George Reeves has some notable credits on his filmography: ‘Gone With the Wind’ (the event movie of 1939), ‘Blood and Sand’ opposite Rita Hayworth, ‘The Fighting 69th’ and ‘From Here to Eternity’.
So you can understand why it was galling for him, returning from a wartime stint in the army and finding it difficult to resume his big-screen career, to don a padded suit and a pair of tights to play Superman in a popular TV series. That TV was, at that time, derided by film-makers and movie actors as a novelty at best and a bastardisation at worst, would only have added salt to the wound.
Reeves died on 16 June 1959, of a gunshot wound to the head. A verdict of suicide was arrived at, though controversy and unanswered questions continue to linger. Indeed, Reeves’s mother engaged the services of a private detective to look into the circumstances surrounding his death.
This fact provides the jumping-off point for Allen Coulter’s slow-burn drama ‘Hollywoodland’. The private eye here is a fictional character, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), whose burgeoning obsession with the case is comparable to Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s obsession with the Zodiac killer in David Fincher’s film.
Simo is two-bit operator, struggling to maintain a relationship with his troubled son and keep things civil with his ex-wife (Molly Parker). A recent case has gone pear-shaped, his client murdering the allegedly unfaithful spouse he’d hired Simo to follow – a woman Simo dug up no dirt on.
Hired by Reeves’s mother (Lois Smith), this new investigation gives him something to focus on; to delve into; to get too personally involved with. Simo’s sleuthing plays out in counterpoint to a series of flashbacks which chronicle Reeves (Ben Affleck)’s life, beginning with his chance encounter with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a woman a decade his senior who enjoys an open marriage to MGM troubleshooter Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) – ie. they both consort with other partners and Eddie’s only going to get pissed off with you if you don’t treat his missus right.
Which makes Eddie a suspect when Reeves splits up with Toni the better to enjoy the attentions of younger society playgirl Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), leaving his former – and eminently supportive and generous – mistress distraught. But as Simo comes to understand just how volatile Reeves’s relationship with Leonore was, he begins to wonder if the solution isn’t significantly closer to home …
Kudos to Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum: they don’t try to impose a solution on the film. ‘Hollywoodland’ is a mystery sans resolution, like the aforementioned ‘Zodiac’, or Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’. In fact, like that latter film, it’s more a rumination on image and perception. At three key points, Simo finds himself drawn back the house Reeves died in, standing sepulchrally outside while a different possibl scenario plays itself out inside (ie. in Simo’s imagination).
Brody, playing very much against type as a wiseacre P.I., channels the likes of Jack Nicholson in ‘Chinatown’, before peeling back the layers and finding the lost soul within his character. Affleck does some of his best work onscreen, his matinee idol looks and slightly artificial air of suavity ideally suited to a 1950s leading man. Hoskins’s American accent wavers occasionally, but he’s suitably pugnacious as Eddie Mannix; you have no trouble believing that when this man deals with things, they stay dealt with.
The ladies of the cast excel: Lois Smith gives a potent performance as the grieving but irascible mother; Robin Tunney goes all out for white trash high camp as a floozy with a mouth as loose as her morals; and Diane Lane provides the human core of the film, a glamorous and intelligent woman just beginning to fear the future as she edges into middle age. Lane projects grace and dignity, which makes her profanity-spiked comment about Reeves’s new squeeze all the more shocking. It’s the best line in the film and it’ll make you wince. (It’s about smoke rings, by the way.)
Tomorrow: the Diane-fest concludes with 'Unfaithful'.