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Hollywoodland

Long before Christopher Reeve slid into a pair of tights to become the Man of Steel, everyone's favorite big blue Boy Scout was embodied by one iconic actor — George Reeves. Performing under his given name of George Bessolo, his early career held great promise, starting with a stint at the famed Pasadena Playhouse in the 1930s, where he worked with up-and-comers Victor Mature and Robert Preston. His first film role was as one of Scarlett O'Hara's suitors in Gone with the Wind, which got him a contract with Warner Brothers and a name change. He worked steadily for several years in short subjects and B-movies, stepping into meatier roles when the Second World War saw a number of established leading men enlisting in the U.S. armed forces. Then Reeves enlisted himself, although his wartime service was hardly life-threatening — he performed in a Broadway musical that was produced as a propaganda piece by the Army Air Forces, and then starred in a number of training films. However, after he was discharged his career stalled, and he survived by doing manual labor while getting small roles in sub-standard movies. Then he was approached to play Superman on television, replacing Kirk Alyn, who'd starred in a number of popular serials. The pay was low, and TV was considered an inferior medium, but Reeves was 38 years old and he needed the work. He signed a contract that forbade him from taking other acting jobs that might interfere with the series, but he did get extra pay for personal appearances as the costumed hero. He quickly became a household name — to everyone in America, he was Superman, and after the show's six-year run, he found it almost impossible to get other work because he was so indelibly typecast. A car accident in April, 1959 introduced Reeves to prescription pain-killers, at the same time that he told the police he was being harassed by his ex-lover, Toni Mannix (although she responded that, in fact, she was being harassed by him). Two months later, Reeves died from a gunshot wound to the head after walking upstairs to his bedroom during a dinner party. His death was ruled a suicide, although many of those closest to him believed Reeves to be incapable of taking his own life. He was 45 years old.

The suspicions about Reeves' suicide inspired the story for the fictional Hollywoodland (2006), which looks at the last days of Reeves and turns his death into a noir-style mystery as seen through the eyes of a down-on-his-heels private detective named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). After reading in the paper that Reeves' grieving mother (Lois Smith) doesn't believe her son killed himself, Simo approaches her and offers to take the case. It's a chance to make better money than he gets from spying on cheating husbands, and the high profile of the crime means he might make a name for himself. In a parallel storyline, we see Reeves (Ben Affleck) in the last few years of his life, falling into his affair with Mannix (Diane Lane) mostly because she can help his career through her studio-boss husband (Bob Hoskins). Reeves enjoys his newfound fame until he starts to realize how it's trapped him, consigning him to appearances at children's parties and resulting in his being cut from a plum role in From Here to Eternity after the audience howls with laughter and makes Superman jokes. When his affair with Mannix grows stale, he takes up with a much-younger woman (Robin Tunney) and drinks to dull his pain and desperation. As Simo learns more about Reeves' last few months, he begins to suspect that he was, indeed, murdered, and that both women had ample motive to knock him off. In standard detective-yarn fashion, the more fascinated Simo becomes by the case, the more he's warned to stop poking around, which naturally provides him with even more motivation to discover what really happened to the actor.

*          *          *

While not an entirely successful picture, Hollywoodland is an intriguing one — not least for the fact that Ben Affleck is actually very good in it. Reeves' reputation among those who worked with him was that of a kind, humorous, humble man — "gentlemanly" was a word that was often associated with him — and Affleck effectively captures Reeves' good-hearted nature as well as his hunger to succeed. He doesn't attempt a dead-on impersonation, thankfully (that would be a distraction), but instead does something we haven't really seen him do before — Affleck inhabits the character. He acts rather than reciting lines, and it's a pleasure to watch him do it. While he doesn't physically resemble Reeves, both actors share the sort of charisma that the camera adores, and we genuinely like his version of Reeves, which makes the character's increasing melancholy over the double-edge of his celebrity heartbreaking. Less successful is Brody, who's somewhat miscast. The script doesn't aid him much, as Simo is less a three-dimensional character than he is a standard-issue type, plus Brody's too delicate to be believable as a hard-boiled private dick. Thus, the movie's a little schizoid, with the Affleck/Reeves portions working far better than the Brody/Simo scenes, even though Simo's actually the film's main character. Hollywoodland is far, far better than most biopics, however, largely due to the direction by Allen Coulter, an HBO alum with a number of episodes of "The Sopranos" under his belt. Perhaps because of his work there, Coulter understands how to get textured performances from his actors, somehow coaxing out lovely bits of subtext that are far more telling than the dialogue on the page. As good as the Reeves storyline is, it's almost too bad that Coulter wasn't able to make a straight film about the actor's "Superman" days and his downfall, without all the fictional gimcrackery. But despite its flaws, Hollywoodland is a well-crafted piece of entertainment, and a surprising showcase for the usually underwhelming Affleck.

Focus Features DVD release is a nice enough package, offering an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) — and it's worth noting that Hollywoodland is beautifully photographed by Jonathan Freeman (Catch Me if You Can, HBO's "Rome") — with fine Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English or French, with optional English, Spanish or French subtitles). There's a tech-heavy audio commentary by Coulter, who discusses directorial choices, the film's themes, and Brody's acting. Also on board are three featurettes on art design and costumes, MGM studios in the late '50s-early '60s, and on parallels between the two primary characters. What's missing is a featurette devoted to Reeves — a good bio feature with archival footage would have really made this package even better. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor



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