Historical Circuit: Hollywoodland (★★★)


HollywoodlandThin back, before the days when Ben Affleck won an Academy Award for Best Picture, before he was a director at all, back to the years 2000-2005 when Affleck was box office poison. Despite winning an Academy Award for screenwriting, the new millenium saw Affleck struggle to find projects that allowed him any growth as an actor – content to leave him as the good-looking bohunk. 2006 saw a change (an Affleck-aissance, of sorts) with Affleck’s portrayal of doomed Superman star, George Reeves. This week, Affleck dons the cowl of the Caped Crusader, but what about the town he wear the red and blue costume of Superman – and had sex with this new incarnation of Superman’s mom!

George Reeves (Affleck) is a middling Hollywood nobody desperate for his big break. As he struggles to make his mark he falls for Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM production head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). When Reeves ends up dead, the question of murder or suicide remains on everyone’s lips. Along for the ride is small-town PI Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) investigating Reeves’ demise.

For those unaware, here’s the story. George Reeves was a working actor best known for playing one of the Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind (1939) before securing the role of Superman in The Adventures of Superman from 1952-1958. In 1959, during a small party, Reeves went upstairs where he either killed himself or was shot by figures unknown. The cast of possible murderers included the aforementioned Mannixs’ – George’s sugar-mama Toni and/or her husband, Hollywood fixer, Eddie.  Reeves also had an alleged fiancee, Leonore Lemmon, whose volatile temper and belief she would inherit vast amounts of wealth gave her motive.  The case never went very far, possibly due to Eddie Mannix shushing potential witnesses and interested parties, and Reeves’ death remains officially listed as a suicide.  He was 45.

I’d like to get personal for a minute. Superman, and George Reeves specifically, has always been a staple in my house. My grandfather loved the character of Superman till his dying day, and I remember stray stories he would tell of watching The Adventures of Superman on television. Hollywoodland itself contains a sequence of small children gathering round their televisions leaving me to wonder if my young grandfather was just like the children depicted? Did he watch, in awe, believing a man could fly? I never asked him how he reacted to Reeves’ death, but based on his unyielding love for the character I don’t think he took it as harshly as some. My grandfather’s gone now, but watching Hollywoodland, especially the moments where Affleck, as Reeves, entertains young children as Superman leaves me with happy memories.

Reviewing biopics doesn’t always leave me watching A-list pictures like this, and Hollywoodland sparked the resurgence in biopics we’re still seeing today. Director Allen Coulter presents Reeves’ life and death as part Unsolved Mysteries with an added analysis of the pitfalls of celebrity. Reeves’ agent, Art Weissman (Jeffrey DeMunn) ask the immortal question at story’s end: Why wasn’t Reeves a bigger celebrity?

Too often we ask why certain Golden Era stars weren’t more well-known, and as countless books and movies assert, there isn’t an answer. Reeves vainly believed he was destined for greatness so what he had was never enough. Reeves’ journey belongs to everyone visiting the City of Angels with stars in their eyes, and the sad thing is people remember Reeves, but only with regards to the character he played (then again, Superman is a pretty great character to be immortalized with), ending the story exactly the way Reeves wished it wouldn’t.

Coulter presents three possibilities throughout the movie: Reeves was accidentally killed by Lemmon, Reeves was intentionally killed at the behest of Eddie Mannix, or Reeves killed himself. The saddest possibility, according to Occam’s Razor, is the simplest and hauntingly portrayed in a wonderous piece of acting by Affleck. Reeves sits on the end of his bed, contemplating a life of obscurity and constant struggle, before finally succumbing to suicide.

But with any celebrity who dies mysteriously, there’s always a group who suggests foul play. Why would a celebrity, who seemingly had everything, decide to end it? We want to believe some stars were taken away from us too soon, not that they decided to go out on their own. Simo himself says he wants to make certain pieces of the case fit and isn’t that how we are as fans? Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum never definitively decide on an answer to what happened to Reeves, but by ending on the simplest solution it gives you all you need to know.

The late 2000s saw a lot of movies based or set around the 1940s and 1950s, and Hollywoodland is the best of the crop. The production design is just glorious and it’s evident Bernbaum did his due diligence, going so far as to have Reeves biographer and Supernatural star, Jim Beaver, on-set as a consultant.  The various pieces of the Reeves story everyone is privy to is on-screen, but we also look at littler pieces, like Reeves being unable to smoke in front of children; “Superman doesn’t smoke.” Hollywood stars today either desperately cling to their personas or break them, and the script has Reeves desiring both. He understands he’s a role model to children but wants to be taken seriously as an actor (which proves false during a test screening of Reeves in From Here to Eternity). When a small child at a birthday party asks Reeves, “Can I shoot you” in the misguided belief the bullets will fly off him, the audience is reminded of Reeves’ mortality, our blind devotion to hero worship, as well as the bitter irony of Reeves dying via gunshot.

The acting compliments the stellar script and direction. I’ve always maintained Affleck would have been a phenomenal Superman and the proof is in the pudding. He plays Reeves with charm that translates into a chivalric performance as Superman. Affleck’s knowing wink to the camera – Reeves’ send-off in the series – gives us every reason to believe Affleck’s both George Reeves and Superman. Affleck’s performance in the final sequences of the movie are upsetting because he conveys disappointment with life itself. As Reeves struggles to show he’s still an athletic man in order to secure a job, you believe he’s been put through the wringer.

Reeves was far from saintly, and the movie explores his dysfunctional relationships with the women in his life. Both Lane and Robin Tunney as Leonore Lemmon are amazing, each with their own motivations for George’s success or failure. Lane’s Toni is more palatable. She truly loves George, but hates being reminded she’s getting older, an arrow all the more barbed once he leaves her for the younger Lemmon, although the script fails to properly develop whether Toni was responsible for Reeves’ death (simply alluding to a car accident Reeves was involved in), but Lane remains just as sympathetic throughout. Tunney channels Jean Harlow and Joe Pesci as Lemmon, the brash sexpot out to get Reeves’ money. Again, the characterization is flimsy but Tunney leaves an impression. Bob Hoskins rounds out the cast, although his Eddie Mannix is a cypher we never truly know. The movie is too content to depict him as Hollywood’s serial murderer, alluding to possible collusion in Paul Bern’s suicide and utilizing a picture of Carole Landis’ death, attributing it to Mannix’s murder of an unrelated actress.

Adrien Brody’s storyline is the weakest of the film.  Louis Simo’s character is required to present an objective perspective; someone examining the developments after Reeves’ death, as well as act as audience surrogate for those unaware of the case. Many time he’s there to get into situations or provide conjecture where there are no witnesses. The script valiantly tries connecting Reeves and Simo – both men ignored the good in their lives and couldn’t realize when to quit – but it’s unnecessary when the story is already so compelling. And to keep returning to Simo does little outside of pulling you away from the main narrative. Adrien Brody is servicable, but too often the character’s traits feel like a watered-down version of Bud White (Russell Crowe) from L.A. Confidential.

Hollywoodland presents a multifaceted look at Reeves’ life and death, never sinking into debauchery as other, cheaper, biopics might. If you missed it in theaters, go out and rent it!