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Showbiz noir investigates TV Superman's real-life tragedy

Wednesday, Sep 6 2006
If Superman Returns attempted to resurrect the Man of Steel as mythic hero, the season's other Superman movie wants to disabuse us of any such childish illusions. Glamorously adult, Hollywoodland purports to part the veil on the circumstances by which George Reeves, the actor who embodied the superhero on '50s television, wound up with a bullet in his brain.

Hollywoodland, directed by Allen Coulter (a veteran of The Sopranos and Sex and the City) from Paul Bernbaum's screenplay, aspires to a certain authenticity. Suavely self-satisfied Ben Affleck (the natural candidate to star in Kevin Smith's oft-announced, never-made Superman Lives) is typecast as the unfortunate Reeves. Serious intentions are signaled by a somewhat choppy Citizen Kane structure. Scenes from the actor's life alternate with the investigation into his death conducted by private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody).

Louis is an enigmatic bottom-feeder; George is a desperate bon vivant, introduced avidly scanning the room at Ciro's for useful contacts. "Hel-loo Billy Wilder," he remarks to a buddy in the first of many references to the original Hollywood noir. George fails to connect with Sunset Boulevard's director, but does insinuate himself into a parallel scenario by picking up an experienced dame in Toni Mannix (Diane Lane). Or is it vice versa? "I have another seven good years, then my ass drops like a duffel bag," she cheerfully informs him.

An ex-showgirl, at once kittenish and maternal, Toni is married to a much older (and far tougher) MGM executive, the ex-carny bouncer Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Theirs is an open arrangement. Toni introduces her new fling to Mannix over dinner: "George was in Gone With the Wind, Eddie." (Reeves is in the very first scene among Scarlett O'Hara's phalanx of beaux — a cameo that, for anyone born after World War II, places the entire movie on planet Krypton.) "That picture made money," the deceptively addled thug replies without looking up from his plate.

A kept man and a struggling actor, George takes the Superman gig in desperation. Coulter provides an amusingly hyperreal reconstruction of this primitive kiddie show — with George suffering the humiliation of a collapsible flying machine. After two years, Kellogg's decides to sponsor Superman and George becomes culture hero to the nation's Cub Scouts. This ridiculous success ends his serious career. He's cut out of From Here to Eternity when the preview audience starts to snicker. George dumps Toni for an ambitious little trollop (Robin Tunney) who sees Superman as her meal ticket. During the course of a drunken party three days before their wedding, he goes upstairs and — commits suicide?

That's what the LAPD called it, but, starting with Reeves' mother (played by Lois Smith as the most cantankerous harridan in all Indiana), others suspected foul play. Who arranged the hit? Was it jealous Toni? A vindictive Eddie? George's fiancée? And what's angst-ridden Louis' interest? Somehow, he gloms onto the case in an effort to establish his own super bona fides. Dropping in on his estranged wife soon after Superman's death, Louis learns that "every kid on the block is upset." His own boy has a super breakdown, setting fire to his blue tights and cape. Not that everyone took it so hard. My dim memory of Reeves' demise is mainly a matter of callous schoolyard witticisms concerning kryptonite bullets and actors who imagined they could fly.

Such jejune cynicism is the basis of Hollywoodland's critique. George does live kiddie shows, during which he entertains the backstage crew by smoking, drinking, and joking about his penis. Like its protagonist, Hollywoodland has an easy, sleazy appeal — a languid descent into the mystery's murky depths. The truth turns out to be unknowable, but Hollywoodland does have a knowing look. Beyond the Googie-style beaneries and Fiesta-ware fashions, behind the fat, florid dialogue camouflaging the unconvincing Rashomon riffs on Reeves' death, the movie is steeped in Hollywood lore. Louis, too, has a showbiz past. His head and heart were broken in the so-called Battle of Burbank, when strikers battled goons outside the Warner Bros. studio.

George may be a sap and Louis a hustler, but Hollywoodland has a lot on its mind — inflating a scandal that rates barely a page in the second volume of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon into a meditation on the price of fame, the nature of acting, and the basis of fantasy. The dream is a priori corrupt — even before MGM tries to sugar Louis off the case. Props, then, to Affleck. Coulter contrived a neat behavioral trick by inducing his star to play a comparably big-jawed bad actor. Surrounded as he is by canny professionals — Lane, Hoskins, Smith, and Jeffrey DeMunn as an unctuous glad-handing agent — it's an unexpectedly touching performance.

In fact, Hollywoodland turns turgid when it switches to the gritty Louis Simo story. Real actor Adrien Brody wrestles with an underwritten part whose painful domestic arguments and drunk scenes serve only to parallel those walked through by the fantasy boy. (At a certain point, the protags begin to merge — the dick takes a beating that might have been meant for the star.) Paradoxically, Hollwoodland belongs to the less expressive performer. Brody has to act to make it; Affleck simply is.

About The Author

J. Hoberman


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