On June 16, 1959, the world lost Superman. 45 year-old actor George Reeves, who played the Man of Steel for most of the 1950’s on TV’s The Adventures of Superman, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Reeve’s passing was quickly ruled a suicide, despite a number of unanswered questions about the circumstances surrounding his death. Director Allen Coulter’s new film Hollywoodland explores some of the conspiracy theories about the Reeves case. Was he murdered, and if so, did MGM studios have a hand in covering it up?
Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum’s competent script filters the story through the Chinatown lens, showing the seamy underbelly of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Anchoring the story is a fictitious detective named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) who stumbles onto the Reeves case while looking for work. Simo, a bum, a semi-alcoholic and an absentee father, has just struck out on his own as a private detective. As Simo delves into the case, the parallel story of Reeves’ rise and fall begins to unfold. George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is a bit player and D-level movie actor whose greatest claim to fame thus far is a fleeting role in the opening scene of Gone with the Wind. In the late 1940’s, Reeves becomes involved with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of ruthless MGM V.P. Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Complicating matters are his involvement with a low-class vamp named Leonore Lemon (Robin Tunney) and the life-changing, but career-limiting role of Superman.
Hollywoodland is compelling throughout, even when director Coulter lets the pacing get a bit loose in the first half of the movie. Like all historical speculation films (JFK, The Cat’s Meow), it should be taken with a grain of salt—particularly when it comes to the “downward spiral” of Reeves’ career. A central scene, showing a preview audience cracking Superman jokes during his scenes in From Here to Eternity that results in his part being largely edited out of the film is merely an urban legend (Reeves’ role was already small). Furthermore, Reeves was scheduled to re-launch two more seasons of Superman and had just completed about a week’s worth of work on a little film called Psycho at the time of his death (he would have played the detective, a role taken over by Martin Balsam).
If the facts are handled a bit loosely, they do make for a good story for the actors to sink their teeth into. Brody is terrific as the scumbag gumshoe, truly embodying the noir tone of the film. The always-reliable Hoskins is also good as the creepy, possibly vengeful studio exec. His part is smallish, but he makes the most of it. Lane, as the older woman in Reeves’ life plays the period quite well….occasionally, a little too well. Periodically, Lane pitches her performance too high, as if she were acting in a 1950’s movie instead of acting in a movie about the 1950’s. Her are-you-watching-Oscar-voters theatrics are a shame because she’s ideal for the part, she just needed a little more grounding.
Finally, we have Affleck as the troubled Reeves. One can see why the much-mocked actor might identify with this part, and his presence here clearly indicates a desire to do more serious work. Affleck (with an accent that’s occasionally Jimmy Stewart-y) is solid throughout and if the performance doesn’t quite have the wow-I-forgot-he-can-act heft that he was hoping for, it’s because of the limitations of the character itself. Despite a few soulful moments, Reeves is kept at a bit of an arm’s length, sometimes less of a character than an object the other players move and pass around.
Perhaps what is most interesting about Hollywoodland is the way it draws parallels between Brody’s and Affleck’s characters. Here are two men with so much to prove that it nearly destroys them—or did in Reeve’s case, if you believe the suicide ruling. Hollywoodland is a thought-provoking, old-fashioned mystery about the price of fame.
Leave A Comment