Biopic Theater returns and I didn’t intend for it’s resurrection to start somberly. As the classic film community knows, the loss of several iconic stars is torture on our souls. No one lives forever, but it’s always sad to know a particular actor/actress is no longer around to grace the screen with their presence. We expect death to happen when people are old, but sometimes fate doesn’t work that way. Biopic Theater, as a series, examines the downfall and, on occasion, early deaths of certain stars; the entire reason for said biopic often focuses on those two elements alone. I knew Hollywoodland would be part of this series, and my reasons for loving it change as events in my life do. As a movie, it is one of the classiest pictures detailing the life of a Hollywood actor. Director Allen Coulter is respectful in his treatment of George Reeves and Ben Affleck makes a career comeback with his 2006 portrayal of Superman (and yet, he’s playing Batman in 2016…go figure).
George Reeves (Affleck) is a middling Hollywood nobody desperate for his big break. As he struggles to make his mark he falls for Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM production head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). When Reeves ends up dead, the question of murder or suicide remains on everyone’s lips. Along for the ride is small-town PI Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) investigating Reeves’ demise.
I’d like to get personal for a minute. Superman, and George Reeves specifically, has always been a staple in my house. My grandfather remained in love with Superman till his dying day, and I remember stray stories he would tell of watching The Adventures of Superman on television. A scene in Hollywoodland of small children gathering round their televisions leaves me wondering what my young grandfather was like during this time. Did he watch, in awe, believing a man could fly? I never asked him how he reacted to Reeves’ death, but based on his unyielding love for the character I don’t think he took it as harshly as some. My grandfather’s gone now, but watching Hollywoodland, especially the moments where Affleck, as Reeves, entertains young children as Superman leaves me with happy memories.
A brief history if you’re unaware of the real story. George Reeves was a working actor best known for playing one of the Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind before securing the role of Superman in television show, The Adventures of Superman from 1952-1958. In 1959, during a small party, Reeves went upstairs where he either killed himself or was shot by figures unknown. The cast of possible murderers included the aforementioned Mannix’s; George’s sugar-mama Toni and/or her husband, Hollywood fixer, Eddie. Reeves also had an alleged fiancee, Leonore Lemmon, whose volatile temper and belief she would inherit vast amounts of wealth gave her motive. The case never went very far, possibly due to Eddie Mannix shushing potential witnesses and interested parties, and Reeves’ death remains officially listed as a suicide. He was 45.
If you’re a long-time reader of Biopic Theater, it isn’t often I review A-list pictures like this and I believe Hollywoodland sparked the resurgence in biopics we’re still seeing today. Director Allen Coulter presents Reeves’ life and death as part Unsolved Mysteries with an analysis of the pratfalls of celebrity. Reeves’ agent, Art Weissman (Jeffrey DeMunn) ask the immortal question at story’s end: Why wasn’t Reeves a bigger celebrity? Too often we ask why certain Golden Era stars weren’t well-known, and as countless books and movies assert, there isn’t an answer. Reeves vainly believed he was destined for greatness so what he had was never enough. Reeves’ journey could belong to anyone, and the sad thing is people remember Reeves, but only with regards to the character he played (although, Superman is a pretty great character to be immortalized with), ending the story exactly the way Reeves wished it wouldn’t.
Coulter returns to three possibilities throughout the movie: Reeves was accidentally killed by Lemmon, Reeves was intentionally killed at the behest of Eddie Mannix, or Reeves killed himself. The saddest possibility is the third, a sequence with a haunting piece of acting by Affleck. As Reeves sits on the end of his bed, contemplating a life of obscurity and constant struggle, he finally decides to end it all. With any celebrity who dies mysteriously, there’s always a group who suggests foul play. Why would a celebrity, who seemingly had everything, decide to end it? We want to believe some stars were taken away from us too soon, not that they decided to go out on their own. Simo himself says he wants to make certain pieces of the case fit, depending on his whims, and isn’t that how we are as fans? Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum never definitively answer what happened to Reeves, but by ending on the simplest solution gives you all you need to know.
The late 2000s saw a lot of 1940s/50s based movies and Hollywoodland has the best production design and it’s evident the screenwriter did his due diligence, even going so far as to have Reeves biographer and Supernatural star, Jim Beaver, on-set as a consultant. The various pieces of the Reeves story everyone is privy to is on the screen, but we also look at the littler pieces, like Reeves being unable to smoke in front of children; “Superman doesn’t smoke.” Hollywood stars today either desperately cling to their personas or seek to break them, and the script has Reeves desiring both. He understands he’s a role model to children, but wants to be taken seriously as an actor (which proves false during a test screening of Reeves in From Here to Eternity). When a small child at a birthday party asks Reeves, “Can I shoot you” in the misguided belief that the bullets will fly off him, the audience is reminded of Reeves’ mortality, and the bitter irony of Reeves dying via gunshot.
The acting compliments the stellar script and direction. In 2006, after coming off a string of flops, Affleck was box-office poison. I’ve always maintained Affleck would have been a phenomenal Superman in the various comic book incarnations, and the proof is in the pudding. He plays Reeves with charm, translating into a chivalric performance as Superman. By the end, as Reeves struggles to show he’s still an athletic man in order to secure a job, you believe he’s been put through the wringer. Affleck’s performance in the final sequences of the movie are upsetting because he conveys disappointment with life itself.
Reeves was far from saintly, and the movie explores his dysfunctional relationships with the women in his life. Both Lane and Robin Tunney as Leonore Lemmon are amazing, each with their motivations for George. Lane’s character of Toni is more palatable; she truly loves George, but hates being reminded she’s getting older, particularly once he leaves her for the younger Lemmon. The movie fails to properly develop whether Toni was responsible for Reeves’ death (simply alluding to a car accident Reeves was involved in), but Lane remains just as sympathetic throughout. Tunney channels Jean Harlow and Joe Pesci as Lemmon, the brash sexpot out to get Reeves’ money. Again, the characterization is flimsy but Tunney makes an impression. Bob Hoskins’ rounds out the cast, although his Eddie Mannix is a cypher we never truly know. The movie is too content to depict him as Hollywood murderer, alluding to possible collusion in Paul Bern’s suicide and utilizing a picture of Carole Landis’ death to attribute it to Mannix’s murder of an unrelated actress.
There’s no real negatives to the movie, but Adrien Brody’s storyline is the weakest. The character of Louis Simo is necessary to present an objective perspective; someone examining the developments after Reeves’ death, as well as act as audience surrogate for those unaware of the case. The script valiantly tries to connect Reeves and Simo (both men ignored the good in their lives, couldn’t realize when to quit), but it’s unnecessary when the story is already so compelling, and to keep returning to Simo does little but pull you away from the main narrative. Adrien Brody is servicable, but too often the character’s traits feel like a watered-down version of Bud White (Russell Crowe) of L.A. Confidential.
The fact I wrote over 1000 words on Hollywoodland shows it’s an important film, at least in my eyes. The acting is fantastic with Affleck showing awards potential (high praise, I know). The script presents a multifaceted look at Reeves’ life and death, never sinking into debauchery as other, cheaper, biopics might. If you missed it in theaters, go out and rent it!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.