01/10/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
In 1959 a private detective investigates the apparent suicide of George Reeves, television's Superman. This, says Mark, is an interesting film and its weak sequel inter-cut together. They had an original story in Reeves's life and the uncertainties of his death, but it did not need to be turned into film noir. The revelations are intended to be a shocking look at dirty business in Hollywood, but it rarely ever achieves even surprise. As exposes go, this one is pretty tame.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In 1959 George Reeves, who played Superman on television, was found dead of what appeared to be a suicide. Superman had been a hero of millions of children across the country for whom "The Adventures of Superman" was a favourite television program. Without much competition in the early Fifties, it had been the most exciting children's program on television. To those who associated Reeves with the invincible role he played, the news sounded almost impossible. There were rumours at the time that he might have been murdered, but nothing that added up to much or could ever be proven. Hollywoodland is a fictional mystery revolving around the death of George Reeves.
Reeves (played by Ben Affleck) had been despondent, ironically, over the success of the Superman program. He had taken the role reluctantly hoping and expecting to do better things with his career. He had had small roles like one of Scarlett O'Hara's suitors in Gone With The Wind. The Superman television promise was that the program would be very low profile. Reeves could take the money, which he desperately needed, and proceed with his career. Instead, he became typecast. He was a national icon to the five-to-fifteen set and even to some of their parents. After the Superman series, Reeves had been cast for From Here To Eternity and most viewers seem to have recognized him in a small role.
In Hollywoodland we are led to believe that his scenes were cut from the From Here To Eternity. (In actual fact the recognition was apparently treated as an irrelevancy by Columbia and essentially ignored, possibly in the hopes that it would actually help the picture's success as actor recognition frequently does. Reeves appears in the released film with every one of his scenes intact.) The actor was depressed, however, and either did take his life or someone else killed him. This story is told in flashback sequences as seedy detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) investigates the peccadilloes and death of Reeves.
The problem with Hollywoodland is that it is not really a single story. It is a story and its sequel. The story, sort of a biopic of George Reeves, is relatively accurate as far as I can tell. The sequel is a fairly clichéd and fictitious detective story based on rumours about George Reeves's death. Because the writers thought the real story was their detective plot, they short-changed the biopic on time. What Simo turns up is neither as shocking as the writers had hoped, nor is it even particularly interesting. Basically what we discover is that studios try to protect their financial interests and that people enjoy sex enough to do bad things for it. So what else is new?
The real crime of this film is that the filmmakers did not know where the best part of the story was. The ironies of George Reeves's life, ruined by the wrong success, are actually more engaging than the familiar dangers of a private eye's job. Reeves was destroyed by being too successful in a role perhaps beneath his talents and certainly beneath his aspirations. That was where the actual story was. Adrien Brody is probably a better actor than Ben Affleck is, but they gave Affleck the more original role as Reeves. Brody, who was excellent in THE PIANIST, was stuck with the clichéd sleazy detective role. There is nothing in the detective plot that was not done many times better in films like CHINATOWN.
The casting of the film is spotty at best. Brody's Louis Simo is a fictional character so the part can be cast any way they want. But the script has someone call Simo a Ralph Meeker type. As good as Brody is, he comes off nothing like Ralph Meeker. They needed to rewrite that line in the script and just did not. Reeves looked very different from Ben Affleck and really was a better actor in the Superman role than Affleck seems to be. Admittedly in glasses, the Affleck Clark Kent does resemble the Reeves version of Kent. The film is shot in under-saturated colours with a limited color palette that is a bit irritating. The title HOLLYWOODLAND was apparently an unhappy choice for the filmmakers, but the titles they would have wanted more are copyrighted by the Superman people. The film reportedly was to be called Truth, Justice, And The American Way. Hollywoodland is an old building development whose name loomed in large letters over Hollywood. Eventually the last four letters were removed; the rest remains there to remind any doubters what town they are in.
Writer Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter thought that the real story here was the scandal and mystery surrounding the death of a national hero. Had they recognized that George Reeves was the real story--and that the dirty linen was only a small part of that story--they could have made a much better film. I rate this HOLLYWOODLAND a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2006 Mark R. Leeper