George Reeves was an Average Joe. A struggling actor whose apparent suicide in 1959 suddenly made his unremarkable tale a whole lot more intriguing, Reeves reluctantly took the role of Superman on TV after a series of false starts at a serious movie career. The actor in a similar career slump these days who portrays Reeves’ longing and desperation with surprising grace is Ben Affleck. Along with a feisty Diane Lane, as Reeves’ paramour and the wife of a powerful MGM executive, the couple forms the heartbreaking soul of “Hollywoodland.”
Director Allen Coulter comes from a television background himself, having directed numerous episodes of HBO’s sublime “The Sopranos.” Like that show, he fashions some memorable poetic images out of the seemingly mundane: a crowded residential street block whose kids all clear out right before ‘The Adventures of Superman” is about to air, and Reeves smoking and joking with stagehands about the size of his crotch in tights moments before stepping onstage to entertain some kids, and the following scene that sticks out above all others.
|Don’t break out the tux just yet, Ben|
After belittling the dialogue and poking fun at the Clark Kent/Superman character on a shoot, Reeves is lifted up on a crane for his first flying sequence. What was juvenile suddenly becomes magical for a moment as the breathless TV crew actually sees Superman fly. Suddenly, the rope breaks and Reeves comes crashing to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Humiliated, he angrily brushes away any helping hands. It is a scene that shows Hollywood’s enduring magnetism, while conceding that its appeal is based in a certain kind of demeaning fraud.
“Hollywoodland” (which refers to the city’s signature letters on the hill, before the “land” was removed in 1949) revels in the seamy underbelly of a changing movie industry in the face of TV’s growing popularity. From the colorful heyday of the 40s to the drab, muted tones of the late 50s, the costumes and set design are appropriate, if not spectacular.
The rise and fall of Reeves is presented in flashbacks while the mystery of his death is investigated by newly disgraced cop-turned-private detective named Louis Primo (Adrian Brody). Despite the LAPD’s insistence on calling it a suicide, Primo has much to gain from the publicity of a re-opened case. Brody does the best he can with Primo, but the character is saddled with his own unconvincing Hollywood heartbreak story in an attempt to justify the amount of screen time spent on his drudging personal life.
One of the many kids devastated by the thought of Superman killing himself is Primo’s own son, which adds another layer of depth, but too much time is spent on this subplot. Another distraction that adds little is the character of Primo’s new girlfriend/assistant, who serves as nothing more than a sounding board for his problems, which are demonstrated ad nauseum.
|Brody captures the shark|
Had the movie kept Primo focused on exactly how that bullet came to pass through Reeves’ brain, “Hollywoodland” would have achieved a finer balance of its two story arcs. The doubt raised by a closer look at the facts certainly merits its own film, and watching Primo work the press with a winking eye to the audience is a kick all it own.
As Lane’s husband, MGM executive Eddie Mannix, Bob Hoskins is the physical manifestation of the Hollywood bully, a hulking man of few words, and one of many suspects. Robin Tunney plays another suspect, Leonore Lemmon, whom Reeves was set to marry just days after his death. Either one could have committed the murder, and Coulter shows us Primo’s thoughts as he considers each possibility.
The movie’s ambiguous ending will doubtlessly frustrate some people (and it may also be construed as leaning towards one theory over the others), but definitively solving the mystery is not the movie’s ultimate goal. Instead, Coulter indicts the town itself.
Reeves embodies the everyman actor in Hollywood who is eager for his big break, then dissatisfied when it turns out differently than he imagined. An often-debated scene of an early screening of “From Here to Eternity” depicts a movie audience laughing at Reeves’ appearance onscreen in a bit part, distracted by the Man in Tights in a serious picture. Whether this actually happened or whether his part was significantly snipped from the film because of this stereotype has caused some controversy. Regardless, it is an affecting moment that puts an exclamation point on the futility of Reeves’ situation.
Affleck succeeds in the role on his own grounds, by playing to his and Reeves’ obvious strengths—a charming smile and likable personality. He and Lane have a natural rapport, and the breezy beginnings of their relationship provide the strongest emotional anchor for the film. It is a finely nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a couple that is torn apart pursuing that fleeting window of fulfillment in a town without pity.