No Hollywoodland ending for TV’s first Superman

by Glen Baity

On the evening of June 16, 1959, George Reeves, TV’s first Superman, played host to a small gathering of friends at his home. Toward the evening’s end he said goodnight to his houseguests without fanfare and went upstairs to bed.

Minutes later, the reportedly depressed actor put a revolver to his temple.

Or did he?

Well, he probably did, if the alternate theories posited in Hollywoodland represent the best arguments to the contrary. The film, directed by Allen Coulter, stages its drama around an investigation into the death of Reeves, played with surprising depth by Ben Affleck. While it richly recreates those heady days of old Hollywood and boasts some good performances, the film is ultimately unconvincing and unsatisfying.

Hollywoodland begins with Reeves’ death and unfolds around the inquiry of fictional private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). The black sheep of the PI circuit slowly pieces together the details that made up Reeves’ life, which are presented in flashbacks: his disappointment at being less sought-after as a leading man than his peers; his reluctance to don the “blue underwear” and waste his time on a kids’ show; and his doomed love affair with Toni, the wife of MGM studio head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins).

As the investigation unfolds, three possible explanations for the shooting are presented. There’s the official version, in which Reeves, down-and-out and long depressed, shoots himself. There’s the ‘accidental death’ theory, in which his new girlfriend (Robin Tunney), waving a gun around in the midst of a heated argument, mistakenly pulls the trigger. Then there’s the ‘angry husband’ theory, in which Mannix has Reeves killed for breaking his wife’s heart.

I admit to having only a passing knowledge of Reeves’ death going in, but if I were to judge simply by the presentation in Hollywoodland, I’d say the film makes an unconvincing case for a cover-up. It starts as an interesting procedural, but over its two hours the lack of compelling evidence and preponderance of dubious theories becomes wearying. What little I’ve read indicates that the film plays fast and loose with a few key facts to beef up a flimsy case and make Reeves into more of a tragic hero, and if that’s true it certainly shows.

To his credit, director Coulter (“The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under”) gets a dynamite performance out of Affleck, who captures the frustration and quiet desperation of perpetual B-lister Reeves. You can get laughed out of a room for saying this, but I’ve always felt Affleck is often and unfairly made into a convenient punching bag, his talent too frequently overlooked (indeed, that probably undeserved Good Will Hunting Oscar might have been the worst thing that ever happened to him). Hollywoodland, if nothing else, shows that his skills as an actor are improving with age.

The film isn’t without its interesting scenes. The recreations of the old Saturday-morning “Superman” TV show are great to watch, and the courtship between Reeves and Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) is presented with tender believability.

All the more shame, then, that this film is so utterly conventional. Because of the timing of its release, it could’ve been a wonderfully dark coda to the rejuvenated Superman film franchise of the recently-ended summer movie season. But the story is just not all that interesting, and in the ‘murder or suicide’ question, the film subscribes to no particular point of view. Leaving that mystery unsolved is fine in a true-crime piece like this, but it needs something concrete to fall back on.

To that end, the film relies on Nimo’s trite story, which becomes its undoing. I’d really, really like to see one detective story in which the main character doesn’t become obsessed with the case because he feels it mirrors his own private failings. I’ve just seen the Murder Case as Metaphor motif done too many times, and Hollywoodland doesn’t add anything to it. Nimo’s futile struggle for the Truth takes center stage as the film lumbers toward its conclusion, and as good as Brody is, the character and his private travails are boring by virtually any measure.

Unfortunately, that’s the case with the whole of this film: it sounds like an interesting premise, but due in part to Coulter’s drawn-out pacing, I found it hard to get involved. Commendable performances aside, Hollywoodland moves far slower than the average speeding bullet, and is nowhere near as powerful as a locomotive.

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