On a certain level, you’ve got to admire the balls that goes into a major studio financing a film like >>Hollywoodland—and not for the reason you might think. Yes, it’s the story of a famous showbiz scandal—the suicide of George Reeves, TV’s Superman—and generally you’re expected not to defecate where you masticate. But the greater display of nerve is boldly putting out a film that tears the lid off the moguls’ manipulation of publicity in the 1950s. It’s like Major League Baseball financing a tell-all about the cover-up of Babe Ruth’s insatiable appetites, since players today clearly have no skeletons—or Human Growth Hormone—in their lockers.
If Hollywoodland had been about nothing more than the Dream Factory’s calculated selling of artifice, it would have been fairly insufferable. And indeed, there’s still a bit too much wallowing in the lurid business beneath glittering surfaces. Yet Hollywoodland has at least a little bit more on its mind than exposé, and enough flashes of humanity to make up for its strangely stylized storytelling.
As structured by screenwriter Paul Bernbaum, Hollywoodland tells two parallel stories. In 1959, sleazy and recently divorced private eye Lou Simo (Adrien Brody) gets a tip that Reeves’ mother doesn’t accept the official verdict that her son killed himself. As Simo begins his investigation into the circumstances surrounding Reeves’ death, the story flashes back to Reeves (Ben Affleck) as a struggling young actor who finds an unlikely benefactor in Toni (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Living as Toni’s kept man in an arrangement tacitly accepted by Eddie, Reeves gets his big break as Superman—but the role proves to be a mixed blessing.
Bernbaum and frequent Sopranos director Allen Coulter do spend a fair amount of time covering familiar ground about the schism between perceptions of fame and behind-the-scenes reality. In one sly scene, Simo drops a hint that he’s working for a movie star in order to wrestle information out of a jewelry store clerk; Reeves’ mother seems less concerned with uncovering the truth than with removing the taint from her son’s celebrity. Ultimately the script turns the studios into little more than a glamorous organized crime racket—hiring thugs to squash any possible disruption to the façade—and starts to feel stale and obvious.
On a moment-to-moment basis, it still manages to be fairly effective, if sometimes for odd reasons. There are some individually compelling scenes—Reeves trying to embrace his status as kiddie idol by posing in a restaurant window for a horde of screaming Boy Scouts; a kid with a real gun wanting to test “Superman’s” powers at a publicity event—that keep things brisk beyond the name-dropping. Yet there’s also the strange manner in which Affleck and Lane pitch their performances, as though they were actually in a 1950s movie instead of in a movie about 1950s movies. Their tight-jawed patter is almost perversely compelling—either it’s an intriguing meta-commentary on lives lived perpetually putting on a show, or it’s just plain goofy.
Where it proves even more compelling is by spinning its more obvious dichotomies into a solid little morality tale. Hollywoodland eventually becomes a case study in the need for self-respect, as both Simo and Reeves struggle to reconcile what they do for money with the way they want to think of themselves—or to have others think of them. As Simo considers possible architects of Reeves’ death—Toni, Eddie, Reeves’ most recent fiancée (Robin Tunney)—he includes Reeves’ inability to create a career he could be proud of.
Sure, that notion ties the two ends of the story together a touch too neatly. And yes, there’s weird autobiographical subtext when both the writer and the director—both television stalwarts seeing their names on a movie screen for the first time—create a story where moving from television to movies is equated with achieving artistic integrity. But that attraction/repulsion dynamic might actually be what brings Hollywoodland’s many pieces together into something that works—a funky, messy look at an industry full of people who hate themselves while wanting so badly for us to love them.
HOLLYWOODLAND**1/2 Directed by Allen Coulter. • Starring Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Diane Lane. • R, 126 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.