A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

Rank: #23

HOLLYWOODLAND jjj
½ 

2006, R, 126 mins.

 

Adrien Brody: Louis Simo / Ben Affleck: George Reeves / Diane Lane: Toni Mannix / Bob Hoskins: Eddie Mannix / Robbin Tunney: Lenore Lemmon

Directed by Alan Allan Coulter / Written by Paul Bernbaum

 

George Reeves began his acting career in 1939 with a fairly inauspicious turn as Vivian Leigh’s suitor in GONE WITH THE WIND.  Even decades later very few would remember his participation in that classic.  He would gain some modest critical acclaim for his role in SO PROUDLY WE HAIL in 1942.  Just when his career was poised to go up, up, and away, the young Reeves enlisted in the armed forces and fought for his country in World War II.  Reeves even went on to star in many army recruitment films, but when he returned to post-War Hollywood, his career hit such a tailspin that he was forced to get a job – at one point – digging septic systems.

Those odd jobs would end when he took on a role that would shape his career and destiny for the better…and worse.  In 1951 Reeves was offered the role of Superman, a part that he was highly reluctant to take considering how the new medium of television was seen as intellectually and artistically bankrupt waters by most Hollywood elite.  However, realizing that he needed a steady paycheck before pride, he begrudgingly took the iconic role and when his SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN hit the silver screen in 1951, Reeves was dealt a surprising blow – he was slowly becoming a huge celebrity.

The incredible success of the low budget film prompted a TV series – THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – that ran from 1952 to 1958 with over 100 episodes.  Despite not getting the type of respect he yearned for by his peers, Reeves was nevertheless a big time celeb in the hearts and minds of tykes all across North America.  He would become so engrained with his heroic character that he was often forced to make personal appearances as the Man of Steel.  Reeves took this job as a decent role model to children seriously, even if it meant personal embarrassment. 

When THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN was taken off the air, it marked a gigantic sigh of relief for Reeves, who wanted to go on a make serious movies with meatier parts.  He even managed to take on a small role in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, but success largely eluded him, mostly because anyone making films could not erase the stamp that Superman had left on the actor.  With no real roles that he craved in sight, and with his alcoholism and depression getting the better of him, Reeves took his own life and stunned the nation.  In the early morning hours of June 16, 1959 (three days before his wedding to Lenore Lemmon), Reeves went to bed after entertaining some guests and shot himself fatally in the head.  Police on the scene and a subsequent inquiry quickly ruled the actor’s death a suicide.

Or was it?  Did he really kill himself for a failed career?  Was it out of depression and a genuine lack of self-esteem?  Or, was their foul play?  There is some direct evidence that does point to the possibility of murder.  Several bullet holes were found in the room, which is inconsistent with suicide.  Also, the police were not called for 30-45 minutes after his death, which immediately invites suspicion.  Furthermore, those closest to Reeves (especially his cast mates on the Superman TV series) highly doubted that a man of his positive moral fibre could indeed kill himself.  He was slowly given up booze, was about to be married, and just signed a somewhat lucrative three-picture deal with Paramount.  In hindsight, how logical does suicide sound?

HOLLYWOODLAND, an intoxicating and engrossing new period film, is an investigation into Reeves’ life and murder, which still remains one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries.  What is really invigorating about the film is its perseverance to not take any sides of the debate.  Instead, much like RASHOMON, HOLLYWOODLAND gives the viewer three distinct scenarios as to what might have happened and instead allows us to decide.  The strength of the film is that it is able to allow all of the individual scenarios to feel plausible and acceptable, but it never takes the easy road by making up our minds for us.  As an effective and somewhat fictitious who-dunnit, the film is wonderfully involving and its mishmash of fact, innuendo, and the real life investigation into Reeves’ murder gives the film a layered and cohesive feel. 

The film also does an exemplary job effortlessly shuffling between stories of the past and present, as we are given parallel narratives about the rise and fall of a Hollywood icon and the investigation into his death.  Superficially, the film is about Reeve’s and his demise, but it uses that story to tell another of a PI that is able to find his own level of redemption by hunting down the truth about this grisly case.  Many critics have compared HOLLYWOODLAND to other crime noirs, like the very underrated L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.  Both are police procedurals that use 1950’s L.A. as a backdrop.  Although this film does not have the same level of sumptuous production values as Curtis Hanson’s 1997 Oscar nominated film, HOLLYWOODLAND does a highly commendable job of immersing us in its period.  The fact that it also tells two separate stories that are both related and divergent so efficiently is to its ultimate credit.  The juxtaposition between the detective story and Reeve’s personal struggles are refreshingly seamless.

The first of the two sub-stories revolves around Reeves himself.  It begins in the early 1940’s as we are introduced to the young, handsome, and debonair Reeves, played wonderfully by the terrifically restrained Ben Affleck in a supporting performance with Oscar written all over it.  We see him cavorting around parties and drinking and flirting with many women.  We begin to see his story unfold as to how he landed his Superman gig, not to mention his long-term affair with Toni Mannix (well played by the very dependable Diane Lane), who happens to be married to one of the biggest moguls in town, Eddie Mannix (the great Bob Hopkins).  We bare witness to Reeves' career taking off and then crashing down.  He was loved by children everywhere, but he was inwardly resentful of his TV alter ego.  Superman pushed him into a corner of desperation in terms of horrendous typecasting, not to mention that it paid him next to nothing.  By that fateful day in June on 1959, it seemed that depression got the best of him.

The secondary story revolves around the present day 1959 where, one day after Reeves’ death, a tough, cunning, and guileless PI named Louis Simo (played with a underplayed determination by Adrien Brody) convinces Reeves’ mother to hire him to discover the truth about her son’s death.  Everyone sees to think it was murder, but Simo has his suspicions, especially when he visits the death scene and Reeves’ body at the autopsy lab.  He thinks it's murder, but by whom and why, he can’t precisely determine.  Initially, he thinks that a scandalous investigation will get him much needed press exposure, but the more he digs the more he believes that Reeves did not kill himself.  Maybe he was killed by the jealous mob-linked Eddie Mannix, who despised his wife being Reeves mistress?  Or, maybe it was Reeves’ fiancé Lenore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) who wanted Reeves gone so she could inherent what little wealth he had.  Things get foul real fast for Simo, who is also battling personal family demons while trying to get to the bottom of Reeve’s death once and for all.

Again, it should be clarified that HOLLYWOODLAND has no idea of what really happened to Reeves.  In essence, the strength of the film is how easily it makes each possibility a compelling option.  The way that the film is so uniformly democratic is commendable.  It paints an intricate web where we see crucial sections of Reeves’ life unfold before our eyes and asks us as neutral bystanders to make up out own minds.  The movie is also remarkable compassionate with the Reeves persona.  He was by no means a saint.  He over drank, was flirtatious, and enjoyed his sexual proclivities, but he was also a sympathetic man who took being an icon to children very seriously, even if it personally pained him to do so.  You feel for Reeves, especially when he hits rock bottom.  It most certainly was tough for a mortal man to live under the shadow of an immortal creation.

HOLLYWOODLAND is the first feature film by Allen Coulter and his assured and confident eye behind the camera here is a sign of good things to come.  His command for crafting a good mystery story with that of a sleazy PI that discovers meaning in his life is textured and nuanced.  The film is about the pathos of how Hollywood eats up and spits up souls, whether they be celebs or not.  Reeves was a definite casualty of L.A., but interestingly enough so is the Simo character.  The city also breeds his indifference.  He is separated from his wife, his child hates him, and he is sleeping with a far younger associate in dilapidated motels.  But it is his journey towards the truth about what transpired on June 16, 1959 that acts as a spiritual catalyst for him to put his own life up for scrutiny.

The look of the film gets all of the details right, but it is the strong performances by all of the principles that are HOLLYWOODLAND’S true strong points.  Adrien Brody is so commanding as Simo and crafts his PI as a hard-edged, but deeply vulnerable, gumshoe.  Diane Lane goes against the grain and fleshes out her role as Reeve’s mistress to be more than just a grieving adulterer.  Bob Hopkins is an effectively ominous and imposing presence as the jealous producer.  Yet, HOLLYWOODLAND ‘s emotional core belongs to the Reeves character, and Ben Affleck turns in one of his truly best performances as the beleaguered star.  Affleck is a star whose good looks and problematic off-screen past have allowed shortsighted critics to easily forget what a good actor he is.  HOLLYWOODLAND reaffirms that sometimes the best performances are ones that underplay efficiently to get to the heart of the part.  He gives such a outwardly confident and joyous turn as Reeves (pre-Superman) and does an even better job showcasing the actor as a man whose becomes inwardly drawn and confused about himself and the business he works in.  It’s one of 2006’s most quietly powerful performances that should put Affleck back on the path to deserving critical respectability.

HOLLYWOODLAND emerges as one of the fall’s more ambitious and fascinating docudramas, one that tells dual morality tales of the real life story of George Reeves and the investigation behind his questionable death.  Filled with persistently strong performances, a great cast, a nice eye of recreating 1950’s Los Angeles, and a healthy combination of glitter and grit, HOLLYWOODLAND succeeds as an impressively mounted expose of how dreams of stardom can come crashing down, not to mention a reasonably egalitarian investigation into one of Hollywood’s great celebrity deaths.  This is not a definitive big screen biography of George Reeves’ life, but HOLLYWOODLAND does something more interesting and subtle with telling portions of his history.  It takes potentially sensationalistic aspects of his life and instead churns out a memorable 1950’s murder mystery noir with genuine intrigue.  As a film about the death of Old Hollywood and the loss of a TV icon, HOLLYWOODLAND is equal parts intelligent, thoughtful, and moving.

 
 

  H O M E