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Hollywoodland - Affleck soars in stylishly crafted revisit of Superman mystery

By: M.V. Moorhead

Sept. 9, 2006

We enter Hollywoodland the way Superman would. First we’re in the clouds, then we come swooping down into the driveway of a pleasant L.A. house, where police are gathering.

It’s June of 1959, and in the upstairs bedroom is George Reeves, the actor who played the Man of Steel on television, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. But this, alas, is not a job for Superman. The riddle at the heart of the matter can’t be leapt in a single bound.

The death of Reeves was quickly ruled a suicide by the LAPD, but there were oddities to the case from the start—other shots fired in the room, a lag in the reporting of the events by Reeves’ girlfriend and guests, and a baroque assortment of shady characters in his life—and the actor’s mother hired a detective to probe deeper.

Hollywoodland cuts between a fictionalized version of this investigation and flashbacks of the unhappy career of Reeves, played by Ben Affleck in the best, most complex performance he’s given.

His Reeves is a charming, amusing fellow with just enough vain pomposity to make him ungracious about the source of his fame.

The Adventures of Superman was a very-low-budget, hugely successful syndicated affair that ran from 1952-58 and was rerun endlessly thereafter (I watched it all the time as a kid in the ‘70s).

The production values were tacky and writing was hopelessly inane and repetitive, but the show had humane ‘50s-liberal values, and the cast made it endearing, especially Reeves with his low-key geniality.

But it wasn’t the sort of success he wanted. He’d been a journeyman Hollywood hunk since the late ‘30s—he played one of the Tarleton boys at the beginning of Gone With the Wind, had a promising turn in So Proudly We Hail, appeared with Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious—but never became a star until he put on the red cape.

And he couldn’t cover up that iconic identity as easily as Clark Kent. Despondency over typecasting, coupled with alcoholism and money trouble, were supposed to have been his motive for suicide.

The detective, here called Louis Simo and played by Adrien Brody with no-nonsense intelligence and a certain seedy glamour, initially stirs up the closed investigation merely to milk Reeves’ stricken mother (Lois Smith) of a few much-needed bucks.

But when he learns that Reeves had earned the enmity of MGM hotshot Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), the husband of his sugar-mommy mistress Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), Louis starts to wonder if he really was murdered.
Wondering is about as far as the movie gets us, though.

Directed by Allen Coulter from a script by Paul Bernbaum, Hollywoodland is well-crafted and full of fine scenes, but it feels overlong and slow. Partly this may be due to the constant, clichéd saxophone droning on the soundtrack, which is supposed to evoke a noir flavor but which has an unfortunate lulling effect after a while.

The big problem, though, is that there's no very good way to generate suspense, since we know what happens to Reeves from the start, and since after a while we begin to realize that the movie isn't really going to be able to tell us how or why it happened.

The acting makes the picture worthwhile, however. Brody and Affleck are both startling and touching, but the best work is by beautiful, heartbreaking Diane Lane, who reveals Toni to us the first time we hear her desperate, too-loud laugh.

The supporting players—especially Hoskins, Smith, Robin Tunney, Jeffery DeMunn and Joe Spano—are excellent as well.

Though Bernbaum’s dialogue is laced with ironic wit, the overall effect of Hollywoodland is one of sadness, because the best it allows us to hope for is that the gumshoe will prove that Reeves was murdered in his bed.
That’s less bleak to imagine than the prospect of this likable man giving up on life because he didn’t have Clark Gable’s career.


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