored by Adrien Brody, who gives Simo a laconic, calculated demeanor that masks his raging insecurity. We get the feeling that there’s more at stake here than simply earning a paycheck or solving a murder. The guy’s emotional well-being seems tied up in cracking the case.
Hollywoodland has a deliberately slow pace. In fact, it might be too slow for some. It’s not hard to imagine a few viewers growing bored or impatient with the deliberateness of the storytelling. I agree that the 126-minute film would have benefited from a slight trim, if only to give it the crackling pace we’re used to in the genre. Still, I found a lot of interest in the film’s depiction of broken dreams and broken lives.
There are no answers provided about the death of Reeves, although the movie does seem to lean slightly toward one particular scenario. Rather than being arbitrary about it, the plot uses all its scenes and elements to show that a happy ending was probably never in the cards for George Reeves. Hollywoodland is, at its core, a very sad film about a man who was chewed up and spit out by the show-biz machine. Unlike Superman, Reeves was anything but indestructible.
( out of four)
Hollywoodland is rated R for language, some violence and sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
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