It turns out that this year’s most interesting Superman movie has the Man of Steel’s brains painting the walls of his Los Angeles bedroom. Hollywoodland, once known by the far superior title Truth, Justice and the American Way before Warner Bros shit their red underoos, tells the story of the rise and death of 1950s TV Superman George Reeves in parallel with the fictional tale of a private dick looking into whether or not the official story – suicide – holds any water.
While Hollywoodland outsoars Superman Returns, it suffers from a bad case of narrative kryptonite, leading the story to a dead end conclusion that feels less like a finish and more like the production ran out of film. The flaccid finale is all the more frustrating for the fact that the first hour or so of the flick features first rate filmmaking (sorry, I got into the spirit of the movie’s 1950s setting). Hollywoodland does what many had thought now impossible – it makes Ben Affleck very compelling, so much so that you feel his loss when the story switches to Adrien Brody’s sad sack PI.
Affleck plays Reeves as a frustrated leading man, stuck in shitty serials. He’s trying his best to move up the Hollywood ladder, and he knows he can do good work if he’s given it. Reeves has had the awful luck of starting out at the top – his first paid acting gig is in Gone With The Wind, but then the war comes and takes him away from films for his best years. He goes to all the best restaurants, hoping to be seen by all the right people and to squeeze his mug into all the right photos, and it’s at one of these places he meets Toni Mannix. An older, sexy woman, she falls for Reeves’ matinee looks and he takes her home, only to find out in the morning that she’s the wife of MGM’s main fixer – a Mob-tied strong-arm type who makes sure the stars’ worst indiscretions get hushed up. But she and her husband have an understanding, and she buys Reeves jewelry and a home, setting him up so that he can concentrate on acting.
But as Reeves’ agent tells him, actors can’t always act. Sometimes they have to just work. Reeves goes on an audition to play a villain in the movie/pilot for Adventures of Superman and the producers like what they see – they hire him to play the Man of Steel himself. So begins Reeves’ cruel dalliance with a career: he’s famous to 11 year olds across the country, and his face is so identified with his television career that he has to be cut out of From Here to Eternity after early audiences hoot and jeer at Superman acting opposite Burt Lancaster. The film’s recreation of The Adventures of Superman is evocative and fascinating. Affleck is great not only as the witty, charming and cynical Reeves but also as the winking Superman. I can’t believe I’m praising a Ben Affleck performance this much (and I really like the guy), but he’s finally, after years in the wilderness, found a role that suits him. He’s perfect as the almost-was, a role he’s been studying for the last few years.
Meanwhile the film keeps cutting to Brody, who has been hired by Reeves’ grieving mother to prove that the actors’ death wasn’t a suicide. At first he just takes the job for the fifty bucks a day, but as he investigates more and more he begins to see patterns emerging. Did Reeves go upstairs in the middle of a party and blow his own brains out? Or did Toni Mannix’ husband have him whacked? Or did the other woman in his life, his fiancée, accidentally kill him? The movie brings us through all of these scenarios only to settle on… none.
The Reeves scenes are lush and vibrant, while the PI scenes are faded and worn out – video killed the movie stars, we’re meant to see. It works, and it’s fascinating to see the decay of Hollywood glamour into the paparazzi slop we have today. In many ways Hollywoodland hints that the death of Reeves was the first step on a path that would bring us to Paris Hilton – or maybe his death was the end of the road for the old Hollywood.
But the Reeves scenes also have the luck to feature Affleck and Diane Lane in a role that she will surely get her plenty of nominations come awards time. She’s the final connection to that glamorous Hollywood Reeves wants to be a part of, Norma Desmond’s younger and much less insane sister. The two actors have a searing sexual chemistry, and their relationship is the rarest thing you find in a Hollywood film these days – mature and realistic. I could have watched an entire film with just this story. In fact, I would have preferred an entire film with it.
Which isn’t to say that Brody isn’t good – he is, if terribly miscast. Brody’s a beatnik detective, Dobie Gillis PI, despite the fact that the movie keeps claiming he’s JJ Gittes. Brody’s knife-edged profile works perfectly in a seedy Hollywood whodunit, but as his story goes on it also unravels to the point of being meaningless; meanwhile the Reeves story is building in tension and momentum towards the end of his career and eventual death. We’re meant to be drawing parallels between Brody and Affleck by the end of the film, and while I can intellectually see where the filmmakers want me to do so, emotionally it never works. And by the end, as the movie sputters through what’s supposed to be the climax, I couldn’t bring myself to much care either way.
Hollywoodland doesn’t come down on any of the death scenarios presented, but anyone with an understanding of movie language will tell you that the fact that the final one shown is suicide is certainly meant to skew our thinking. I would have liked it better if the movie had been done Clue-style, with a random ending attached to each print – at least the movie would have an actual ending.