Hollywoodland probably has more subtext than even the filmmakers intended. Its true-life story concerns George Reeves, an actor made both famous and typecast by his starring role in the 1950’s “Superman” TV series. Reeves is played by Ben Affleck, and you can’t help noticing that, like Reeves, Affleck shot to fame and then coasted through some less-than-meaty roles (Gigli, anyone?). At this point in his career, Affleck was probably as eager for “legitimacy” as Reeves was, and his hunger revved him to perfect pitch here.
In 1959, Reeves was killed by a gunshot wound to his head. The LAPD concluded that the shooting was a suicide, but holes in the case have intrigued Hollywood buffs ever since, and the movie exploits them all. Bystanders with possible motives for killing Reeves included Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), Reeves’ mistress and the wife of powerful (and vengeful) MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Another suspect was Reeves’ put-upon fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney).
Reeves’ story is intermingled with that of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a low-rent detective who smells instant fame with the Reeves story and pursues it with reckless abandon. Simo is a fictional creation, and critics have taken the movie to task for giving this made-up character as much screen time as the “true” story. But the subplot was handled so gracefully that I didn’t have a problem with it. Simo is what Joe Average would be like if he started investigating a juicy Hollywood story and then realized he was in over his head.
What did trouble me was the movie’s fuzziness on certain plot points. Initially, the movie makes it looks as though the Reeves/Mannix events take place shortly before Simo enters the story, when in fact their story begins about ten years before Reeves’ death. Another example is the movie’s depiction of an apocryphal Reeves story. Legend has it that Reeves was once confronted by a child who wanted to shoot real bullets at Reeves to see if they’d bounce off “Superman’s” chest. In the movie version, we have to sort of take it on faith that a real gun is being pointed at Reeves; the movie doesn’t take any great pains to establish that fact.
But that’s not enough to detract from an otherwise engrossing movie. All of the performances are terrific. (In particular, Lane seems to be getting only more beautiful and talented with the passing years.) Marcelo Zarvo’s jazzy score is film-noir stylish and adds to the story’s atmosphere. And foggy plot points aside, first-time film director (and “Sopranos” vet) Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum deliver the goods better than many of this year’s higher-profile movies.
An interesting trivia note is that Warner Bros. (which owns the “Superman” rights but did not produce this movie) vetoed the film’s original title: Truth, Justice, and the American Way, taken from Supe’s old credo. Nevertheless, Hollywoodland chillingly proves that the credo’s third element doesn’t always include the first two.
Hollywoodland is rated R for some adult language and situations, violence, and brief nudity.