The third period detective drama in just under a year to be based on a real-life, post-war Hollywood murder mystery, Hollywoodland is substantially more sober and less lurid than Atom Egoyan's Where The Truth Lies and Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia but it covers some of the same ground. Where The Truth Lies dug up ugly rumours about the 1956 break-up of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis's comedy act, The Black Dahlia was inspired by the unsolved 1947 murder of ingenue Elizabeth Short and Hollywoodland is based on the theory that the suicide of George Reeves, TV's Superman, in 1959 wasn't what it seemed. All three films study the cases they depict through a film noir filter and all three use the subject matter to expose the squalid underbelly of baby-boom America.
Private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) has been down on his luck since he was fired from his detective agency for passing gossip to the tabloids. Divorced and reduced to working cheating-spouse cases out of his low-rent apartment, he's finally thrown a bone by one of his ex-colleagues. George Reeves' mother (Lois Smith) refuses to believe the official verdict on her son's death - that he shot himself due to depression. The agency doesn't want to get involved so they pass the case to Simo, whose strategy is to provoke headlines and embarrass the DA into re-opening the case.
Hollywoodland intertwines Simo's investigations with the story of the last decade in the life of George Reeves (Ben Affleck). An up and coming movie star in the 1940s, his career crashed after the end of World War II. By 1951 he was eking out a living, starring in B-westerns and serials when he became involved with a wealthy, older woman, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Soon after, he was cast as Superman on the emerging medium of television. It was a part his agent had to talk him into accepting but the cheaply made TV series did what the movies hadn't done: it made him a big star.
Adrien Brody's character, Louis Simo is based on Milo Speriglio, the real private eye who investigated Reeves' death and who was responsible for stirring up much of the speculation surrounding the case (he performed a similar, dubious service for Marilyn Monroe). The script, by Paul Bernbaum, puts forward three possible theories about how Reeves died, although curiously none of them represents what Speriglio believed - that a spurned Toni Mannix hired a hitman.
The solution the movie eventually settles on seems the most likely and it demonstrates a certain integrity on the part of the filmmakers. At heart, Hollywoodland isn't really a film noir, it's the sad story of the decline and destruction of an actor who was by all accounts a decent man. That sets Hollywoodland apart from its contemporaries, The Black Dahlia and Where The Truth Lies, which showed more interest in the sensational details than the tragedies.
I can't help but wonder though, why was this treated as a private eye thriller in the first place? The meat of the film is the story of George Reeves so why not just make a straight biopic? There's much more to his life that could have been covered. The film noir stuff, while atmospheric, never adds up to anything. To fulfill genre conventions, the movie is forced to exaggerate characters and invent fictional villains. Milo Speriglio actually investigated the death while an employee of the same detective agency the film pretends sacked him and worked against him; Eddie Mannix was a shady character all right but he supposedly got on with Reeves just fine. Why make things up to provide cheap thrills and then stop short of providing them? The script is like a tug of war between honest drama and muckraking trash. It would be a lot better, had it settled on an approach.
Despite its identity crisis, Hollywoodland is a very absorbing drama. The script is literate and witty. The production designers do a good job of recreating 1950s Los Angeles on a modest budget. Director Allen Coulter's old-school directing style and measured pacing make it a pleasure to watch the story unfold. Coulter is a veteran of the award winning TV series The Sopranos and Sex And The City making his film debut. The Devil Wears Prada's David Frankel comes from the same background - I think we're going to be seeing a lot more directors coming out of quality US television.
The acting is very impressive. Adrien Brody makes a good private eye in the Jake Gittes tradition and Diane Lane and Robin Tunney (as Reeves' gold-digging fiancée) are effective femme fatales. The film's real star however is Ben Affleck, who's being mooted as an Oscar contender for Best Supporting Actor. Good luck to him. He's the heart of the movie - he wonderfully evokes the bruised dignity of a man who wanted to be Clark Gable, came agonisingly close to fulfilling his dreams and had to settle instead for a consolation prize that came with tights and a cape. The unhappy true story told in Affleck's scenes is a lot more compelling than the fictional Hollywood thriller that surrounds it.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:50:34