Hollywoodland is no fun if you’re a struggling actor. Like a pauper watching diners in an expensive restaurant through the window, one can constantly see the rich and powerful wallowing in their own success, wallowing in a world which cruelly appears within reach but is in actuality as far away as the outer limits of the sky above. It’s always been like that, always will be and always was, from the moment the money started rolling in and those at the top became kings of a new promised land. By the 1950s a society had formed as decadent as any of the royal courts of Europe in earlier times, one in which moguls dine simultaneously with their wives and mistresses, fixers protect studio assets from scandal by any means necessary and if you’re not up on the silver screen starring alongside Lancaster and Sinatra you’re a nobody.
And there were plenty of nobodies in that town at that time, desperate to be somebody. Take poor George Reeves, for example, the subject of this debut feature from Allen Coulter. Reeves, played in the film by Ben Affleck, was a man who at the outset of his career seemed to have it all: matinee good looks, decent if not stellar acting chops and a movie debut in a certain film called Gone With the Wind in 1939. Things seemed rosy for this Iowa boy, and yet somehow he had never been able to capitalise on his many advantages, spending the Forties appearing in increasingly low-budget and low-quality fare, the nadir of which coming when he starred as a Sir Galahad who “protected Camelot with a cardboard sword,” as he wryly describes it to his agent at one point in this biopic. Constantly lurking on the edges of the elite but never quite breaking through, he finds himself at the beginning of the 1950s, and the start of Coulter's film, at a low point. Determined to revive his career, he seems to hit gold when he becomes involved with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM studio boss Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) who, enthralled by her young lover, splashes huge amounts of money on him while pulling strings at her amenable hubbie’s studio. Of course, the world knows what happened next: in 1951 he's cast as Superman in a pilot which, to everyone’s surprise, was (eventually) picked up, overnight making the actor a hero to millions of children but, devastatingly to him, a joke in Hollywood. Unable to shake off the stigma of having worn his underpants outside his trousers, Reeves finds himself virtually unemployable when the show ends after six seasons until finally in a desperate gesture, he leaves both Toni and Los Angeles for what he hopes will be a new life in New York. It turns out to be a fruitless gesture: shackled with a new fiancée disappointed to learn the Superman gig had not been nearly as lucrative as she’d hoped, and faced with the humiliating prospect of turning to professional wrestling to pay the bills, Reeves apparently ends his life on 16th June, 1959, shooting himself in the head while his fiancée and some friends sat downstairs, sending a nation's children into mourning. But was it he who really pulled the trigger? That’s the question around which Coulter hangs his film.
Following the efforts of fictional private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) to get to the bottom of the mystery, Coulter divides his film equally between the present of Simo’s investigation and the past of Reeves’s life in the decade leading up to his death, contrasting the two men’s lives and respective fates. It’s a structure which works on the narrative level but thematically ends up being deeply unsatisfactory. The problem is that it's almost impossible to care about Simo and his side of the story. No matter how well told it is, his investigation into Reeves's death and consequent redemption is too archetypal to be of interest. Much is made of the similarities between the two: both use the nascent culture of the tabloids to further their careers, Reeves worming his way into photos with the great and the good, Simo feeding the papers with lurid speculation and tacky publicity stunts to improve his profile around town. Both have awkward private lives, with Reeves a kept man and Simo estranged from his wife and living in a motel with a floozy in a rather immature existence, and both are aware that life is passing them by, but the constant, nagging problem through all of this is that whereas Reeves was a real man Simo is not, and as such all comparisons are, frankly, pointless, an artifice which lends significance to that which is unimportant and lessens the impact of that which is. Despite Brody's committed, thoughtful performance, which intentionally echoes the hundreds of gumshoes which have before him in the playing of a man who himself almost feels as though he's simply playing the part of a PI, it's hard not to grow restless every time Simo's personal affairs take up screen time, and hanker after a return to Reeves. At the end of the film Simo, in seeing the mistakes and frailties in Reeves's story echoed in his own, resolves to improve his lot and grow up to his responsibilities, an ending which vaguely trivialises the real-life tragedy we've been watching and gives the film a pat ending it shouldn't have. It is, in short, a framing device with delusions of grandeur. (In actuality, there was a private detective who investigated Reeves's death, but as he's not Simo it's a moot point).
However, that's not to say the Simo half is entirely a waste of space. When concentrating on Hollywood itself rather than the detective, it works as a useful postscript to Reeves’s story, filling in blanks which would otherwise stay a mystery. Whereas the flashbacks tell the personal story, the Simo strand shows the society and culture Reeves was struggling against. We see the studio enforcer ruthlessly try and cut Simo down before he unearths something embarrassing, we get a far bigger impression of the emerging power of the tabloids, and we also get a proper look at the character of Eddie Mannix, who would otherwise have been a cipher. Hoskins’s Mannix is a powerful presence, the spider at the heart of a particularly far-reaching web, one determined to protect his studio from any whiff of scandal. He’s an ambiguous figure both because we never get to see quite how far he’d be prepared to go and also because of a personal life in which he encourages Reeves’s relationship with a wife he evidently cares deeply about (something which only becomes evident during Simo’s investigation). Most devastatingly, we see the effect Reeves had on his wife, our glimpses of the remnants of the woman who used to be Toni Mannix among the most painful of the entire movie.
Those parts aside, just why is so much time devoted to Simo? The self-evident answer is that Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum just weren't sufficiently confident that the story of Reeves on his own was enough to carry a film. In one of the extras on this disc Coulter says he never had any interest in just making a straightforward biopic of Reeves because “he becomes a more interesting character in direct relation to this man’s (Simo’s) interest in him.” Translation: Reeves’s story on its own just isn’t gripping enough. A harsh assessment, but perhaps a fair one: Superman and sudden death aside, there’s nothing that marks him out as an especially fascinating individual as in other respects he was little different to those hundreds of other nobodies swarming around LA. His relationship with Toni is very conventional, from the initial meeting right through to his abandoning her when her looks and influence fades, while his career away from the Man of Steel is unique only so far as the fact that because his first movie role was in The Most Successful Film of All Time his subsequent descent into (short-lived) anonymity was steeper than that of many of his contemporaries. It’s banal but necessary to say that without Superman this film wouldn’t exist, even if he had died in the same way.
That Superman defined his life, and his attempts to deal with that, is what this film should have concentrated on. Like many men defined by a single thing - whether it be a role, a place in history, or a particular action - Reeves had a complex and uncertain relationship with his fame. On the one hand, an actor who becomes a hero to just about every child in the country could hardly claim to be a failure, yet Reeves was constantly aware that the show was in reality simple, cheap television which, while ensuring his worship by all those under four foot, degraded and made him a joke in the eyes of his contemporaries. That conflict is at the centre of his tragedy, and is one which the film - in its fatal flaw - pays lip service to without ever quite grasping firmly. There are two scenes which examine the problem, and unsurprisingly they prove to be among the most memorable of the entire picture. One is when, during a screening of From Here to Eternity in which Reeves appeared the audience starts making Superman jokes when the actor appears on screen, much to his discomfort and disappointment, and the other is when he makes a personal appearance as Superman and a small boy points a loaded gun at him. This last, based on an apocryphal story that almost certainly didn’t happen, is metaphorically important because suddenly Reeves comes face to face, perhaps for truly the first time, to how the Superman persona can destroy him, and Affleck plays it well. (Although this scene probably is false, it’s perhaps wrong to find amusing the fact that Reeves did indeed have to face young fans who would come up and punch him in the stomach to test out how strong he really was). Elsewhere in the film, we see Reeves’s apparent joy at burning the costume when the show is cancelled, and taking seriously his responsibility to the children when he stubs out a cigarette when spotted in a café by a coterie of young fans, but otherwise the issue is not at the centre as much as it should be.
Instead, the screenplay is uncertain exactly what it should be focusing on - his relationship with Toni? Superman? His subsequent decamping to the other side of the country? - resulting in a tale told on the surface without really getting into the nitty-gritty of the situation. This prevarication is a cop out, one which never allows us to see into the soul of the man, which is something, surely, it should be doing. Throughout the entire film Reeves puts on a front, playing a charming, slightly raffish, character, who we never once see crack. When he first puts on the famous costume he says “I feel like a damn fool” but we never really believe it, and it’s only relatively minor moments - such as when his flying wires break and he falls to the ground - which hit home. Never getting to know the man, not really, one ends the film as uncertain about his death as ever, principally because we never get close enough to him to know if he could have pulled that trigger or not. The film strangely misses out entirely arguably the most crucial weeks in his life, those immediately before his death, during which time he had a car accident and consequentially started taking heavy painkillers, a gap which jars badly and makes one feel as though an entire reel of the film has gone missing.
To a certain degree this lack of commitment to the character hampers Affleck's performance. He never gets a chance to really show off his serious acting chops, so what we end up with is an impersonation rather than a fully-rounded character. Affleck is superb as the charming man-about-town, and it’s very easy to find his Reeves a greatly attractive person, much to his credit, but as we don’t get anything but the charmer ultimately all his good work is very much for naught. (On a trivial side note, last year I reviewed for this site three sets of George Reeves Superman episodes, and as such could never buy Affleck as Reeves, just because they look - and, despite Affleck’s best efforts, sound - so different, but that’s a minor issue entirely for me). Ultimately he's eclipsed by the superb Diane Lane, whose performance is perhaps the most beautiful and satisfying thing in an otherwise frustrating film. Playing a woman over the course of ten years, we see Toni’s beauty and character slowly fading as, in her own words, her ass drops and she becomes aware that her time in the sun is over. She and Affleck have a good chemistry, but she is also a complete woman in her own right, one who worships Reeves while at the same time trying to ignore the massive insecurities she has about the relationship, showering him with expensive gifts (including a house) in an attempt keep him once her looks - and influence - have ceased to have appeal for him. There’s a terribly sad moment near the end where, after he tells her he is leaving for the East Coast, she desperately clings onto him, finally dropping down and giving him a blowjob, a last attempt to hang on to something which she knows she is losing forever. When Simo meets her following Reeves’s death, he finds a pale grey shadow of the glamorous, vivacious woman who captured Reeves’s eye and, for a time, heart. Ironically, we end up feeling her tragedy far more so than Reeves’s.
Taken as a whole, then, Coulter, who cut his teeth on such high quality television such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under makes an entirely adequate but largely anonymous first feature, with no sign of flare or individualistic tics to mark him out as a talent to watch. It’s unfortunate that he’s hampered by a film budget which, like so much else, never quite goes far enough. His Hollywoodland is neither quite as glamorous, nor as populated as one would like, and despite evident attention to detail one can never quite find oneself immersed in the world as he would like. On an internet forum recently I saw the film described as “the death of film noir,” which is unfair to what on the surface is a classy effort: the acting talent on display is first rate, the story itself, despite script flaws, sufficiently intriguing to hold one's attention and there are minor pleasures along the way which make the film an easy watch. However, compared to the greats that have gone before, this is timid, unadventurous stuff with not nearly as much substance as it would like to have. Uncertain of its aims, its screenplay refuses to commit and thus ends up a mishmash, the biggest weakness in what otherwise could have been a top dollar film. Ironically it ends up in the same position as its protagonist, a classy under-achiever, hovering on the edges of success without ever really threatening to break through.
The first thing one sees when playing the disc is a selection of trailers, for Catch a Fire, Hot Fuzz, Man of the Year, and a general one for HD-DVD, all of which can be skipped instantly. The Main Menu opens with a montage of stylised images from the film before settling on a static menu with background featuring the four main characters and a looping snippet of music from the film. The four options are Play, Scenes (with twenty chapters), Bonus Features and Languages.
The film itself, and all extras bar the commentary and initial trailers, are subtitled.
Filmed with an intentionally saturated colour scheme that’s very bleached and grey, this is a fairly monochrome film to watch, dull to the eye. The disc handles the video reasonably well; there’s an intentional layer of grain over the film, and it’s not always as pin sharp as it should be, but these aren’t serious flaws. The main problem with the movie, that it’s so drab, is Coulter’s choice rather than problems with the transfer.
Unremarkable but perfectly acceptable. Dialogue is clear if not crisp, and music comes across well, but there are no great shakes here.
From Allen Coulter on his own, this is very much a "We did this, we did that, this is well played" affair, and is a bit of an effort to trawl through for two hours. Could have been a bit more lively.
Deleted Scenes (5:08)
Nothing of very great consequence here, the two longest sequences being Simo listening to the panegyric at Reeves’s funeral and one which unnecessarily underlines the idea that Mannix might have had George killed for leaving Toni.
Re-Creating Old Hollywood (6:54)
A featurette which does exactly what it says on the tin, this sees cast and crew talking about how they wanted to capture authentically the look and feel of the period their film is set in, and as such is much the same as every other featurette you’ve ever watched in which a cast and crew talked about how they wanted to capture authentically the look and feel of the period their film is set in.
Behind the Headlines (7:22)
Similar to the above, only this time everyone discusses the characters and themes of the film in a featurette which, while interesting, only skims the surface of the issues and as a result could have done with being at least twice as long as it is.
Hollywood Then & Now (7:57)
The best of the three featurettes on the disc, this one takes a look at the culture of Hollywood in those days, the studios’ fears at the rise of television, and how Reeves found himself caught between what were then two very different worlds, neither of which wanted much to do with the other.
A reasonable but oddly unsatisfactory package for a reasonable but oddly unsatisfactory film. Given it’s a single-disc release, it’s little surprise the detail in the extras aren’t there, but the commentary isn’t great and one never gets an impression of the real man behind the cape. A bit "meh" all round.