Along with "Gilligan's Island," "The Munsters," "The Andy Griffith Show" and "The Honeymooners," the 1950s version of "Superman" was a rerun staple on broadcast television in the 1970s.
I always hated that show. (The official title was "The Adventures of Superman," even though all of Superman's adventures seemed to take place within a six-block radius of the Daily Planet.) The original Superman was the Babe Ruth of comic book action heroes -- he did it first and he did it best -- but this stupid TV program turned him into a joke. George Reeves was an aging, physically unimposing figure who looked like he was barely fit enough to play Perry White, let alone Clark Kent/Superman, and he delivered his lines in the clipped tones of an actor who had just failed an audition for a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. The stories were dull, the special effects cheesy.
We used to hear stories about the real-life Reeves. That he had gotten drunk and had jumped out of a window of a skyscraper, believing he really could fly. That he had been murdered by a jealous girlfriend. That he had shot himself because he hated being known as Superman.
Allen Coulter's stylish, melancholy noir-tribute "Hollywoodland" begins with the death of George Reeves in 1959 and weaves between flashback scenes set in the early and mid-1950s, and a private eye's investigation into the circumstances surrounding Reeves' bloody demise. Coulter, a first-time feature director, who has helmed episodes of "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "Rome," tells this story as if he had watched "L.A. Confidential" a half-dozen times and then chased it with a viewing of "Citizen Kane," and those are not bad blueprints for a period-piece biopic that begins with its subject laid out and cold to the touch and works its way back from there.
Ben Affleck is almost too perfect a choice to play an affable, good-looking actor who falls on hard times -- although Reeves never attained the highs or the lows Affleck has already experienced. After a series of horrendous flops ("Gigli," "Jersey Girl," "Paycheck," "Surviving Christmas"), Affleck reminds us why he became a star in the first place, with a smooth but sympathetic portrayal of an actor whose "greatest" moments came while wearing a glorified Halloween costume. Affleck plays Reeves as a charming, moderately talented, ambitious but deeply frustrated actor who arrived on the scene with great promise -- he had a speaking role in "Gone With the Wind" -- but by the early 1950s found himself on the periphery of show business, crashing the A-table in Hollywood nightclubs and inserting himself into photo opportunities.
At one such party, Reeves meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a 40ish beauty married to a cigar-chomping, utterly corrupt pit bull of a studio executive (Bob Hoskins, all bared teeth and flying spittle). In fast fashion, Toni buys a home in Benedict Canyon for Reeves, who offers only token resistance to playing the part of the kept hunk.
Back to the near future. Adrien Brody tones down some -- some -- of his more theatrical mannerisms and delivers one of his most effective performances in years as Louis Simo, a two-bit private detective who operates out of a cheap hotel room. Simo's estranged wife has a new boyfriend, his young son is devastated by the death of Superman, and his best client is an obsessively jealous husband who is convinced his wife is having an affair. When the police quickly close the Reeves case as a suicide, Simo latches onto Reeves' grieving mother, a stout and stubborn woman from Illinois who refuses to believe her boy would kill himself.
There's at the least the possibility of murder. Suspects include Toni Mannix and/or her husband, or somebody hired by the husband -- Toni because George had grown tired of her; the husband, not out of jealousy, but out of anger that anyone would callously dump Toni. Then there's party girl Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), who had hooked up with George but was growing disillusioned with his nonexistent career post-"Superman." The hard-drinking Simo desperately wants this case to be a murder, so he can resurrect his own career and become a superhero in the eyes of his son.
The problem for Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum is there isn't a huge amount of compelling evidence for any of the murder scenarios -- and that before, during and after "Superman," Reeves had only a B-list career and kind of a B-list personal life. Even his "scandalous" behavior isn't all that scandalous, even for the 1950s. This is probably why we spend at least as much time with Louis Simo as we do with George Reeves. Just as Reeves the actor wasn't big enough to become a real star, Reeves the off-screen personality wasn't big enough to anchor an entire feature film. To the credit of the director, writer and set design team, "Hollywoodland" still succeeds as a minor period piece. The budget wasn't huge, but we feel as if we're legitimately in the Hollywood of the '50s.
It's also no small irony that an A-list cast tells this B-movie story. In the "Superman" sequences, Affleck perfectly mimics Reeves' acting style, but also conveys the actor's humiliation and his ever-present awareness that time is running out on his career. I don't know if I'm ready for the notion of Diane Lane as a fading beauty, but there she is as Toni Mannix, matter of factly telling Reeves she has seven good years left. It's a lovely, sad performance. Brody's Simo probably has the most screen time of anyone in the film, and his quest for redemption becomes the real center of the film.
It's a story as old as Hollywood.