by Neil Cole
Plot: Did Superman star George Reeves commit suicide or was the Man of Steel taken down by a gunman (or woman) who snuck into his bedroom in the wee hours of the morning and shot the actor in the head? Nearly five decades after Reeves’ death, the circumstances surrounding his demise still inspire debate.
Hollywoodland puts the death scene under the microscope and comes up with a few interesting possibilities. While the film’s take on Reeves’ death doesn’t yield any real answers to the lingering question of did he or didn’t he, it does take a couple of the more widely believed theories as to what happened that tragic night and plops them front and center to be examined and talked about by contemporary audiences. Reeves’ death is still shrouded in mystery and Hollywoodland does its best to shed light on the decades old case but, of course, it can’t offer a hard and fast solution to Reeves’ death (which is still officially classified as a suicide).
Hollywoodland unfolds with struggling actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck) unable to capitalize on a co-starring turn in Gone with the Wind. Hot on the prowl for any opportunity to get his face in front of the camera, Reeves leaps up from a table at a swanky restaurant as a photographer snaps a photo of a much more famous Hollywood figure. This act catches the eye of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), an ex-Ziegfeld Follies showgirl married to one of Hollywood’s real power players: studio head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). George and the older, worldlier Toni hit it off immediately and begin an affair which lasts for years. Toni calls George her ‘boy’ and George becomes, to all intents and purposes, a kept man. According to Hollywoodland, Reeves is still trying to build a solid career in films when he’s offered the lead role in the Superman series. He takes it, but doesn’t fully embrace it. Although he does his best to bring Clark Kent/Superman to life, he doesn’t want the role to define his career. Unfortunately, his fears are justified. Reeves becomes known as Superman and is shunned by feature film casting directors after a disastrous reaction to a supporting part in From Here to Eternity elicits ‘Superman’ catcalls from preview audiences.
Did his dissatisfaction with playing the beloved character cause Reeves to take his own life? That’s the official line, but not necessarily the truth. After Reeves’ death, private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother to refute the suicide notion and prove her son was murdered. Simo becomes so involved in exposing the truth that not even threats on his own life can shake the detective off the case. Simo’s investigation leads him through the seedy underbelly of Hollywood where no one is above suspicion – not Toni, her husband, or Reeves’ fiancée at the time of his death, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney).
As difficult as it may be for Ben Affleck’s detractors to believe, the man can actually act. He might not make the best choices when it comes to displaying his acting chops, but with Hollywoodland Affleck seems to have found the perfect outlet to display his talent. As the troubled Superman star George Reeves, Affleck doesn’t just act the part but seems to actually channel the real actor who either took his own life or was murdered – depending on who you want to listen to and which account you trust. Affleck’s multi-layered performance all but brings Reeves back to life on the screen.
Diane Lane’s sexy and vulnerable performance as Toni Mannix is one of her best. Lane never takes it over the top, even keeping the more emotionally charged scenes under control. The choice of Lane and Affleck as lovers isn't obvious but it works thanks to solid performances from both actors. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody delivers another riveting performance as the private eye who tenaciously fights for the truth. Brody's responsible for making the story accessible, and in his hands the tale fully springs to life.
The Bottom Line
With George Reeves life and death as the backdrop, Hollywoodland very effectively takes the old case and makes it feel as though it’s all unfolding right before our eyes. The cinematography, the set design, costumes, make-up, lighting, and overall tone of Hollywoodland is totally in keeping with the Hollywood of the 1950s.
A well-written adult drama, Hollywoodland is gripping entertainment that teases answers and sparks conversations. Although it’s a little longer than it needs to be, Hollywoodland’s definitely a must-see for mature audiences who love a good mystery.