Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hollywoodland

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.


SOURCES

Goodridge, Mike. “Ben’s Back in Business.” The Evening Standard. August 17, 2006.

Hansen, Liane. “Director Coulter Discusses Hollywoodland.” National Public Radio. September 3, 2006.

Portman, Jamie. “How Fame was Stolen from the Man of Steel.” Ottawa Citizen. September 7, 2006.

Stuever, Hank. “Truth, Justice and the HBO Way.” Washington Post. September 3, 2006.

Tapley, Kristopher. “The (Tinsel) Town That Ate Superman.” The New York Times. August 20, 2006.


Thomas, Bob. “Suicide or Murder?” Associated Press. September 5, 2006.




8 comments:

  1. Great review of a fascinating movie. Affleck was perfect for the part and it excelled when showing the toll that his lifestyle and image took out of him. It isn't perfect, but I found it engrossing and so tragic.

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  2. The story of Reeves is a fascinating one. I'd like to see the film, but I'm not sure I'm sold on it based on all the evidence you have cited from your own perspective and others.

    It may look nice. It may have a good message for fellow actors, but is it entertaining. Hmmm, not entirely sure despite what looks like a great cast.

    What's funny J.D. is I've been wanting to see Mulholland Falls too, but if that is less of a film than this, that makes two I'm not entirely sure about.

    A typically great J.D. review. This film intrigued me. You give us loads of interesting backstory too. It's surprising someone wanted to make this film. best, sff

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  3. I gotta say, it is a great thing that Affleck has done, he has managed to rescue his acting career! After films like Gigli and Raindeer Games or Surviving Christmas ...I didnt think that would be possible. Yet, here he is with films like this and The Town, which blew me away. You seen that one J.D.? Highly recommend it if you liked films like Heat. I need to see HOllywoodland, thanks for the awesome review.

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  4. Brent:

    Thank you for the kind words! Yes, certainly a flawed film but anchored by a very strong performance by Affleck and also Lane who I thought was quite good as well.


    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Yes, this film has it flaws but is worth checking out. I would actually say I prefer MULHOLLAND FALLS over this film despite its own flaws. It has a very interesting cast as well that is very watchable. Tough call, really but both films have their merits.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and for the compliments.


    The Film Connoisseur:

    Yeah, Affleck really showed that he had some chops with this film and now has gone on to become quite a decent director. I enjoyed THE TOWN but I think GONE BABY GONE is even better. I am interested to see what he decides to direct next.

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  5. I have this in my Instant Queue for Netflix. I've always heard that Affleck really began his acting come back with this one. Plus, it has Diane Lane (YES!). As usual, another your splendid reviews, J.D. Thanks for this.

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  6. le0pard13:

    Thank you, my friend. Yeah, this film has its moments and is definitely worth checking out for Affleck's performance (and Lane, too!). It's a shame they didn't just jettison Brody's entire storyline. Oh well...

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  7. I have wanted to see this but always changed my mind, and when reading your entry I realize I had let something silly prevent me: A few years ago on Usenet, I got SLAMMED by a relatively famous actor who claimed to have done research on Reeves, and he was was beyond angry that I was so "stupid" to even consider this movie. The mere existence of Hollywoodland angered him greatly.

    Your write-up was the perfect antidote. It's a great summary and really helped me get out of my head, as it were, and drop the stupid baggage I forgot I even had. It's unfortunate Brody gives a weak performance, but I'm always interested in Affleck and I love Ladd, so I'm excited to give this a go.

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  8. Stacia:

    Yes, I think you'll dig this film. It doesn't treat Reeves in a salicious way and in fact gives him a lot of dignity as it attempts to provide motivation for what happened to him. There are still plenty of questions surrounding his death but this film provides some credible theories.

    First and foremost, this film is worth seeing for Affleck. He is excellent. As is Diane Lane. Yeah, it's a shame about Brody but there's nothing really he could do. The problem lies with the character itself.

    Anyways, I hope you give the film a chance.

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