Hollywoodland: Marvelous Truth-Based Neo-Noir
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
On June 16, 1959, actor George Reeves — a journeyman contract player at Warner Bros. in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s who’d had a minor role in Gone With the Wind, served in World War II, come back to a town that had passed him by, moved to New York, done live TV and landed a role in the filmed series Adventures of Superman that turned him into an icon — was found shot to death in the upstairs bedroom of his home while some friends of his were partying downstairs. The police officially ruled Reeves’ death a suicide, and that’s what most of the people who knew him thought. Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen on the Adventures of Superman show, said he thought Reeves was depressed because he wanted to appeal to adult audiences and the only people who came to his personal appearances were children. But rumors have persisted that he was actually murdered, and that his killing had something to do with his long affair with Toni Lanier Mannix, wife of MGM’s second-in-command Eddie Mannix.
That’s the factual basis behind the new movie Hollywoodland, which opens September 8. Directed by Allen Coulter — who’s never made a feature film before but has done a large amount of work for TV, including such edgy series as The X-Files, Millennium, Sex and the City and The Sopranos — and written and co-produced by Paul Bernbaum, another TV vet with just one previous feature credits (something from 1998 called Family Plan), Hollywoodland uses Reeves’ death as the basis for a modern-day film noir about greed, lust, the lure of stardom and the enveloping fog of protectiveness the major studios wrapped around their operations from the 1930’s to the 1950’s to make sure that nothing came out in the media that might deglamorize the stars and discourage moviegoers from paying money to see their films.
Hollywoodland is basically two movies in one. It’s a biopic of the last eight years in the life of Reeves (Ben Affleck) that picks him up as a studio-system reject, follows him through his unexpected — and unexpectedly humiliating — stardom as Superman on TV, and grimly contrasts his off-screen drinking, smoking and screwing with the clean-cut image he was expected to maintain as the living embodiment of “truth, justice and the American way.” Intercut with this story is the tale of seamy (and fictional) private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody, top-billed) who, reduced to working out of a motel room for only one client, latches on to the Reeves case as a way of making megabucks and gets Reeves’ mother (Heather Allin) to pay him to investigate the case as a murder.
Cynical tales about Hollywood and its denizens are nothing new on screen — indeed one might say that Hollywoodland was made for the moviegoers who liked Chinatown and L.A. Confidential — but Hollywoodland is a richer and better film than either of those. It doesn’t wear its cynicism quite so obviously on its sleeve, and writer Bernbaum is careful to give his central characters at least some points of audience appeal and sympathy. Simo may be in it for the money, but he’s also saddled with an ex-wife (Molly Parker) and a son (Charlie Lea at age 5, Zach Mills later) who idolized Reeves as Superman, then burned his Superman suit — an earlier present from daddy — in a fit of disappointed rage after Reeves died. As for Reeves, he becomes something of a pathetic figure, torn between being the boy-toy of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) and his lust-at-first-sight relationship with fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) and also hating the part of Superman even as it gives him something of the stardom he’s long craved.
Hollywoodland is occasionally too sluggish in its pacing, too brown-toned in its physical appearance (a common failing of modern films set in the recent past) and sometimes confusing in the time sequence: often we don’t know which storyline a scene is part of until we see whether Brody or Affleck is in it. But most of Coulter’s direction is tight and involving, and the cast members seem so “right” for their parts it’s amazing that anyone else was even considered for this film (which they were: among the actors up for Simo were Benicio Del Toro and Joaquin Phoenix, while Hugh Jackman and Kyle MacLachlan were on the list to play Reeves). Brody proves that there is indeed life for him after The Pianist; he gives his character the right mix of seediness and underlying integrity, and at times seems to be taking as much punishment here as he did as a man hiding out from the Nazis. Lane is equally adept at playing the seductress in her opening scene and the still good-looking but aging woman at the end who has to face not only the loss of her boy-toy to someone younger but the evidence in her mirror. Affleck, after his recent string of flops, seems all too right for the role of a star on the skids; though he’s not as tall as the real Reeves (who, in his early days at Warners, competed for “B” leads with another tall, fair and gangly young actor, Ronald Reagan), he otherwise looks uncannily like him and brings dimension to a part far more complex than any Reeves himself played.
One especially noteworthy aspect of Hollywoodland is its illustration of how destructive the wrong kind of fame can be. Reeves shows up for the Superman audition sure that the show will never be aired and he’ll get a quick, one-shot paycheck that won’t do long-term damage to his career. When he gets the role and starts actually shooting, he’s forced to wear a padded costume to look more muscular and to do his own stunts, taking a bone-jarring fall from the wire harness that’s supposed to make it look as if he can fly. When he performs as Superman live before an audience of kids, one aims a real gun at him and threatens to shoot him, sure that the bullets will just bounce off the way they do on TV. When Reeves finally lands a role in a big, classy movie, From Here to Eternity, the preview audience giggles when he comes on and wags in the crowd titter, “That’s Superman!” — and he’s cut out of the film. (The real Reeves is visible, barely, in From Here to Eternity, but he was purged from its credits.) And when the Superman series is dropped after seven seasons, the only job his manager can line up for him is wrestling.
There’s a good deal more dark and sinister about this story. Though the film never takes a position on whether Reeves’ death was suicide or murder, it includes real people in the dramatis personae, notably Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins, totally suppressing his British accent and talking like an East Coast Jew), who rose from bouncer at the Palisades amusement park in New Jersey to second-in-command behind Louis B. Mayer at MGM; and Howard Strickling (Joe Spano), who spent his life at MGM covering up everything from Clark Gable’s drunk-driving arrests to the suicide of Jean Harlow’s husband. (The real Strickling turned down seven-figure offers to write a tell-all memoir and took his secrets to his grave.) At its height, the studio system — under which even the biggest stars were long-term employees of a single company, contractually barred from choosing their own parts or working anywhere else — was paternalistic but also often brutal in the way it exploited the up-and-coming and disposed of the down-and-falling. In the 1950’s this system was down but not yet out, and the aura of evil that surrounds Mannix and Strickling as they’re depicted here stems from the studios’ determination — aided by a far more cooperative media than today’s — to quash all adverse publicity and present the great stars as epitomes of glamour and morals off screen as well as on.
Allen Coulter and Paul Bernbaum have taken a potentially great story and achieved just the right mix of elements. Tragedy, absurdity, pathos and rage alternate in a plot in which nothing is quite as it seems and the efforts of the characters to achieve a normal life in the Hollywood hothouse — particularly Simo’s doomed efforts to patch his family back together while still dating his secretary (who’s seeing someone else, just as Eddie Mannix’s wife feels entitled to take Reeves as a sort of male mistress because Mr. Mannix has an extra-relational sex life of his own) — are simultaneously exasperating and moving in a twisted sort of way. Even the ending leaves it unclear whether Simo has found himself, sold out or both. Hollywoodland — filmed under the even more ironic working title Truth, Justice and the American Way — dredges up a sow’s ear of Hollywood scandal and turns it into a silk purse. It’s a movie not to be missed.