There are four excellent reasons for you to watch Hollywoodland that have nothing to do with whether or not it's a good movie, which it isn't.
One. You grew up watching The Adventures of Superman and George Reeves, whose story the movie tries to tell, will in your heart of hearts always be your Superman even though Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, and Tom Welling have all been much better at being Superman, not just by looking better in the red and blue but by being better actors than Reeves ever was, the modesty of his talent being one of the saddest facts about him in Hollywoodland.
And because Reeves is your Superman you've always been confused and saddened by his suicide and wondered what happened? How could Superman have killed himself?
Two. You've been secretly rooting for Ben Affleck to find a part that shows why back when Good Will Hunting was making him famous people said he was the one with a real acting career ahead of him, Matt Damon was just a pretty face who'd go nowhere fast.
Three. You are fascinated by the period and a movie that perfectly recreates the clothes, the cars, the colors, and even the look of people is right up your alley.
Four. You are madly in love with Diane Lane.
I happen to fall into three out of four of those categories. Except for the cars and Marilyn Monroe, the 50s don't offer me much to look at. There are lots of good shots of cars in Hollywoodland. No shots of Monroe.
The story of George Reeves as Hollywoodland tells it is the story of a nice enough guy, blessed with good looks and charm, who dreamed of being a movie star and wound up a television star instead and couldn't make himself be happy with that. Reeves' sad decline begins with what should be the best time of his life. He meets Toni Mannix, who becomes the love of his life, and he gets the part of Superman, which makes him one of the most famous and most looked up to men in America.
But Toni is older than him by a decade and she's married---to a rich and powerful studio executive. All the money and the power is on her side, and Toni can't help but make Reeves feel this all the time. She doesn't do it meanly; she intends to be doting and supportive. But her favorite term of affection for him is "my boy," she lavishes money and gifts on him in ways that make him feel more bullied than taken care of, and she's so desperately needy and jealous that she can't bear the thought of other women desiring him even as an image on a movie screen---the movie implies that she sabotages his film career in order to keep him from becoming famous to anyone but her and that the reason she's so happy when The Adventures of Superman becomes a hit is that all his adoring fans are children.
Meanwhile, Reeves can't enjoy his newfound stardom because to him it's not real. It's a cruel parody of what he'd dreamed of for himself. In his view, which is the view of old time Hollywood, there's no such thing as a television star. Television is the lowest form of hack work. And being a star on a kiddie show? He's not even a cowboy or a private eye. He's a cartoon. He feels like a clown in the Superman suit.
And, as Affleck plays him, Reeves is an intelligent man with a sense of irony that works hard on his ego and pride. He sees the enormous difference between himself and the heroic character he plays and between what he really is and what his young fans think he is and it makes him laugh, derisively, at himself.
The more people admire him, the more he despises himself.
Affleck makes Reeves one of the most likable male characters I've seen in a movie in a long time. His Reeves is a genuinely nice guy, charming, aware of his charm, but never full of himself, and never pressing. He captures the inner turmoils of a man who is driven simultaneously by a movie star's vanity and a small town boy's modesty and humility. He wants to be the center of attention and he wants to defer to everyone around him and make sure they are having a good time and see that their feelings aren't hurt.
Affleck's Reeves is often perfectly still, perfectly composed, seemingly so comfortably at rest because he wants to go too many different directions at once and doesn't dare move---he can't move without tearing himself into pieces.
Affleck worked hard on getting down Reeves' mannerisms and the cadences of his speech. He doesn't do an impersonation. He suggests Reeves more than he becomes Reeves. He makes his Reeves a character, one who happens to be a lot like a real person named George Reeves, but who is nonetheless a creation of the actor playing him and a "person" in his own right.
There are moments, though, when Affleck looks uncannily like Reeves, particularly when he is dressed as Clark Kent on the Superman set. He has managed to capture Reeves' smile perfectly, and there's a moment when he looks into the camera and winks, as Reeves used to do at the end of too many episodes, when Affleck disappears into the part so completely that I had to double check to make sure the filmmakers hadn't gotten too clever by half and replaced the shot with a sequence from the real TV show.
Diane Lane is excellent as Toni. It's disconcerting to see the most beautiful 40 year old in the movies playing a fading beauty of 50 losing her looks too quickly to age and booze and cigarettes and unhappiness. Her Toni is a fragile, spoiled, neurotic with no inner resources to call on to save herself from that last assault on her beauty, except one---she is ferociously determined to be happy with "her boy." Of course it's that quality of her love for Reeves that makes him feel crushed and un-manned.
It's also that quality that gives Toni an edge of malice. Her love is selfish and she's prone to expressing it with more anger than affection. Her neediness takes the form of a threat. She can't let go of her boy and she'll be damned if he manages to shake himself loose from her.
Lane's biggest challenge in the part is to keep Toni from coming across as a castrating shrew while still suggesting that she's capable of the ultimate form of castration if that's what it takes to keep George in line. She would just as soon kill him as let him sleep with another woman.
This is an important part of Toni's character but only because it's necessary to keeping the conceit of the movie going.
Hollywoodland isn't a biopic. It's a murder mystery. A strange sort of murder mystery. One that makes itself operate under the constraint of truth. Hollywoodland wants to tell a story of what might have happened---What if Superman didn't kill himself? What if he was murdered?---while not breaking with what did happen. There's no real evidence that George Reeves didn't kill himself. There's only speculation based on some odd behavior on his part in the weeks before he died and some stupid behavior on the part of his drunken friends and fiancee who were in the house with him that night.
So Hollywoodland takes the opposite tack of your standard movie murder mystery. It starts from the assumption that Reeves was murdered and then sets out to prove that he wasn't.
To do this, the totally fictional character of a private eye played by Adrien Brody is introduced. The movie's narrative proceeds on two tracks: the present, in which the private eye, hired by Reeves' estranged mother to prove that her boy (the two most important women in Reeves' life refuse to acknowledge that he's a grown man) was murdered, and the past, beginning the night Reeves and Toni meet and fall in love and ending, three different times in three different ways, on the night Reeves died from a gunshot wound to the head.
It doesn't work.
Not because there's anything intrinsically wrong with the idea. In fact, Reeves' real story is too slight to be worth a whole movie. It doesn't work because the moviemakers let their device for telling Reeves' story become more important than telling Reeves' story.
Brody's character, Louis Simo, is the lead. His story is meant to parallel Reeves' in a way that the movie never makes persusasive. Simo dreams of being a famous detective the way Reeves dreamed of being a movie star and like Reeves Simo can't be happy with the milder forms of happiness life has allotted him because he's too focused on the wonderfulness his own dreams keep promising him. Reeves had Toni and Superman. Simo has a pretty and understanding ex-wife who still loves him, despite being frustrated and angry with him, and a young son who looks up to him as if he is Superman.
Simo's investigation is meant to be redemptive. Symbolically, he is investigating his own life and uncovering the mystery of his own unhappiness. Ultimately he comes to see that he's doing to himself what Reeves did to himself. The question is will he be able to pull back in time to save himself or will he wind up dead like Reeves? Simo's story, then, is presented as being more important than Reeves' because its outcome is still in doubt. All the suspense that the movie gins up is over whether or not Simo's going to get himself killed.
Simo's being a fictional character running around among real people who lived through real heartache and loss turns out to turn us off to him and turn us against him---he's a constant intrusion. One of the most touching characters in the movie is Reeves' long time agent, Art Weisman, movingly played by Jeffrey DeMunn as the most doting and adoring of surrogate fathers, and the scene in which Simo interviews him and we're presented with Weissman's real grief contrasted with Simo's fictitious cynicism works to underscore the mystery plot's artificiality. We bleed for Weissman while wishing Simo would just disappear from the movie.
Also, unfortunately, unlike Reeves, Simo isn't a decent, likable guy. He's a jerk. A would-be tough guy who mistakes heartlessness for realism and treats everybody, including his 10 year old son, as just another schemer with something to sell him. And Brody doesn't do anything to take the edges off. If anything, he adds splinters to the edges and rusty nails. He makes Simo not just the kind of guy you don't want to brush up against for fear of getting a nasty cut. He makes him the kind of guy who, if you do bump into him, gives you an infection.
I'm saying he's dirty. Not dishonest, although that's implied. Dirty as in filthy minded. He thinks the worst of everybody and it's made his soul a cesspool.
He's not even a particularly good detective.
So he's not somebody whose ultimate redemption we've got a rooting interest in.
At any rate, because the movie tries to have it both ways and tell a fictional murder mystery and a true to the facts biography of a suicide, there's more psychology than plot in both halves of the story, and both halves finish with a big, So what?
Hollywoodland would have been better if the filmmakers had had the courage to throw the facts right out the window and turn Reeves' death into a murder and its story into a true Who Done It---although, if Simo was still slated to be the detective, I'd have prefered a true Who Will Do It with the detective plot left out entirely.
Thinking about it as that kind of movie, it seems to me that in that case the main character of the movie would have had to be Toni not Reeves. The story being told would be that of a middle-aged woman whose sense of betrayal by her less than deserving lover leads her into madness and murder.
Which sounds to me like a very 1950s sort of movie. And that reminds me. I was just being flip when I said the 50s don't offer much to look at but beautiful cars and Marilyn Monroe. Among the great things to look at from the 50s are the films of Douglas Sirk.
Siren, what do you think? The alternative Hollywoodland I described? Would it have made a good vehicle for Sirk?
I know this. It would have made a great vehicle for Diane Lane.
Hollywoodland. Directed by Allen Coulter. Screenplay by Paul Bernbaum. Starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, and Molly Parker. 2006.
Cross-posted at newcritics.