Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Rumored as 2006's first serious Oscar contender -- the industry now decides which of its films are award-worthy -- Hollywoodland is a complex neo-noir that tries to organize a number of indigestible elements. Movies about Hollywood history are a trap in themselves, as evidenced in everything from Sunset to The Day of the Locust. Paul Bernbaum's insightful script dares to throw us into the middle of 1950s studio politics, representing real people and seriously suggesting that some of them may have been complicit in a possible murder. But the film sees all of this through the travails of an unsympathetic detective who must sort out his own domestic problems while trying to solve the mystery behind the death of every American kid's favorite hero. Hero worship confronts the big sell-out, as an entire town seems to position itself around the suspicious suicide. Hollywoodland does everything but give its story a cogent point ... unlike Chinatown, we don't leave the theater with much more than a lot of unanswerable questions.
Scraping by on whatever jobs he can pick up after being fired from a big agency, private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is quick to seize the opportunity of the suicide of TV star George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who for years had been the lover of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of a powerful MGM executive, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Simo latches on to Reeves' upset mother (Lois Smith) and puts the pressure on Reeves' present fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), trying to shed light on the odd circumstances of the suicide, which happened in George and Toni's former love nest. Simo also wants to pressure Eddie Mannix and his skulking 'publicity executive' Howard Strickling (Joe Spano), but publicizing the Reeves-Mannix affair may be a suicidal move ... Eddie has been sweeping Hollywood dirt under the carpet for decades, and eliminating Simo would be a minor inconvenience.
Audiences for Hollywoodland were primed for an LA Confidential-like exposé of the truth behind the mysterious death of George Reeves, everybody's beloved Superman from the 1950's TV show. The problem is that not enough is known about Reeves' alleged suicide to whip up a convincing theory of murder or murder/conspiracy. History assembled a great game of Clue, with a sexy affair, a promising career that collapsed into TV banality and some truly scary types loitering in the shadows.
Eager writers have relished recounting (or inventing) nasty tales of murders covered up for the good of the studios ever since Hollywood Babylon. As major power brokers in Los Angeles, studio production executives frequently 'cleaned up' death scenes before the police arrived, removing evidence of the deceased's personal relationships. And of course, there are plenty of tales (factual?) of MGM's Eddie Mannix personally intervening to spare stars from the consequences of alleged sexual misconduct and occasionally serious felonies.
The art directors do a fine job of recreating the sunny, slightly over-exposed memories of Southern California in 1959, when little kids with crew cuts lived in safe suburbs and almost every aspect of society that might be considered sordid was a hush-hush topic. Adrien Brody sketches a worthy detective with a lot of detail -- a mismatched lover, a personal past in Hollywood labor politics, a broken marriage. But the character is ultimately irrelevant to the larger drama. Simo's son is traumatized by George Reeves' death, but a real connection is never made between Simo's quest and George Reeves' destiny.
The movie instead flashes back from 1959 to 1951 or so, when Reeves began his affair with Toni Mannix. We witness Ben Affleck transforming from a happy-go-lucky actor with big aspirations, to a demoralized also-ran. George Reeves is stereotyped into an unrewarding TV non-career. Eddie and the sinister Toni Mannix have an unorthodox open marriage that allows each of them to live with others; Eddie even pays for a swank Bel-Air home for Toni and George. But George never gets his hoped-for MGM audition, and in fact must settle for the showy, underpaid Clark Kent role in TV's Adventures of Superman. As his agent says, sometimes actors can't act; sometimes they have to work.
Thus Hollywoodland goes in at least four directions at once, in two separate time frames. The responsible script doesn't create an Oliver Stone-like alternate reality of 'improved history.' MGM's Strickland and Mannix may have quashed Reeves' plan to produce and direct, but the movie doesn't suggest that they actually had him killed. Simo imagines several possible death scene scenarios to account for the alleged bruises on Reeves' body and mysterious extra bullet holes in the floor. He never fully believes any of them.
Hollywoodland demonstrates its maturity by not conjuring up a nefarious conspiracy. No evil Noah Cross emerges to silence the detective, remove the evidence and murmur, "Forget it, Simo, it's Superman." Simo's paying client takes a powder and the other unhappy players try to put the whole affair behind them. Nobody seems to know exactly what the hell happened to poor Reeves, and reckless suicide is the most credible possibility.
Adrien Brody works hard to justify Simo as the film's main character. With all the power plays going on, we really don't care that Simo has a drinking problem, and we certainly aren't on his side when he tries to pick up his son from school while drunk. (Dig the intervention of those terrific watchful school personnel -- yep, they looked after us sheltered little 50s kids). The real stars are Diane Lane and Ben Affleck's Toni and George. Both actors are excellent ... this is the first Affleck movie where this reviewer didn't despise both him and the character he plays. The pair convincingly handles the flashback section of the movie, dealing with their Hollywood elite egos and George's diminished screen prospects. He goes into Superman with trepidation and makes the best of a basically humiliating experience. Bob Hoskins also impresses ... the show becomes much deeper when we realize that Eddie Mannix loves his wife and is loyal to her even within their bizarre marital arrangement.
The arcane details of movieland are by and large nicely presented. Adventures of Superman is properly placed at a third-tier level of Hollywood production, where also-ran unheralded talent plies its trade. Among Toni and George's friends are Mr. and Mrs. Alford "Rip" von Ronkel (Kathleen Robertson & Richard Fancy), a starlet-screenwriter duo: He's the author of Destination Moon. The filming of the show is sloppy and primitive, as seen when Reeves narrowly misses injury in a poorly rigged flying scene. Refusing to hang from wires after being dropped to the hard studio floor, Reeves forced the special effects people to come up with other means to create a flying illusion. The script does distort a few facts; audiences recognized Reeves in From Here To Eternity but his part was not minimized. There is also not much evidence to suggest that Reeves was adverse to personal appearances. To the contrary, it is reported that the appearances were an important source of income, as the TV show paid so little. The moment when a kid points a real gun at Reeves is reportedly an enlargement of one of Reeves' nervous remarks, and not an actual incident.
One thing Hollywoodland nails perfectly is the reaction of a million ten year-olds when the stirring Superman theme music started off the show. Wherever we were, we'd come running as if personally summoned to fly to glory. It's an odd coincidence that Focus Features' Hollywoodland came out in late 2006 just as Warners was preparing a huge marketing push for all things Superman. The movie is a natural crossover plug for the other studio's property.
Hollywoodland falls short by not resolving its themes; Simo eventually gives up and the picture lacks a climax. Superman may represent the innocence of the 1950s, but even taking nostalgia into account, George Reeves' story is not a mainline conduit to the essence of the period. The more the plot gets mired in its detective details and flashback intrigues, the more diffuse it becomes. A fascinating movie, Hollywoodland doesn't emerge as a satisfying whole.
Universal's Special Edition DVD of Hollywoodland presents the handsomely filmed show in the expected spotless condition. The gentle color stylization survives the leap to DVD, and a second viewing allows us to appreciate some of the choices in art direction. Los Angeles in 1959 is evoked without hitting us over the head with Edsels and hula hoops.
Director Allen Coulter provides the commentary track. He concentrates on his directing choices and comes off as serious but not self-absorbed. Coulter has a lot to say about Adrien Brody's creative ideas and little touches, like using his car keys in various ways throughout the movie to comment on his character. Coulter likens Louis Simo to George Reeves in that both men seek success by grabbing newpaper attention, but the audience never truly gets behind the detective or his quest. That's because Simo is unlikeable, and even in noir terms, not all that interesting.
Extras include three EPK-like mini-docs on filming this Southern California movie, a lot of which was done in Canada. The experts paint Hollywood as a much less populous paradise in the 1950s but err in thinking that it wasn't polluted: Even Raymond Chandler remarked on the terrible smog of the early part of the decade. A selection of deleted scenes rounds out the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Allen Coulter, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes: Recreating Old Hollywood, Behind the Headlines, Hollywood Then and Now
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 28, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson