On June 16, 1959, George Reeves, an ambitious second-rate actor who played the title role in the popular television series The Adventures of Superman (1952-58), was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home from a gunshot wound to the head. Reeves's career initially took off after he played a small part in Gone with the Wind (1939). But a string of failures followed until he got the starring role in So Proudly We Hail! (1943), which was a success. Due to W.W.II, Reeves didnt get the opportunity to revel in it, and by the time he got discharged from military service, things had changed. A few more thankless film parts later, Superman transpired, a role he took on reluctantly due to low pay and typecasting issues. But the series was a hit, though it prevented Reeves from taking on other major assignments.
Reeves reportedly suffered from chronic depression, often relying on painkillers and alcohol to ease the distress. These habits ultimately became the primary reason why his death was considered a suicide and nothing else by the LAPD. Most, including the members of the press, were satisfied with the judgment. But Reevess mother thought otherwise, and eventually hired private help in order to restart an investigation. Conspiracy theorists, who were even more front and center back then, brought up the actor's long-time affair with the wife of a resourceful studio executive who reportedly had mob ties.
One doesnt have to have an interest in Reeves or the indeterminate milieu he was part of in order to relish Hollywoodland, which attempts to revisit the incident and the few years that led up to it in a conscientious manner (though Reeves fans and loved ones might not agree). Ostensibly a noir, the film employs flashbacks to revive the "actual" events, while a mostly fictional story of a private investigator is the means to contemplate them. Louis Simo (Adrian Brody) is the fledgling PI hired by Reevess mother to discover what really occurred that night. Simo starts out as a Jake Gittes-type: anything for a buck, no matter how morally bankrupt. All he has to show for in his personal life is a failed marriage which produced a son, one who would most likely prefer the "Man of Steal" to be his dad.
We first meet Reeves (played by Ben Affleck in a carefully modulated performance, or, maybe, hes the perfect mediocre actor portraying another) just prior to his Superman years. At a posh Hollywood event, he eyes Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a beautiful yet aging woman who turns out to be the newly-wed wife of Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), a powerful MGM executive who himself isnt shy about companionship. The intense yet needful relationship which develops between Reeves and Toni is perhaps the most satisfying part of the film. Reeves senses that he might require Tonis help for career-related moves, yet at the same time he wants to stand on his own feet. On the other hand, Toni perhaps recognizes that at this point in her life she cant do much better this handsome and charming man, though one with limited potential.
Incidentally, Hollywoodland is the feature directorial debut of TV alum Allen Coulter, who has helmed nearly a dozen episodes of both the The Sopranos (from 1999-2004) and Sex and the City (from 1999-2001). And as the film proceeds through a solid collection of narrative pieces, it does begin to resemble a made-for-cable drama (though one which would certainly win the Emmy in the "Best motion picture made for television" category). Despite the fact that the film is richly detailed in terms of character, narrative and milieu, Coulters aesthetic remains very low-key; unlike most contemporary noirs, the film doesnt flaunt its roots either structurally or stylistically, which is welcome relief to say the least.
Coulter skillfully manages to keep both of the opposing storylines on a single track heading towards the same point. Even when a few of the characters start to overlap, the proceedings remain intelligible. Simos investigation quite literally uncovers a few previously unsuspected holes. The possible reasons of their existence are unraveled when we notice the toll the popular show has taken on Reeves. He eventually moves to New York and starts his own production company, which doesnt garner him the results he had in mind. His relationship with Toni starts to suffer, and reaches a nadir when he embarks on another with an opportunistic floozy, Leonore Lemmon (a deliciously trashy Robin Tunney), causing Toni to go into a deep depression, much to the chagrin of her sinister yet caring husband.
And its Eddie Mannix through whom Hollywoodland glimpses the foreboding terrain of 1950s Hollywood brimming with vicious rivalries and cutthroat politics that affected many careers and lives (not that things have changed much). The off-the-cuff remarks that fly in Mannixs offices -- referring to the likes of the aforementioned Wind and The Last of the Mohicans (1920), etc. -- account for part of that. Credit goes to the filmmakers for acquiring the services of Jim Beaver, Reeves biographer. Hes responsible for many of the small, intricate details which the film incorporates well into its screenplay (written by newcomer Paul Bernbaum and reportedly polished by award-winning playwright Howard Korder). Having said that, the film wrongfully implies that the small part Reeves played in From Here to Eternity (1953) was cut due to the negative reaction from the audience already in love with "Superman" (director Fred Zinnemann has went on record to refute such claims). Also, the episodes of the hit show were shot in New York, not Los Angeles, which is what the film implies by omission, not to mention through the perpetual presence of Toni on the sets.
While most of the acting accolades have gone to Ben Affleck, and rightfully so, Adrian Brody deserves high marks for keeping his character as interesting as possible. His role isnt a particularly great one to begin with, but it suffers from a redemptive arc which seems just as contrived as the moral rhetoric eventually spewing from his mouth. Though a couple of strong minor characters in the Reeves track -- his agent/manager Art Weissman (well played by Jeffrey DeMunn) and MGMs public relations head/Mannixs friend Howard Strickling (Joe Spano) who operates as if he was a long lost Corleone -- go a long way toward offsetting any deficiencies in the fictional one.
Due to its subject matter Hollywoodland will inevitably be compared to the great films of the past and present that are similar in nature. Needless to say, it doesnt measure up very well with Polanskis chef doeuvre Chinatown (1974) in any category, but then, not many films do. While superior, Hansons L.A. Confidential (1997) and Schraders undervalued Auto Focus (2002) perhaps serve as better comparisons. Though Hollywoodland is certainly preferable to the likes of Mulholland Falls (1996), Wonderland (2002), and The Black Dahlia (2006).
*HOLLYWOODLAND premiered at the 2006 Venice Film Festival (in-competition); Ben Affleck garnered the Best Actor award for his performance
*Now available on DVD (Focus).
-Commentary by Director Allen Coulter
-"Recreating Old Hollywood" featurette
-"Behind the Headlines" featurette
-"Hollywood Then and Now" featurette
[Edit]Added DVD info.