‘Hollywoodland’ dramatizes life and death of TV’s Superman
This has been one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer, even if the blockbuster season is pretty much over as the kids head back to school. Having its release date pushed toward the end of the season may give the movie an early edge, since so few new releases are out at this time.
“Hollywoodland” takes on an almost film noir “look” to it, depicting with the mystery that has surrounded the death of George Reeves – TV’s “Superman” – which was ruled a suicide by the LAPD in 1959. Ben Affleck bulked up for the role as Reeves and, to his credit, this was probably one of his more convincing turns, but then that’s compared to his less-than-stellar performances such as that of Jack Ryan in the last Tom Clancy-inspired flick, “Sum of all Fears” from 2002, or the even-better (in the Worst Film category) “Gigli” from 2003.
With a strong supporting cast including Adrien Brody, Bob Hoskins and the always-durable Diane Lane, “Hollywoodland” takes a look into one of the more overlooked but still famous actors of the ’50s, George Reeves, who was a contract player for Warners Bros., Fox and Paramount studios. His story was a tragic one, and one of the first examples of when the public wouldn’t let an actor distance himself from a character – and a comic book one at that.
In the beginning, George Reeves had a promising film career when he was cast in “Gone With the Wind” as Stuart Tarleton in 1939 (he has a brief cameo at the beginning with Scarlett O’Hara). His movie career never really took flight because of World War II, but he found fame on the small screen in the new medium of television as Superman in the “Adventures of Superman” series that ran from 1952 to 1958.
If ever an actor was forever typecast in a role, it was George Reeves. While he obtained fame and fortune playing the caped crusader, he was virtually shut out of other big-screen opportunities because he was so identified as Superman. Many say that his death in 1959 was ruled a suicide in part because he couldn’t shake that image, but to this day there are those who still feel he was murdered. In the movie, when Reeves’ mother (played by Lois Smith) hires private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) to investigate what really happened to her son, we get flashbacks between Reeves’ past and Simo’s uncovering in the present as to what led up to his untimely death.
First-time feature director Allen Coulter (working from a Paul Bernbaum script) has the daunting task of taking a true-life story and deconstructing the Hollywood myth of what really happened, and at the same time fusing the various personalities involved and what they had to gain from forming their conclusions about his death.
Brody turns in a fine performance as the seedy, hustling private eye out to make a name for himself. While unraveling George Reeves’ personal life, we discover that he had an affair with one Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). She is older than the young Reeves at this point in his life, before he took the role of Superman more out of desperation than anything else. They have an unusual arrangement for that time in history, and there’s an awkward scene where Toni introduces her new beau to her husband. Doesn’t help that Eddie is also an ex-mobster from Jersey, which adds fuel to the theory that George maybe didn’t commit suicide after all, but was murdered.
Then again, there were several others who could have done him in, too, but why be a spoiler here? Tired of being a kept man over time, he dumps Toni for a much younger starlet, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), and then things become suspicious as to why he would off himself when he had future plans with the young New York socialite.
What’s really sad is how one so famous from a particular role is forced to take jobs solely because of that one character. He’s used as cameos only for other television shows, and even becomes a spokesman for Kellogg’s cereal brands because he can’t be taken seriously as an actor. Did you know that George Reeves was in the classic, “From Here to Eternity” (playing Sgt. Maylon Stark) but had his role edited because the preview audience started to snicker when he appeared on screen? The scene here where Affleck’s face as Reeves is digitally replaced over the real George Reeves (in a scene opposite Burt Lancaster) was really surreal, but I’m glad they showed that, because the rumor circulating (even to this day) was that Reeves’ part was cut completely out of the picture. I watched “From Here to Eternity” recently and there was George Reeves, quite recognizable but, unfortunately, the role didn’t catch the eye of casting directors enough to translate into more work on the big screen for him. Sure didn’t hurt crooner Frank Sinatra’s future film work, which needed a boost at this time in his career.
Before directing this film, Allen Coulter’s directing experience had been on the small screen, working on HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” While the movie doesn’t quite reach the crescendo of other Hollywood noir pieces, such as “L.A. Confidential” (1997) or “Mulholland Falls” (1996), “Hollywoodland” still complements those others as a period piece from that same era capturing one of Hollywood’s most interesting times.
– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada, including the Sirius Radio Network every Sunday evening. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8.
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