At the time of this writing, the year is 2006, and I turned 32 years old about a half-a-month ago. If you do the math, you'll realize that this show I had discovered was already old when I discovered it, and preceded my very birth by two decades. I knew this. Hell, I was a fan of the theatrical Superman films already. But what I didn't know was what had happened to this earnest actor who had portrayed both Superman and his mild-mannered alter ego, Clark Kent. In my twenties, I discovered that things hadn't gone all that well for George Reeves. In fact, Reeves's 1959 untimely death (he was 45) was ruled an apparent suicide. If that was a shock to me in my 20's, having been a fan of the show as a kid, I can only imagine the shock it must have been to the actual kids who watched the show religiously, finding that out in real time.
As portrayed by Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland, we see just how "not well" things were going for poor George Reeves. The actor, who started his career in no less a production than Gone with the Wind, was hardly acting. His engagement wasn't going well, and his long term fling with his sugarmama was coming back to haunt him.
Reeves' end is a foregone conclusion in Hollywoodland and, in fact, kicks off the action from the opening credits. It also leads us to not only one of the kids who finds himself distraught over Reeves' demise, but also that kids' dad, for whom things aren't going particularly well either. Adrien Brody's Louis Simo is a down-on-his luck detective who takes on Reeve's case, hoping to make a quick buck from Georgie Boy's Super Mom Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith). Helen is sure that George was murdered and would never commit suicide, as do, in fact, a great many people, including friends who knew George well (in real life).
Simo is no prince himself, and has a bit of a stale hand dealt him. He's estranged from his wife Laurie (Molly Parker) and his son Evan (Zach Mills), he's made enemies of his former coworkers, he's quite literally slumming it for sleazy cases, and the one person in his corner, his employee and erstwhile lover Kit Holliday (the beautiful and talented Caroline Dhavernas) might not be quite as far in his corner as he thought.
But the Reeves case becomes something more than a paycheck... maybe more than an obsession for Simo. Told in a pendulum-like shift between the present and the past (both within the 1950s, of course), Hollywoodland details the last years of Reeves' life, showing his charming, yet underlying desperate, search for stardom. He shows up just in time to appear in Paparazzi photographs, he rubs elbows with all the best in Hollywood and he eventually shares the bed of one of the most powerful socialites in LA. Frighteningly, Diane Lane's Toni Mannix is so powerful because her husband Eddie (Bob Hoskins) is the ultra-wealthy head of MGM. Lucky for George, Eddie can deny his beautiful wife nothing... not so lucky for George, Eddie has no patience for those who could deny his wife anything.
As Simo uncovers more and more of George's life, he starts to realize (or imagine) that just about anyone has a motive to murder George, even if there is no hard proof that George's death was, in fact, a murder. Joe Spano's Howard Strickling is a take-charge yes man for Eddie Mannix, who may be linked to recent deaths. George's Fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) may have been jilted just before his death. Her friend Carol Van Ronkel (Kathleen Robertson) is a proven gold digger who may or may not know the truth. Hell, the only person not potentially culpable is Reeves' agent Art Weissman (Jeffrey DeMunn) who is not only genuinely good, but also has a financial stake in Reeves' staying alive. Making matters more complicated, even those potentially innocent are proven to be lying at least some of the time.
As the story progresses, Simo finds himself fully wrapped up in George Reeves' past life. Partially because of this, and partially because this may be his meal ticket, he begins to emulate many of Reeves' qualities, including his media massaging. Yet Simo goes far beyond a mere payout, and finds himself soon on an almost Reeves-like downward spiral.
Yeah, it's quite a mess. The truth is that Reeves' death is, according to the law, solved. It's been ruled a suicide. The fact that Hollywoodland takes a few, if not a whole lot of, historical liberties calls even the mystery into question here. Further, the Detective who goes one step too far and finds himself beaten, bruised and depressed has been done to apparent suicide.
In spite of this, and the occasional obvious homage by Allen Coulter, Hollywoodland manages to be far beyond merely entertaining, far beyond merely "Neo-Noir" (which it has in spades). Part of this is because of the dialogue skills of writer Paul Bernbaum. Part of this is because the Coultergeist himself has a very fine vision for this piece and utilizes the best of his color palate, as well as skills with actors to tell a gripping story that rises above its factual faux-pas and visible seams. It's true that Hollywoodland is Coulter's first feature, which makes this a particularly noteworthy feat. On the other hand, the television shows he's cut his directorial teeth on are some of the best on the small screen. From The Sopranos to Six Feet Under to The X-Files to... hey, even one of those charming ABC Afterschool Specials!
But the real kicker here is the acting. Lane is fantastic, as is Hoskins. Dhavernas is a beautiful eye-magnet as Kit, and gives a very strong performance. Her interaction with the always excellent Brody is something to see, even if it doesn't last long enough. Beutiful eyes, too, Caroline! Fantastic breasts.
Ben Affleck gives us a Reeves that is part Clark Kent, part typical snooty American snob and part standard Ben Affleck performance. However, after a few minutes I realized I was looking for Affleck to screw up, so to be fair, I kicked back and relaxed. Once I did that, he made a fine George Reeves. What's more, he looked almost exactly like Reeves when playing Clark Kent. He even looked pretty cool in the old Superman costume. It's easy to dis Affleck now and again, but he does fine work in Hollywoodland. Not only do we get to see Affleck reenacting Reeves on the set of Adventures of Superman, not only do we get to see him reenacting Reeves in the now-iconic opening credits of the show, but we even get to see Affleck matted into Reeves' scenes in From Here to Eternity. And he pulls off every frame.
A Focus Features and Miramax Films co-production (meaning, subsidiaries of Universal and Disney respectively) Hollywoodland isn't exactly endorsed by Warner Bros., owner of DC Comics and, thus, Superman. Rumors abounded that Warners even prevented Focus from using the famous "S Shield" on the Superman costume. Luckily, this was prevented only in promotional material (like trailers and posters) and Affleck most certainly wears the full costume in both Brown and Gray (for the Black and White TV years) and in Red, yellow and Blue (for the Color TV years).
Taken for all, with all this story of When Superman was proven to be a Man after all... is a very fine film, superbly directed in the Film Noir style with excellent performances and a clever, well-constructed writing style. It's just a little to the left of reality, and proves itself to be "inspired by" true events, not directly taken from true events. Four Stars out of Five for Hollywoodland, a great and entertaining mystery that indicts Hollywood with just a bit too much Hollywood in its indictment. Sadly, if anything, this movie proves how much we still need the purely good icon that Superman is and was. It's just too bad Bullets won't bounce off every man of steel. See you in the next Man-of-Reel!
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