On June 16, 1959, actor George Reeves died from a gunshot wound to the head. His death was ruled a suicide with the official police report stating that he had been depressed over his failed career. Reeves’ claim to fame had been portraying Superman on television during the 1950’s. It was a very popular show but by the time he turned 40, the actor wanted to move on with his career. However, he could not shake his association with the iconic role. His mother Helen Bessolo refused to believe her son took his own life and hired private investigator Jerry Geisler. Both died before they could prove anything.
Over the years, more and more people refused to believe that Reeves would commit suicide. Forensic evidence surfaced that cast doubts on the official cause of death. Was he killed by his fiancée Lenore Lemmon, or was he murdered by order of Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix who allegedly had Mob connections? Reeves had an affair with Toni but spurned her for another woman. Or, did Eddie find out and have Reeves killed?
Hollywoodland (2006) dramatizes Reeves’ suspicious death and documents the events leading up to it. The film is structured as a detective story with a private detective investigating Reeves’ death. The film was seen as a comeback of sorts for Ben Affleck who hadn’t acted for two years after the critical and commercial flops of Gigli (2006) and Jersey Girl (2006). After headlining several high profile studio films, he had wisely laid-low and took a supporting role in this film. Affleck portrayed Reeves to critical acclaim and hasn’t looked back since.
Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a low-rent Jack Gittes-type private investigator that specializes in cases of infidelity. His “office” is a fleabag motel as all of his money goes to an ex-wife (Molly Parker) and young son (Zach Mills). He used to be a police detective and his ex-partner turns him onto the Reeves (Ben Affleck) case. Perhaps influenced by his son’s upset reaction over the death of his T.V. idol, Simo decides to talk to Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith) who believes that her son did not commit suicide. He investigates further, interviewing people that knew him and this triggers a series of flashbacks to the events leading up to Reeves’ death.
The flashbacks give us more insight into Reeves. For example, while trying to be seen at a swanky Hollywood hangout, he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a beautiful woman married to a very powerful man, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Initially unaware that she’s married and to whom, Reeves has an affair with Toni – partly because he’s attracted to her and partly because he thinks she can help his career. Toni becomes his sugar mama, buying him a nice house in the suburbs for him and their trysts.
The scenes between Ben Affleck and Diane Lane are quite good. They have decent chemistry and do a good job of conveying what their characters got out of the relationship. Affleck is excellent in this meaty supporting role. The rise and fall of Reeves must’ve spoke volumes to the actor who had also experienced both. Affleck knew what it felt like to be on the top of the world one moment and then considered a joke after a couple of high profile flops. Anyone who is a student of Hollywood lore knows that it has a long history of tragic deaths. What makes Reeves’ story so interesting is that he played such a wholesome, upstanding character with Superman but had an unhappy personal life. Affleck fleshes out Reeves and digs deep, providing a nicely layered portrayal of the man. Reeves just wanted to be regarded as a serious actor but did such a good job playing Superman that he couldn’t disassociate himself from the role.
Adrien Brody delivers a decent enough performance but his invented character feels like just that and seems out of sorts with all the actual historical figures he interacts with and investigates. Simo’s backstory and motivation is just not as compelling as say Jack Gittes in Chinatown (1974), a film whose legacy casts a long shadow over Hollywoodland. Brody is supposed to be a jaded investigator who thinks he’s seen it all but the actor comes off as a little too aloof. As a result, his character feels like a tacked on afterthought.
Diane Lane doesn’t have a lot of screen time but she makes the most of it. Toni is a powerful woman who gets what she wants and Lane plays her as a charming individual so long as Reeves makes her happy. It’s when he no longer does this that her true nature reveals itself. Watching the actress in this film makes me wonder how she would have done in L.A. Confidential (1997) if she had been cast in Kim Basinger’s role. In some respects, Toni is not a typical femme fatale and Lane does her best to flesh out her character and shed some light on her motivations.
Producer Glenn Williamson, at the time head of production at USA Films, bought Paul Bernbaum’s screenplay, Truth, Justice and the American Way in 2001. Williamson was drawn to the way the script “guides the audience toward a conclusion, but there is no definitive answer.” The project moved to Miramax Films for a short time with filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho) attached to direct. At one point, they screen-tested Kyle MacLachlan to play George Reeves. Williamson wanted the film to have a more mainstream appeal – something that the directors, known for their dark, atmospheric films, weren’t interested in and so they decided part ways.
The project moved to Focus Features where veteran T.V. director Allen Coulter signed on. When his agent gave him Bernbaum’s script he wanted to do it after reading the first five pages. The director was drawn to the “great Hollywood noir milieu” and the complexity of Reeves’ life. He heard that Ben Affleck was interested in the role and ended up casting him as Reeves. To resemble the actor, Affleck put on upwards of 28 lbs., changed the shape of his nose with a prosthetic, altered his hairline, and changed the color of his eyes. If that wasn’t enough, during filming, he listened to several clips of Reeves’ voice between takes and also watched every episode of the Superman T.V. show.
Hollywoodland shot for six weeks in Toronto and two in Los Angeles. At some point, Warner Brothers, which produced the Superman films, applied legal pressure to have the name changed from Truth, Justice and the American Way to the current title because they wanted to disassociate themselves from the sordid details of Reeves’ demise with their vested interest in rebooting the Superman franchise.
Hollywoodland received mixed to negative reviews as most praised Affleck’s performance but had problems with the way the script juggled the two storylines. In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Hollywoodland gets a few laughs from the show’s cheesy Ed Wood–like production effects, but the dignity and sobriety that Mr. Affleck projects as Reeves keeps the sheer ridiculousness of his limited career options from ever becoming too campy.” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis also praised Affleck’s performance: “Later, as defeat takes its grinding toll, Mr. Affleck lets weariness creep into his face, pulling his features down until it becomes difficult smile.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “There's something simultaneously heartfelt, wised-up, playful, and fierce about the way the onetime Daredevil acknowledges that he knows that we know that he knows that we're bound to read something of the actor's own skids with fame in his expiatory portrayal of a star who couldn't quite steer his own image.”
However, New York magazine’s David Edelstein wrote, “the back-and-forth cutting between past and present would be clunky even if it weren’t so arbitrary, and it doesn’t help that Adrien Brody—as the film’s other protagonist, a burnt-out gumshoe—is more actorish than the supposed actor.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and Claudia Puig wrote, “But then the narrative bogs down with a misbegotten subplot about Simo's personal life … Director Allen Coulter … missteps with this secondary story line. He flounders in his attempts to find parallels between Simo's life and Reeves' iconic place in Hollywood at that time.” In his review for the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter wrote, “For some reason, the director and the writer (Paul Bernbaum) have chosen an exceedingly awkward path into the material. They break the narrative into two strands, and play them off each other in cheap and easy ways for insubstantial effect.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “For despite its virtues, Hollywoodland never fully succeeds due to the unfortunate air of artificiality that hangs over it. Caught in a netherworld between re-creation and reality, it only sporadically feels like it is actually happening.” Finally, in his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Coulter contrived a neat behavioral trick by inducing his star to play a comparably big-jawed bad actor. Surrounded as he is by canny professionals … it's an unexpectedly touching performance. In fact, Hollywoodland turns turgid whenever it switches to the gritty Louis Simo story.”
The attention to period detail is very good, from the vintage cars to the Coke bottle Simo drinks from in a scene. The filmmakers effortlessly transport us back to that time. Allen Coulter’s direction is solid but does little to differentiate it from other films of the genre. L.A. Confidential this is not. Maybe it’s just as well as the story is engrossing enough and Affleck’s performance keeps our interest. Ultimately, Hollywoodland lies somewhere between the ambitious but flawed Mulholland Falls (1996) and the masterful L.A Confidential. What it does do is paint a compelling and sympathetic portrait of George Reeves. His career serves as a sobering reminder of the dangers of being closely identified with an iconic film role and how it can affect the rest of your career. Some people embrace it while others spend the rest of their lives trying to get away from it.
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