In 1959, Hollywood was rocked by the suicide of an unemployed actor by the name of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who became a cultural icon a scant eight years before when he took the television role of that Man of Steel - Superman. But, did Reeves really kill himself or was his death due to something more sinister? Director Allen Coulter lays out the possibilities and lets you, the viewer, decide in Hollywoodland.”
Laura's Review: B-
1950's Hollywood. A team of detectives investigate a death scene where blood is sprayed across a wall and a body lies flung across a bed. The victim? George Reeves, TV's "Superman," apparently dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Down and out PI Louis Simo (Adrien Brody, "The Pianist," "King Kong") sees an opportunity to make some money when Reeves' mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith, "How to Make an American Quilt") adamantly says her son's death was not suicide. Then Simo begins to favor murder himself within the complex and corrupt machinations of "Hollywoodland."
Hollywood has a tendency to spit out movies in pairs - the second delayed Capote movie, "Infamous," is on the horizon and "The Illusionist" will soon be followed by dueling magician flick "The Prestige." "Hollywoodland" precedes "The Black Dahlia," another notorious Tinsel Town case from a decade earlier, by a week and it may just need the head start. Ben Affleck delivers a surprisingly complex and affecting performance as the struggling star, but writer Paul Bernbaum's attempt to parallel his life by wrapping it inside the story of conflicted PI Simo drags the film down. There was enough material in Reeves life for a straightforward biopic and Oscar winner Brody invites no sympathy as the ambulance chasing Simo.
HBO vet director Allen Coulter ("Sex and the City," "The Sopranos," "Rome") begins his film a bit shakily with an ill-considered reveal of the famous shooting victim. As a new detective arrives on site and gets a run down of the scene, he is informed of the victim's fame when his colleague shows him a picture on a bedroom dresser. Seems highly unlikely anyone arriving late to this scene would not have already heard the cop gossip spreading. From this point, Coulter does a very balanced job of flitting between the 'present' of 1959 to flashbacks of Reeves' life, beginning with his introduction to Toni Mannix (Diane Lane, "Unfaithful," "Under the Tuscan Sun"), the wife of MGM exec Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins, "Mrs Henderson Presents," "Unleashed") with whom he embarked on a long term affair. But while Coulter pairs Reeves and Simo as publicity opportunists not averse to jumping into someone else's shot, their less than illustrious careers form them no bond.
Affleck is really, really good as Reeves, from the time we meet him, still hopeful of a budding movie career based on his first job as one of Scarlett's suitors in "Gone With the Wind," to his aging, melancholy decline. Although the filmmakers gloss over momentum lost due to war service, Affleck shows us his pride in heroism assuming the Superman stance for a bunch of gawking kids. He never makes Reeves come across as an opportunist - sure his older lover can help his career, but that is not why he stays with her. Diane Lane is also fine as the aging wife of an open marriage that still includes loving protection, a possible motivation for Reeves' eventual murder. Lane snappily lays forth her acknowledgement that she's got 'about seven good years' left before her looks go, then sets up her lover as best as she can - in a television series he thinks is beneath him and a $12,000 home of his own. Trouble comes when Reeves decides to head to New York where heat-seeking missile Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney, "The Secret Lives of Dentists") latches onto him.
But then there's Brody, who puts too much of a modern spin in his desperately grappling portrayal of Simo. He's got a cheating lover and an ex-wife (Molly Parker, HBO's "Deadwood") cautious of his influence on their young son Evan (Zach Mills) and a singular client (Larry Cedar, HBO's "Deadwood") unreasonably insistent on proving his wife is unfaithful. Brody seems to wear the same expression throughout the film and never convinces as a concerned dad (the filmmakers try to inject a little of the hero worshipping ending of "Gods and Monsters" into the relationship but all it does is remind one of that far superior film). More notable are three supporting players who span past and present. Bob Hoskins is the epitome of the type of plug of movie exec who ruled during the Golden Age and he gives enough hint of menace to make him a possible suspect in Reeves' death and Joe Spano ("Hart's War") is aces as MGM PR guy Howard Strickling. In a turn as sympathetic as his on-screen client's, Jeffrey DeMunn ("The Green Mile," "The Majestic") is the essence of loyalty as Reeve's agent Arthur Weismann.
The film has nice production values, all glowing with the patina of an older, sun-drenched LA. Costume (we get to see the pre-color broadcast of the Superman outfit, a dull brown and gray version) and makeup, particularly the aging makeup done for Lane, show fine attention to detail.
In the end, though, "Hollywoodland" is just a bunch of speculation that comes full circle. And that, it must be said, it does with a punch. In the end, former boxer Reeves was considering exhibition wrestling to keep himself afloat. Weismann has kept the black and white demo films the actor made and Affleck's weary bravado is heart breaking. He's the reason to see this film.
Robin's Review: B
The producers of “Hollywoodland” should gear their advertising campaign to the slogan: Affleck Acts! Academy Award winner Adrien Brody is the ostensible star of this well-crafted mystery but the big surprise is the depth of character Ben Affleck gives as the troubled George Reeves. Brody, as Hollywood private eye Louis Simo, is overshadowed by Affleck and Diane Lane (as Toni, Reeves’s lover and the younger wife of mob-connected movie mogul Eddgar Mannix). The rest of the well cast actors supporting the effort also outshine star Brody.
Allen Coulter, with an original script by Paul Bernbaum, tells a tightly woven mystery that eschews the headlines of the time – Man of Steel Commits Suicide. As “Hollywoodland” unfolds, freelance private detective Simo, not exactly at the top of his game as he gumshoes for a pathetic little man who suspects his wife of infidelity, is desperate for a big case. He coerces and begs a former colleague from the big detective agency he once worked for and gets a lead. He is told that the mother of the dead George Reeves believes her son was murdered. Simo takes her case.
This decision begins a metaphoric journey for the private eye that takes him to the very top of the Hollywood food chain. Reeves, struggling to make a career before he gets the “Superman” series, strives to keep in the limelight, attending the swankiest places with the hope of getting his face in the newspapers. During one photo op he meets vivacious Toni and the well-to-do trophy wife of producer Mannix takes the handsome, needy George under her wing, lavishing him with gifts and kindness. Was Reeves killed for his dalliance? Or, was it something else, involving the actor’s “fiancée” Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), whose relationship has its own set of problems? As I said, Coulter lays out the possibilities but lets you decide. I’ll keep my decision to myself.
Hollywoodland” is a beautifully crafted film that deserves kudos for its fine production values. Production designer Leslie McDonald captures the look and feel of 1950’s Hollywood with all its opulent trappings of wealth but also shows the seamy underbelly of the less appealing parts of Tinsletown. Costume, by Julie Weiss, is also nicely handled, especially for Diane Lane, who is the quintessential clotheshorse. Cinematographer Jonathan Freeman’s lens fits the bill, too, giving the film the appropriate period aura.
As a matter of opinion, except for a middling performance from Adrien Brody, “Hollywoodland” is a top-notch mystery yarn that holds your interest from start to finish. Though Brody doesn’t quite cut it in the lead, Affleck (surprise) more than makes up for this. Diane Lane is icing on the cake as she continues to prove her worth as an actor. I don’t know if it is the screenplay or the casting of Brody in the pivotal lead, but “Hollywoodland” just misses the mark from being great, instead of just good. I give it a B.