Hollywood’s not so “Super” past
Hollywoodland is the latest movie from indie powerhouse Focus Features. It explores the mystery surrounding the death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves (Ben Affleck). In 1959 Reeves died in his bedroom from a bullet to the brain. While his death was ruled a suicide, mystery still surrounds that night’s events. The movie follows Louis Simo (Adrian Brody), a fictitious investigator, as he covertly scrutinizes the case. The cops have officially ruled the case a suicide, but Simo isn’t convinced. The film cleverly intercuts between 1959, the year Reeves died, and the years leading up to his death. We learn about his rise to fame and the people he encounters on the way.
Ben Affleck portrays the tormented superhero actor who is struggling to rid himself of the “two-bit” status. When he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM general manager Edgar Mannix (Bob Hoskins), he thinks his fortunes are going to change and that she will be able help him get the parts he longs for. When she doesn’t deliver on her promises his optimism turns into resentment and he leaves her for Leonore (Robin Tunney), a girl he meets in New York. Through this tangled web of love affairs the audience is shown a number of people who might want to see him dead.
Hollywoodland gives us a glimpse into the Golden Age of the industry (literally referring to the Hollywood sign before the “land” fell off) and is shot as a classic film noir furthering that parallel. As a film noir its, close shots and dark scenes give us the uncomfortable feeling of entrapment and disorientation that both Reeves and Simo felt as they struggled with finding their respective places in the town. Like Reeves, Simo is second rate in his profession and doesn’t realize what is truly important. Simo’s 7 year old son was deeply affected by Reeves’ death and it was only at the end of the film does Simo realize that there was more to it than the loss of a popular TV figure. For Simo the exploration into Reeves life ultimately becomes a journey through his own life. Through Reeve’s death Simo learns what is truly important.
Ultimately the movie does not make a statement about what might have happened. The film plays it safe about what happened to George Reeves the night he died. Simo is the conduit through which the audience learns the information needed to make a decision as to what they think happened. As we watch him put the pieces together we wait desperately to come to a conclusion. Through cinematographic techniques and other filmic devices, the movie seems to make the decision that Reeves did in fact kill himself even though there is not so much explanation as to why he would want to do that. However, throughout the movie there is much more evidence to the contrary. While there is no conclusive evidence to any foul play, Hollywoodland hints to different possible murders, ultimately making no final decision.
The title of the film was also an interesting choice. The obvious title would have made reference to Superman or Reeves himself. However, by naming the film Hollywoodland, it seems to be making a comment on all of Hollywood. With this title, it would make sense that the ultimate conclusion is that the studio killed Reeves and thus revealing a seedy underbelly to an otherwise glamorous world. It would be making the claim that the image which Hollywood projects is nothing like the reality and that Reeves’ story is just one example of the power the studios wielded over their stars and other lackeys.
This movie’s biggest strength is it’s capture of old Hollywood. Shot in sepia, the aesthetic look of the film immediately takes the audience back to an older era. The nostalgia for the era is palatable, even though at the same time it hints to a dark undercurrent. However, with “cameos” of old Hollywood starlets and the glamour (Lane’s wardrobe alone!), this movie is a movie lover’s film. The story and its themes come second to the visuals provided on the screen. If you are a big fan of old Hollywood and you can look past as weak story, then you will enjoy this movie. However, if you want a movie that will make a statement about what it believes happened the night George Reeves died, you might have to keep on looking for one.