The other Superman movie
by Mike Baron
Hollywoodland is a noir mystery and a meditation on the price of fame, focusing on the brief, sad career of George Reeves, the first television Superman. It's the flip side of the Return of Superman, a comic-based fantasy. Hollywoodland, set in the fifties, shows the disdain Hollywood had for comic material in those days, particularly in the making of the Superman TV show. When Reeves (Ben Affleck) dons the padded undergarments and suit it's humiliating. This Reeves, whom we first meet sucking up to players at Ciro's, is a charming, easy-going seducer who knows how to play the game. He hooks up with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the liberated wife of thuggish movie executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins).
© 2006 Miramax Films
In one uncomfortable scene, Reeves, Toni, Eddie, and Eddie's Chinese mistress are dining together when Reeves asks the girlfriend a question.
"Don't talk to her!" Mannix snaps. "She doesn't understand English."
The story begins with Reeves already dead, victim of a gunshot wound to the head. Was it murder, an accident, or suicide? The movie doesn't know and so offers a smorgasbord of scenarios. Reeves was understandably depressed by Superman's cancellation, but in the film never exhibits the kind of nihilistic depression that can lead to suicide. Reeves' unstable fianc?, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney,) is given to grand gestures. Gene LeBell is a movie actor and stuntman who worked with Reeves on Superman. In his autobiography The Toughest Man Alive LeBell describes an incident in which he and Reeves were playing cards. Leonore wanted something. Reeves told her he'd get to it eventually. Leonore picked up an expensive lamp and said, "You'll do it right now or I'll smash this lamp!" Reeves ignored her. She smashed the lamp and stormed out. The easy-going Reeves just shrugged. LeBell believes Leonore killed Reeves.
Reeves' mother hires low-rent private eye Louis Simo (Adrian Brody) to find out what really happened to her son. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks which are initially irritating but meld together as the story progresses. Hollywoodland moves slowly compared to other noirs, recent and old. It's as much character study as mystery and as such requires a degree of patience. No shoot-outs, no fistfights. The most terrifying moment occurs when a child approaches Superman at a public appearance holding a real revolver. "Can I shoot you, Superman?" Reeves sees the bullets and freaks out. I wonder why he didn't say, "May I see that gun a minute, son?"
Brody's Simo is slimy and endearing, sparring with his ex over his boy, cutting corners to get what he wants. He lives in one of those double-decker Hollywood motels with a central courtyard, and has a live-in girlfriend. The fifties details are superb, from the kitschy architecture to the Rigid Tool calendar on Simo's wall. The acting is first-rate and Affleck has garnered countless accolades but I had a problem with his Reeves. Maybe it's because I know what Reeves looks like. If you keep seeing the actor instead of the character, something's wrong. Not that Affleck is bad. He's very good, especially in his opening scene before he becomes Superman. Diane Lane is pitch perfect as the sex-hungry wife of a powerful studio boss who couldn't care less what she does. Hoskin's thuggish Eddie Mannix is as good a hoodlum as he has ever played, and there have been many.
The movie hedges its bets by offering three scenarios, which is fair to history but unsatisfying in what purports to be a noir. Of course the makers never claimed Hollywoodland is noir. The critics have done so due to its downbeat subject matter, the seamy-side of Hollywood , the price of fame, and the violence and flare-outs that the players pay to keep hidden. The sole note of redemption is when Simo sobers up so he can visit with his little boy.
Of course this story has nothing to do with The Return of Superman. But I enjoyed it more than The Return of Superman.
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