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Hollywoodland (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 08 September 2006
“Hollywoodland” is set in Hollywood of the late 1950s, with flashbacks covering most of the decade. It’s an earnest, sincere film, at times melancholy and moody, clearly intended to play in the same ballpark as “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” But the issues are not as intense as in those classics, and the story is diffuse and inconclusive—pretty much as it has to be. The story is centered on the suicide of actor George Reeves, who played Clark Kent/Superman in the beloved 1950s series largely aimed at kids, “The Adventures of Superman.” At the time, there was little question that Reeves had shot himself, but those kids grew up, still smarting over the unexpected, tragic death of their beloved hero. So in recent years, there have been several books claiming that Reeves was murdered.

“Hollywoodland” is cagey about this; in fact, we’re shown three possible ways that Reeves died, two at the hands of others, one the suicide of record. At the end, things are left ambiguous—even for Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), the somewhat seedy Los Angeles private eye—and former cop—who’s been hired by Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), Reeves’ mother, to not just investigate her son’s death, but to prove that he was murdered.

Simo has problems of his own; he’s divorced from Laurie (Molly Parker), seeing his young son Evan (Zahc Mills) only on weekends. The weekend after Reeves’ death, young Evan is in a state of angry, confused grief, surprising Simo, who’s barely noticed there even was a Superman TV series. Partly because of his son, partly because of the unpleasant Mrs. Bessolo, partly just to prove he still has the chops as a detective, Simo begins investigating Reeves.

We see Reeves’ past in a series of flashbacks. Reeves (Ben Affleck, who’s excellent) was one of the first people seen in “Gone with the Wind” (one of the tangerine-haired Tarleton Twins), but his movie career since has been hit and miss. He’s taken to hanging out in Hollywood nightspots, trying to get into gossip-column photographs of stars and directors, including Rita Hayworth and Fred Zinnemann. He encounters sarcastic, attractive Toni (Diane Lane), who’s amused by his phlegmatic approach to all this, and intrigued by his vague air of melancholy. They soon begin an affair—and George learns, somewhat to his dismay, that she’s the wife of MGM mogul Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), who’s much older than her, and who has learned to tolerate her frequent affairs.

But her romance with George is more than a mere affair; they come to be mutually dependent. He hopses she will use her influence with Eddie to get him better roles, she loves his gentleness and aura of regret. He likes to play the guitar and sing soulful Mexican ballads.
In the present, Simo begins playing the press for all its worth in terms of his investigation, and begins to encounter opposition, finally being confronted by legendary MGM publicist Howard Strickling (Joe Spano) and even Mannix himself.

The publicity for “Hollywoodland” insists that George Reeeves’ death is one of the great Hollywood mysteries (opening in a few days is “The Black Dahlia,” which really is one of those mysteries), even though people who knew Reeves weren’t too surprised when he killed himself. He did land a role in a major Hollywood movie, “From Here to Eternity,” but during a sneak preview, the audience laughed at Superman in an aloha shirt, so many of Reeves’ scenes were cut. (Clever “Forrest Gump”-like special effects put Ben Affleck into a couple of “Eternity” scenes with Burt Lancaster.) The Superman series is humiliating; Georges’ earnest agent, Art Weissman (Geoffrey DeMunn), urges him to take the role just for the work. There are some scenes on the sets of the Superman series, with Affleck wearing a gray and brown Superman suit (the first seasons were in black and white), going through embarrassing routines. But later, Reeves either attends a publicity outing in full red-and-blue regalia or imagines he does. There’s a touching scene in a restaurant in which Reeves, as himself, is recognized by a group of young fans, and realizes that whatever Hollywood in general may think of him, the kids adore him.

“Hollywoodland” is shot in desaturated color, achieving a kind of sun-bleached look appropriate to the material. However, the atmosphere, music and sets seem more like the late 1940s than the late 1950s; I don’t think a single rock song is heard in the background, nor even “Tom Dooley,” the biggest hit of 1958-59. But still, even though the period is a bit off, the movie does capture Hollywood in a time of transition; TV was becoming more important, movies less; no one really knew where everything was going, and actors in particular faced uncertain futures.

The music by Marcelo Zarvos is generally effective, although at times it’s uncomfortably similar to Jerry Goldsmith’s great score for “Chinatown.” Other classic Hollywood movies are occasionally invoked. Toni is much wealthier than George, so she buys him a good home in Benedict Canyon (for $12,000!), which puts a foot into “Sunset Blvd.” territory. But still, their relationship is believable and surprisingly adult; neither of them expects too much—but when George breaks off their affair in favor of one with would-be actress Leonore Memmon (Robin Tunney), Toni is furious. There are suggestions that her wrath may have been the cause of Reeves’ death.

Director Allen Coulter and first-time writer Paul Bernbaum try to achieve something like profundity in linking scenes of detective Simo and actor Reeves (who never meet otherwise). Near the end, there’s an almost spooky moment when one of the people hanging around Reeves’ front room while he goes upstairs to shoot himself seems to react to Simo lurking outside—several months in the future. Deliberate parallels are drawn between Simo and Reeves, which eventually Brody’s character seems to acknowledge; the last shot in the film is ambiguous, but it does suggest that he’s trying to straighten out his messed-up life.

But on the first hand, why are we following this fictional character? Brody plays him very well, a classic Hollywood detective, though in shirtsleeves and no suit or fedora; the movie is too realistic in tone to be even faux film noir, but at least it edges up to that. And its depiction of a Hollywood that’s at once ending and being reborn feels remarkably authentic, even if the actual time period is a bit wobbly.

Like almost all movies this year, good ones as well as bad (and this is one of the good ones), “Hollywoodland” is just too long. It loses its grip in the final third, partly because it’s unable to take a firm stand on the question of how George Reeves really died. (A Reeves fan myself, after doing a little research, I regretfully concluded that he did indeed commit suicide.)

The revelation here for many people will be the fully committed performance of Ben Affleck. He’s clearly studied Reeves closely; his eyebrow work, hands frequently thrust into pockets, and a kind of lackadaisical walk are highly evocative of the ill-fated actor. There’s not a trace of Our Pal Ben, but instead a richly-realized portrait of another man. The times were different then, people acted, talked and walked differently than they do now; Affleck himself is representative of Hollywood today (or at least of a couple of years ago), Reeves is perfectly representative of a huge number of actors who never quite made it. In Reeves’ case, it seems that however he died, it was because he didn’t like success in the form in which it finally arrived.

And yet his Superman shows sell very well today. He’s regarded with great fondness and regret, the Man of Steel who just wasn’t strong enough.

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