Monday, March 10, 2008

Truth, justice and the American way

Over the weekend I watched "Hollywoodland", a stylish piece of noir that examined the 1959 shooting death of actor George Reeves, who portrayed Superman in the TV show "Adventures of Superman." Reeves' death was ruled a suicide, but it has long fueled rumors that he was murdered.

The film mixes fact and fiction, and its protagonist is a fictional private investigator, Louis Simo (Adrian Brody), a publicity hound hired by Reeves' mother to prove that her son was did not kill himself. I give credit to the filmmakers and Brody for giving a fresh twist to the hard-boiled P.I. archetype. Simo is divorced and struggling to maintain a connection with his young son, Evan, who is distraught over Reeves' death. That struck me as something of a contrivance, but the death of Superman is nonetheless an apt metaphor for what the boy is really missing -- his father. Indeed, Simo begins to identify with Reeves, as both men are bitterly disappointed at the direction their professional and private lives have taken.

Simo learns that Reeves (Ben Affleck) was the paramour of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix. Reeves is horrified when he discovers that Toni is married to such a powerful Hollywood figure, but she assures him that she and Eddie have an understanding. They soon are dining with Eddie and his Japanese mistress, and Eddie -- portrayed with perfect menace by Bob Hoskins -- can barely bring himself to speak to Reeves. One senses his contempt springs less from jealousy than from the belief that Reeves isn't worthy of his wife's attentions.

By the time Reeves lands the role of Superman -- and the show, to his chagrin, becomes a hit -- he is a kept man, living in a house that Toni buys for him. She is unable, or unwilling, to use her influence to further Reeves' career, which flounders when "Superman" is canceled. (The film perpetuates what is apparently a myth that most of Reeves' scenes were cut from "From Here to Eternity" after a preview audience made derisive references to the actor's role as the Man of Steel.) Reeves ends up leaving Toni for a gold-digging actress named Leonore Lemon, who seems unmoved by his death.

"Hollywoodland" is a gorgeous picture, expertly capturing 1950s Hollywood glamor. It is, however, far too slow out of the gate, and once it gets going, it takes far too long to finish. The film is rescued by strong acting and detailed characterization -- though while Affleck's performance as Reeves is enjoyable, he never really looks the part of a washed-up actor. (Yes, Affleck arguably is a washed-up actor, but if you've ever seen the later episodes of the "Superman" show, you'll realize that he needed to have gained a few pounds to really get into character. Plus, he never seems to age, despite the span of time covered by the film.)

Brody, however, freed from the burdens of historical accuracy, gives a spot-on performance, and in the end, Louis Simo is a far more interesting character than George Reeves. Like Reeves, Simo stares into the abyss, but unlike the doomed actor, he has a lifeline -- his son -- to keep him from falling in.

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