I liked this film. I liked it a lot.
In 1959, actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck), best known for playing “Superman” on television, dies of an apparent suicide. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a small time private investigator working thankless marriage infidelity cases, receives a lead and meets with Reeves’ estranged mother (Lois Smith) who doesn’t believe her son committed suicide. Recognizing a headline when he sees it, and needing the publicity for his practice, Simo takes the case and begins to learn about Reeves’ personal life. After a bit part in “Gone With The Wind”, Reeves’ career stalls and he haunts popular Hollywood restaurants looking for publicity, a reference, anything to get him some work. Soon, he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), the Controller of MGM and a very powerful man in Hollywood. Toni and George begin an affair and Reeves soon gets the role of “Superman” in a super low budget television show. But the television show becomes a huge hit and makes Reeves a star. But Reeves becomes so identified with the role, his acting career suffers and he has difficulty finding other work. When the show is cancelled, he becomes despondent and ends the affair with Toni, who doesn’t take the news well. Naturally, Simo is drawn in this direction and questions people involved and raises the ire of some powerful individuals in Hollywood. After watching his son react to the death of his idol poorly and getting beaten up by some thugs, Simo becomes convinced he is on the right path, and becomes more determined to find the truth.
“Hollywoodland” written by Paul Berenbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, both of whom have a background in television, Coulter worked on “The Sopranos”, is a very well made film attempting to solve one of Hollywood’s greatest puzzles. Did George Reeves commit suicide or was he murdered?
We first meet Simo. Brody does a fantastic job of creating this private eye whose life is a constant struggle to survive. Divorced from his wife (Molly Parker), he visits their son, “Scout” (Zach Mills) and tries to maintain a normal relationship with him. Living in a rundown apartment building, he unapologetically meets with his clients in his apartment, offering them a folding chair to sit in and pin-up calendars to look at. Simo is always working, looking for a step up, looking for a new opportunity.
From the moment Brody appears onscreen, his character becomes a living, breathing human. We see the conflict in his very move and action, we see the weariness he has experienced, we see how he struggles to maintain while looking for that breakthrough case. When the Reeves’ case lands in his lap, he recognizes the opportunity. The actor smiles a lot as Simo, but this shows his character’s regard for life; he is bemused by the craziness surrounding him, in his life, his profession, in Hollywood. When things take a serious turn, the smile disappears, but returns to show he is trying to deal with the problem at hand.
The key to Brody’s performance is in Simo’s relationship with his son. His wife calls him and asks him to come out to the house. When he arrives, he finds that his son tried to set fire to the couch. Talking to his son, he learns that the boy wanted to get rid of his coveted Superman costume because he didn’t want to be associated with his hero anymore. His hero committed suicide, becoming a coward. At a loss for words, Simo tries to comfort his son, but his son’s attitude only makes him more determined to find the truth. When Simo visits his son, he becomes a normal human dealing with the complexities of life. These scenes help to ground his character and make him seem real when he is dealing with the more interesting, fantastical elements of Hollywood in the late 50s. Throughout, Brody creates a thoughtful, believable human character who gradually becomes obsessed with finding the truth.
After a brief look at Reeves’ apparent suicide, the film cuts back and forth between Simo and Reeves, showing us key moments in the actor’s life as Simo investigates. As we move back and forth between the two stories, and the different timelines, director Coulter keeps things easy to follow. During the flashbacks, the cinematography is tinted slightly, making it more saturated, clearly setting it apart from the Brody story.
As Simo investigates, and learns more of Reeves’ life, his life begins to fall apart; a client murders someone, he breaks up with his girlfriend, and he scares his son. This provides a nice counterpoint, because it parallels Reeves life.
Interestingly, we watch Reeves’ story unfold from a fairly early point, I’m going to guess the early 50s, just before he got the role of “Superman”. As his story unfolds, and he becomes increasingly unhappy, this mirrors Simo’s story; the more involved the private investigator becomes in the story, the less control he has over the case and his life, much like the actor’s life.
This is some of Affleck’s best work in years. Beyond the striking physical resemblance, he doesn’t seem to be attempting an imitation, he is creating a character. From the first moment we meet Reeves, Affleck portrays the character as an attention hound, eager for publicity and work. Hanging around a popular Hollywood restaurant, he points out the various famous directors to his companion. Then, when Rita Hayworth arrives, he manages to get strategically close and in a few of the photographs the newspapers take of the famous star. Then he meets Toni (Lane), an older woman. They fall in love and begin a relationship. But Affleck makes the character more than a simple himbo. Yes, he would probably sleep with a woman to get some work, but he doesn’t realize who Toni is until after they have slept together. He seems to love her.
The “attention hound” aspect of Reeves’ character is also nicely paralleled in Simo, who never passes an opportunity to have his picture taken for the newspapers. When he takes Reeves’ mother to the actor’s home, he puts her in a wheelchair and makes sure the newspaper photographers catch him holding his hand on her shoulder.
When Reeves learns who she is, he quickly confronts her. Her husband, Eddie (Hoskins) could destroy his career. She reassures him; they have an understanding. Eddie has a mistress and she is allowed to ‘have fun’. To prove the point, all four have dinner at a restaurant together and Toni attempts to fondle George under the table. Soon, Toni convinces Eddie to buy a house and George moves in.
Throughout, Affleck always hints at Reeves’ vulnerability, his desire for fame, his need for attention. Even when he has these things, he still wants more. After becoming famous as Superman, he wants to prove he is an actor and searches for more parts, something to show off his acting chops. He manages to get a bit part in “From Here to Eternity”. During the premiere, he is shocked to find the audience heckling him when he appears on screen. “Faster than a speeding bullet” someone shouts. This only serves to make him more depressed. Affleck successfully captures the enigma of this man; at times, he seems depressed but stoically moves forward, at others he seems hopeful about the future. Could he have committed suicide?
Diane lane is also very good as Toni Mannix, an older woman infatuated with her new boyfriend. As the relationship grows, she proves to be more than a little obsessed with it. Later, as the relationship falls apart, she is clearly emotionally attached to the actor. Her character really comes into focus late in the film. After Reeves’ apparent suicide, she is despondent. Eddie tries to comfort her and we realize they care for each other, and realize why they maintain their marriage, but they will never be in love with each other, which is why they have affairs. Also, after Reeves is dead, she clearly has aged, proving that he did indeed make her feel young, as she states early in their affair.
Hoskins is good as the menacing head of a powerful movie studio. But the film doesn’t really follow a lead it introduces late in the film and his character is not as powerful as he could be. Menacing yes, memorable no.
The production design is immaculate and the attention to detail is fantastic. Simo’s apartment building is something we would expect to find in modern day Hollywood, but few know that this type of thing began to pop up as early as the late 50s. Every time he returns to the complex, we see an elderly man working out, trying to maintain his figure for the break he always hopes will happen. The pool is dirty and unused. The restaurants, homes, cars, the brief shots behind the scenes of the television series “Superman” all appear to be well-researched and add an air of authenticity to the film. The clothing is also great and Brody wears some great, authentic period clothes. If anyone can find the coat he wears in my size, I’ll pay a finders fee.
“Hollywoodland” is a very good film, but it has a major problem. Early on, when Simo visits Reeves’ home and uncovers three bullet holes, he rightly questions the suicide theory. But this is never revisited. And the film depicts two possible explanations for Reeves’ death, one of which is murder. Yet the killer only shoots one bullet. At the end of the film, Simo’s conclusion about the actor’s murder is inconclusive and unfulfilling.
Yet, the film is very good, filled with great performances, an interesting story and great production values. If the filmmakers had only taken a firmer stand on their theory for the death of “Superman”, the film would be stronger and could possibly become a classic about the history of Hollywood.
FYI, the famous Hollywood sign once stood in a different location and was decorated with lights. When it collapsed, the sign was rebuilt in its present location and form providing the icon we all remember today.