Produced by Miramax Films
Directed by Allen Coulter
Screenplay by Paul Bernbaum
Distributed by Focus Features
Of the entertainment industry’s many venerable traditions, cashing in on dead celebrities ranks just below rehabilitating headliner junkies. Untold millions have been made under the guise of immortalizing fallen performers—think of James Dean, Elvis, John Lennon. And who hasn’t heard Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore” while rummaging through the Croft & Barrow sales tables at Kohl’s? (Not that Martin would complain; he’d be the first to appreciate the joke. He was man enough to know that the song’s deathless lyric, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,” was really a gloss on his career.)
Still, I have to admit I was surprised that Miramax had greenlighted Hollywoodland, a film centered on George Reeves, the third-tier actor who played Superman on television in the 1950’s. The film’s advertising tag line is even more astonishing: “Living in Hollywood can make you famous. Dying in Hollywood can make you a legend.” George Reeves a legend? You could have fooled me. And Reeves, too, I suspect. But such is capitalism. Nothing is ever wasted.
Director Allen Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum have tried to make Hollywoodland a blend of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. They succeed, at times; often, however, the production seems more a shaggy-dog story than a satiric film noir. What’s more, it’s a dog that smells of tabloid exploitation. There is fun to be had in watching the film, but you’ll feel sullied when the lights come up.
The narrative uses Reeves’ death as a platform from which to launch an investigation into America’s obsession with celebrity and scandal. Reeves’ demise in 1959, after eight years of playing Superman, was determined to be a suicide by gunshot. Almost immediately, however, suspicions of murder began to percolate through our rollicking media culture. There seems to have been just enough ambiguity surrounding his death to allow for speculation, in both its intellectual and financial sense. I know little about Reeves and less about his death, but I do know reports of his murder have paid off handsomely for Sam Kashner, whose book, Hollywood Kryptonite, served as a basis for the film. Kashner even parlayed his literary venture to become a consultant on the project.
Kashner’s book is one of those knowing celebrity wowsers filled with guesses presented as facts. It also includes inexplicably detailed recreations of speeches and thoughts—all, strangely enough, belonging to people who are now safely dead. Are Kashner’s lurid insinuations true? I don’t know; nor do Bernbaum and Coulter. This may explain why their film gingerly avoids answering the key question it so insistently asks. Although Kashner claims Reeves was murdered, the film finally leaves the matter unresolved. The filmmakers have chosen, instead, to make of Reeves’ life an occasion to dramatize a certain ghoulish sector of American culture. But in a film that purports to expose Hollywood’s penchant for exploiting both live and dead flesh, isn’t it a tad unseemly to ply the same trade? There are, after all, the reputations of real people to be considered.
Speaking of reputations, Reeves is said to have been a nice if boozy guy who allowed himself to be seduced by Hollywood, both figuratively and literally. He lingered in the lotus bog well beyond what might be excused under the rubric of youthful indulgence. After a stint at the Pasadena Playhouse, he landed a small role in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, playing one of Scarlett O’Hara’s would-be suitors, a man whom Tara’s debutante first mildly encourages and then rejects to pursue Ashley Wilkes, her real love. The role uncannily presaged what Reeves would experience courting Hollywood. After serving in the Army making training films during World War II, he came back to Hollywood expecting to pick up where he had so promisingly left off. Few wanted him, however, and, although he wangled small parts in many B films, he never came close to the big time. He found himself in low-budget adventure serials wielding cardboard swords. Occasionally, he stepped up to snag a secondary role in a Hopalong Cassidy feature. Then, in 1951, he was seduced by an older woman, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), who became his personal Circe. Toni was married to the inattentive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), a more-than-usually thuggish vice president at MGM whose duties ran to fixing awkward problems others didn’t want to touch. When a bankable star had been indiscreet, the studio turned to Eddie. His earlier tutelage in mobbed-up New Jersey gave him the wherewithal to instantly silence would-be scandalmongers.
Whether through passion or calculation—probably a bit of both—Reeves allowed himself to become Toni’s kept man or, as she referred to him, “her boy.” Toni was eight years older than Reeves and, through her husband, wealthy and well connected. As for Eddie, there was supposedly no problem. The Mannixes had an understanding. For his own hassle-free pleasure, Eddie kept a non-English-speaking Japanese woman. Toni was therefore free to dally where she would, and she would with Reeves. Big, handsome, and 37 when she met him, Reeves didn’t look like a conventional gigolo, but, after ten years of hanging around Hollywood hoping to become a star, he wasn’t about to decline the part. He seems to have been primed to accept the sordid opportunity Toni presented him. She solved his economic problems, buying him a house and an expensive car and paying his restaurant and swelling liquor bills. Apparently, Reeves was dumb enough not to see where this would lead. Toni financed his extravagant lifestyle, but her influence only went so far in professional matters. Choice acting roles continued to elude Reeves. When he was finally offered an opportunity to play Superman, he took the part reluctantly, telling himself it was only television, and no one who counted would ever see it. Of course, he was wrong. The show was a 50’s phenomenon. With few other prospects, he continued with it, hoping to get into the directing and production end of television eventually. Then, in 1959, he tried to free himself of Toni. He took up with a much younger woman, Leonore Lemmon, a wild society girl with show-biz ambitions. She made him feel young again, he explained to Toni. Ouch! No wonder there are those who speculate that Toni shot him with the Luger she had given him for protection. Or was it Toni’s husband, enraged that his wife should be dumped by a mere television actor? Then, again, maybe it was Reeves’ new inamorata. Some said he was having second thoughts about their marriage plans. Using a clumsy framing device, the film dramatizes all three scenarios through the eyes of a grubby Hollywood detective named Louis Simo (Adrian Brody) who is hired by Reeves’ batty mother to find out who murdered her only son. (She is determined not to accept the suicide verdict.) Simo returns to the bedroom in which Reeves suffered the fatal gunshot again and again, each time imagining the event from a different perspective. The repetition is so obsessive that you cannot help wondering if Coulter thought he was making another multilayered Citizen Kane. What’s more, the hangdog Simo begins to see parallels between himself and Reeves, the most egregious involving the detective’s eight-year-old son. Having been a steadfast Superman fan, the boy angrily burns his Superman costume in the wake of Reeves’ reported suicide. (“He used a Luger. That’s a Nazi pistol,” he wails inconsolably over the charred suit.) Later, in a flashback, Reeves burns his own costume after learning the series has been canceled. See? There’s an equation between the two. Reeves and the boy haven’t the maturity to confront disillusionment. Or is this too symbolic?
Ben Affleck has been praised for his portrayal of Reeves. Several reviewers see the role as his triumphant return to Hollywood’s stellar precincts after a string of embarrassing performances, including his turn as another superhero in Daredevil three years ago. After all, he packed on 20 pounds or more to resemble the fleshy Reeves, and, as everyone knows, in film these days, weight gain is the ne plus ultra of acting gravitas. To be fair, Affleck does well enough playing Reeves the private man. As Reeves the TV actor, however, he gets it all wrong. He camps it up in his padded Superman costume, sticking out his chest and mugging with a strenuously curled lip to convey the character’s heroic determination. This is not Reeves’ Superman at all. Reeves always underplayed the role. He looked like a mildly bemused suburban dad, big and strong, but running to fat, a fellow well acquainted with mortality. His paunchy middle made him seem a man in early middle age, taking a few moments from his busy schedule to play a superhero for his adoring children. Whether this was deliberate or not, it seems to have been the secret to the series’ success. Reeves’ Superman met the needs of millions of the 1950’s growing ranks of suburban children whose fathers had to be away from home for most of the day and, often, the evening, while they tried to earn enough to pay for their cottage palaces. Superman served these kids as a slightly idealized image of their fathers, men who watched over them from a distance as they fulfilled their Clark Kent duties at their offices.
The one scene in which Affleck excels involves a reportedly real incident that occurred during one of Reeves’ promotional tours. Coulter has included it, I believe, as harbinger of the actor’s death by gunshot. Appearing before a large group of boys in his costume, Affleck wrangles with some stage villains, twisting their guns into oversized pretzels. The kids cheer delightedly. Then one steps from the crowd with his own gun, asking if he might shoot the Man of Steel. Affleck smiles at first but then sees the gun is real. His canned cheerfulness vanishes, replaced by a quiet, controlled alarm. He is obviously fearful not only for himself but for the other children. He falls to one knee the better to talk to the youngster and softly asks him why he would want to shoot Superman. The boy answers that he wants to see bullets bounce off his chest. With a stillness that is nearly unbearable, Affleck explains why this would be a bad idea, as he slowly reaches for the gun. It is a curiously moving moment, simultaneously touching and horrifying, and Affleck brings it off with genuinely affecting gentleness. It would seem that, forced to confront its darker aspect, Reeves took responsibility for the childish hero worship he had engendered, risking his life and reputation to do so.
I am not sure what Coulter intended by it, but, for me, this scene came close to redeeming the film’s many lapses. Reeves thought he had thrown away his career by accepting a role as a children’s superhero. Actually, the stakes were considerably higher. By surrendering to the cheap enchantment of Hollywood dreams, he had wasted a good portion of his life. He had refused to grow up and thereby made himself a target of our infantile celebrity culture, which, however indirectly, finally destroyed him. If his story is worth telling, it is certainly not because it’s tragic. Reeves did not have the self-awareness tragedy requires. Our attention is commanded, rather, by his life’s unsuspected poignancy. The Superman persona he so disliked was, had he only been able to see it, the key that might have opened what was locked within him: his unrealized capacity to become fully a man.