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"Hollywoodland" is the best written, most promisingly directed, and well-acted Superman movie of 2006. I realize this may upset some readers. How can a movie about the death of an actor who played Superman on a cheesy TV series from the 1950s be better than the extravaganza that was "Superman Returns"? This is no detraction from "Superman Returns"; it's just that "Hollywoodland" is that good - a super-powerful experience.
The film summarizes and dramatizes the life of actor George Reeves, who played Clark Kent and Superman in 104 episodes of "The Adventures of Superman" airing from 1953 to 1958. The final three episodes of "The Adventures of Superman" aired in 1958 and were directed by Reeves. Reeves wanted to direct more but the only real offer of employment that came after "Superman" wrapped was a wrestling gig. In 1959, talk began that the cast would reunite for another season of "The Adventures of Superman". That seventh season never transpired. Reeves died from a single gunshot to the head on June 16, 1959.
The L.A. police quickly ruled Reeves's death a suicide. It's believed Reeves's mother hired investigators to get the suicide ruling reviewed as she believed Reeves had been murdered. The coroner eventually confirmed the initial suicide ruling. However, over the years, many credible sources have continued to question whether Reeves really took his own life.
"Hollywoodland" weaves a cautionary tale about a seemingly simpler time. If the way Hollywood ate Reeves up and spit him out was at all exemplary of the so-called simple 1950s, I'm glad I was born in the 1960s. Future Supermen like Chris Reeve and Dean Cain may have felt typecast at times after playing Superman, but they never had to deal with what Reeves had to deal with. Reeves was essentially black-balled in Hollywood from playing any role other than Superman. When he clawed his way into a small but significant role in 1953 classic "From Here to Eternity", the role was virtually entirely cut out of the theatrical release after preview audiences - with Reeves in the theater - started laughing and screaming "There's Superman!" and "Where's Lois Lane?"
"Hollywoodland" is fact-based but far from a documentary. Some aspects of Reeves's life are dramatized though, surprisingly, the broad strokes are all accurate. The anchor for audiences in the movie isn't Reeves though he's played masterfully by Ben Affleck in a return to greatness. It's the fictionalized investigator, Louis Simo, played by Adrien Brody ("King Kong", "The Pianist"), who audiences stand in the (gum-)shoes of as he evolves from selfish opportunist to Reeves's champion.
The film posits (at least) three scenarios for how Reeves met his untimely end on June 16, 1959 - a murder, a manslaughter, and a suicide (the latter being the official ruling by the L.A. coroner). The film ultimately leaves it to audiences to decide how Reeves died while flashing back to how he lived.
That the scene-by-scene jumping between different moments in time - Reeves's life and loves; the three possible death scenes; and Simo's investigation and resulting character growth reflected in his relationship with his non-custodial son - never gets confusing is a testament to first-time film director Allen Coulter. Coulter's previous credits include episodes of HBO's "The Sopranos", "Sex and the City", and "Six Feet Under". I never felt like I didn't know what era of Reeves's life - and death - I was watching. And, though fictionalized, the story of how Simo's examination of Reeves's life and death eventually effects a fundamental change in Simo's character remains as compelling as the more fact-based moments in the film.
The cast of characters in Reeves's personal life were in many ways as outlandish as some of the characters he'd meet up with on "The Adventures of Superman". It quickly becomes plain why so many people think it was possible someone killed Reeves, if for no other reason than some of the eccentric company he kept.
Like Clark Kent, Reeves surrounded himself with strong women. His mother, Helen Bessolo (played in the film by Lois Smith), told a young Reeves his biological father shot himself in the head, a fact Reeves believed until his real father showed up one night at a play Reeves was in. When Reeves discovered the lie his mother had told him, he didn't speak with her for years and he never saw his real father again either. Helen Bessolo is portrayed in the movie as the chief skeptic that Reeves killed himself and the one who initially hires Simo though even her motives turn out to be suspect.
The real break-through performance in "Hollywoodland" is Diane Lane's turn as Reeves's 10-years senior girlfriend, Toni Mannix. Mannix was essentially in an open relationship with her husband, Eddie Mannix, who ran MGM in those days. Eddie also had a lover on the side. In fact, one of the film's lighter moments comes when the Mannixes and their lovers all go out together for dinner.
Lane deserves an Oscar nomination for her role as Toni Mannix. Heck, the Oscar deserves Lane, that's how good she is. She takes what could have been an extremely unlikable role and makes audiences fall head-over-heels in love with Mrs. Mannix. If the real Mrs. Mannix was half as layered, complex, manipulative, outrageous, and vulnerable as Lane's portrayal, it's clear why Reeves fell so hard for her.
It's less clear why Reeves dumped Mannix shortly before his death in favor of the younger, brassier Leonore Lemmon. As played by Robin Tunney, Lemmon is totally unlikable. It doesn't escape notice that Lemmon's initials are "L.L." - like Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris, Lyla Lerrol, Linda Lee, and Lex Luthor. Lemmon was crass, rude, and opportunistic. She was Toni Mannix without any of the class and style. A real Paris Hilton for the 50s. To me, that he fell for someone like Lemmon at all speaks to the fact that Reeves wasn't thinking clearly in the last years of his life and, in my opinion, further supports the suicide theory.
Ben Affleck may not have convinced me that a man can fly - especially on wires - but he did prove for the first time in years that an Affleck can act. He gained 20 pounds for the role. He watched every episode of "The Adventures of Superman" to adopt Reeves' manner, a public persona in a Hollywood on the verge of massive change. He becomes Reeves completely - the public and private personas. When he puts on the Superman costume (the "S" may not be showing up in the trailers and advertisements but Affleck definitely appears full-on as Superman and as Clark Kent), Affleck as Reeves may think he's sunk to a new career low but Affleck as Affleck has risen to a new career high.
Every Superman film needs a good bad guy. "Hollywoodland" has a villain who'd even give Lex Luthor pause. Toni Mannix's husband, Eddie, played by Bob Hoskins ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"), isn't all that different from the thugs who harassed Superman regularly on the TV show. Whether or not Mannix was involved in Reeves's death, this was not a nice man. Though only hinted at in the movie, even if he didn't have Reeves murdered, he'd have every reason to keep the police from looking too closely at Reeves's death and making public the odd relationship he had with his wife. Even believing Reeves took his own life as I do, I think Eddie Mannix's hands were far from clean.
While this is admittedly not a "Superman" movie so much as a movie about one of the men who played Superman, "Hollywoodland" succeeds in immortalizing Reeves as a charming, ambitious, and generous man screwed over time and again by circumstances. He was a man who wanted to be a super man but was ultimately done in by the same thing that is Superman's most exploited weakness - his humanity.
"Hollywoodland" opens today at theaters everywhere and is rated R for mature audiences. Children under the age of 17 will not be admitted without a parent or guardian.