The tagline for Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland — “Living in Hollywood can make you famous. Dying in Hollywood can make you a legend” — raises the questions of just what constitutes a legend and whether George Reeves qualifies as one. His status as TV’s Superman in the 1950s makes him a nostalgic figure with baby boomers, and the murky circumstances surrounding his suicide a year after the show was cancelled are the stuff of Hollywood notoriety and gossip. But are notoriety and gossip the same thing as a legend? By playing fast and loose with the facts — yet never actually reaching any conclusion — Hollywoodland does its damndest to make the viewer think so.
In reality, Reeves was a limited actor who played bit and small roles in movies from 1939 until he hit fame in 1952, when his role as Superman in the previous year’s Superman and the Mole-Men (the existence of which Hollywoodland ignores) spawned the TV series The Adventures of Superman.
It was a role that may or may not have typecast him. The problem with the movie’s claim that playing Superman killed Reeves’ career is that he’d had 13 years to establish a career before playing Superman, and in that time he never got much past small supporting roles in B movies. The idea that he went from early glory by playing one of the Tarleton brothers in Gone With the Wind in 1939 to the ignominy of playing Sir Galahad in a bad Columbia serial in 1949 omits 10 years of undistinguished roles in largely undistinguished movies. In a similar move, Hollywoodland opts to go with — and even embellish — the long-refuted myth that Reeves’ scenes in Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953) had to be cut because audiences laughed at seeing Superman in a serious role.
As conceived by TV writer Paul Bernbaum (Halloweentown) and TV director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos), Reeves becomes both more important and less important than he really was — a symbol of the failings of the American success ethic. Reeves, who by most accounts took his role-model status very seriously, is presented as a would-be serious actor who viewed the Superman role as slumming and was little more than a publicity-seeking opportunist. No opportunity is lost to make sleazy, post-modernist sneers at the Superman show (a la Paul Schrader’s handling of Hogan’s Heroes in 2002′s Autofocus).
To bolster this image, the film invents seedy gumshoe Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) as someone hired by Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith, Minority Report) to find out the truth behind the mysterious death of her son. Simo’s own dysfunctional life is supposed to mirror Reeves’ and give the film a narrative form. The idea seems to be that Simo is the 1950s version of Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). The reality is more like a badly expanded version of William Alland’s reporter in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) looking for the meaning of “Rosebud” — minus the closure that Alland’s reporter finds.
Since the mystery surrounding Reeves’ death (was it suicide, or murder by ex-mistress Toni Mannix, her husband Eddie Mannix or Reeves’ possibly jilted fiancee Leonore Lemmon?) — has never been solved, or even proven to be a mystery, the film can only chase its own tail by offering speculative solutions. Each possible answer is acted out in Simo’s mind, and these are easily the most accomplished sections of the movie. The suicide version is, in fact, a little tour de force of filmmaking that succeeds in drawing the parallels between Simo and Reeves that the movie otherwise largely fails to create.
It matters less that Hollywoodland is far from factual — Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998) is a great movie that took the facts of director James Whale’s (Frankenstein) equally murky death and ran with them — than it matters that the results are tacky, depressing and finally downright dull. We’re left with a film that has no likable characters and none that we’re never given a reason to care about. When the closest you get to a sympathetic character is Bob Hoskins as MGM executive Eddie Mannix, you’re in trouble.
Yes, it’s a well-acted film — even the much-disdained Ben Affleck sustains the film’s limited characterization of Reeves. And it has occasional moments of sharp writing though these are usually limited to canny exchanges among Hollywood executives who can think only in terms of movies. In the end, it’s an overlong, unlikable exercise in futility. It wants to be the next Chinatown — a film that’s about an exercise in futility, but was savvy enough not to be one. Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke