September, 2006, Mystery

This much is known; on June 16th 1959, actor George Reeves, famous for his role as Superman in the television series of that name, died from a single gunshot to the head at his home in Beverly Hills California. Whether the fatal would was self-inflicted, the accidental byproduct of a lover’s quarrel or a contract killing initiated by a vengeful husband has long been the subject of gossip and conjecture. At the time, an investigation conducted by The Los Angles Police Department concluded that Reeves took his own life, but despite much credible evidence to support that conclusion, rumors continued to swirl around both Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Mannix. He was a senior executive at M.G.M.; she a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl and Reeves’ long-time mistress before he dumped her for a younger woman. A juicy set of circumstances upon which to base a screenplay, n’est pas?

Director Allen Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum left careers in television behind to explore Reeves’ demise in this movie; but in doing so, their labors bear more than a passing resemblance to the innuendo-strewn pieces Dominick Dunne occasionally does for Vanity Fair when that magazine wants to dish celebrities while avoiding libel suits. Despite consistently fine performances from its large cast, Hollywoodland doesn’t succeed in answering the very questions about the Reeves/Mannix liaison the script raises. Instead, the film settles for exploring the circumstances under which the case was closed; in doing so, Hollywoodland loses focus and winds up taxing the viewer’s patience.

The producers went bi-polar; there apparently just wasn’t enough material on Reeves to sustain a full length feature, so two stories get told in Hollywoodland; (1) the real-life, loves and death of an actor in the twilight of his career at the tender age of 45 and (2) the fictional trials and tribulations of a private investigator supposedly poking around in Reeves’ life in order to see if a quick dollar can be made out of his tragedy. The first story, told through flashbacks, tracks Reeves (Ben Affleck) as he tries to sustain a marginal movie career by placing himself in the middle of the L.A. “scene”. He meets Toni Lanier Mannix, (Diane Lane) the wife of studio executive E.J. Mannix (Bob Hoskins) and quickly becomes Toni’s boy-toy. Although 8 years his senior, she’s perfectly willing to set him up with his own Beverly Hills home because her husband believes in very open marital arrangements. Years pass, Reeves gains prominence as a schlock T.V. hero, dumps the generous Toni and gets engaged to a vituperative slut, (Robin Tunney) “who makes him feel young again” before dying on a warm June night in his own bedroom. That’s Movie # 1.

Enter Louis Simo, (Adrian Brody) the screenplay’s version of a shamus of highly dubious character; he gloms onto the actor’s grieving mother and begins to fan media speculation about the circumstances surrounding Reeves’ death. As the fictional P.I. scams his way ever deeper into the details, the movie begins to concentrate on the rather sordid details of his life which serves as the basis of movie #2. Alas, Simo, his estranged wife Laurie, (Molly Parker) and eight year old son aren’t terribly interesting in themselves - - besides, isn’t the point of this film either (1) the discovery of why Reeves killed himself or (2) who exactly did him in? Should viewers be interested in Simo’s college-age girlfriend, the cuckolded client he dupes, or whether he’ll be able to re-connect with his 8 year old son now that Mrs. Simo has a new boyfriend?

Brody’s a fine actor and he makes Simo the kind of smirking, venal Peeping Tom private eye audiences have grown accustomed to hating, but when Hollywoodland’s storyline wanders ever deeper into his life instead of concentrating on Reeves, it’s hard not to lose interest in the proceedings. The dis-connect is all the more glaring because of the really wonderful work done by Affleck, Lane and Hoskins; they succeed in really bringing their  counterparts to life and the script’s lines serve each of them very, very well. Affleck, normally a bland screen presence, brings subtle depth to his depiction of a bright, good humored guy whose casual affability radiated the sort of charm that would appeal to a studio wife on the back side of her most physically appealing years. Ladd, (Unfaithful, Walk on the Moon) one of today’s best, (and least appreciated) film actresses embodies the physically and emotionally demanding Toni while Hoskins provides another of his patented turns as a thuggish mogul whose final scene suggests there might just a touch of plausible humanity underneath his thick, conniving hide. (Despite his wife’s quite public relationship with Reeves, Mannix remained married to Toni until his death in 1963…. probably because he had a highly visible mistress of his own at the time.) 

Rich in period atmosphere and shrewdly edited to insure that these two parallel plot lines don’t confuse the audience, Hollywoodland is a thoroughly professional product…but don’t expect to find an ounce of interest in Simo’s story, or anything other than a gaggle of speculations about Reeves’ violent end. If you come to this one seeking the inside story, you’ll be sadly disappointed. 

The verdict? Slick premise, splendid acting, flawed result.

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