Originally written under the title Truth, Justice, and the American Way, director Allen Coulter's depiction of the life and death of The Adventures of Superman TV star George Reeves was forced into a name change by the current Superman rights holders. The chosen retitle, Hollywoodland, presumably refers to the famous sign in the Hollywood hills. However, the landmark is never seen or referenced anywhere in the film (initially constructed as a promotion for a housing development, the sign was later restored and had the "land" removed by the town's Chamber of Commerce in 1949, well before the events of this movie). On a more symbolic level, the new name suggests the sort of fantasyland aura that the Hollywood community gave off through the late 1950s, a place decidedly isolated from the rest of America, where celebrities lived and worked as if in their own little universe.
Adrien Brody stars as a fictional character Louis Simo, a low-rent P.I. who insinuates himself into investigating the death of his son's TV hero. Although ruled a suicide, the crime scene in Reeves' house leaves the official story open for doubt (extra bullet holes were found in the floor – did he miss himself with the first couple of shots?). Since the truth behind this notorious scandal has remained unresolved for decades, the Simo character is used as an audience surrogate. He doesn't have all the answers any more than we do, but through his investigation we learn of the various people who might have had cause to murder the television star.
Intercut with this storyline are flashbacks to Reeves' life. Played by Ben Affleck, we're introduced to the fame-hungry actor after he's been let go from his studio contract and is unable to find work.
Taken in as the boy-toy to a wealthy married woman (Diane Lane) who happens to be the wife of MGM studio boss Eddie Mannix, Reeves is set up in a luxurious lifestyle just within reach of the glamorous society he covets but can never really be part of. Eventually landing the lead on the cheapie Superman TV show, a gig he finds demeaning, the actor pines for a respectable career in the movies even while unwittingly becoming the idol to millions of children across the country. After leaving his older mistress for a conniving starlet who believes him to be more famous and influential than he actually is, Reeves gives plenty of motive for murder to the former lover, her powerful husband, and even the new girlfriend once she realizes his true lack of stature. And yet there's also the distinct possibility that he might have really been suicidally depressed after all.
The intertwining of these two storylines is meant to reveal parallels between the Reeves and Simo characters. The detective is also something of a publicity hound desperate to ingratiate himself into the glitzier side of Hollywood, and has plenty of his own personal complications with an ex-wife, new girlfriend, and some pretty screwy other clients. The part is well written with some interesting complexities and depth, and Brody plays it well, but this whole fictional aspect of the script feels shoehorned in on the much more fascinating true story of Reeves. Yet the movie can't entirely rely on Reeves, because the truth behind his death may never be known. As a result, he's left as an enigma, and Simo's lack of closure with the case leaves the story hanging with a less than satisfying resolution.
Hollywoodland is a handsomely produced period piece with plenty of moody atmosphere. Ben Affleck delivers a surprisingly nuanced, self-effacing performance as Reeves. He captures the actor's smug showboating, desperate need for attention, and the sly charm that made him so popular on the Superman show. The movie tells an interesting true story, but one that by its very nature must end with a frustrating anticlimax. There also just seems to be something missing from the film, a lack of urgency that has propelled some of the genre's best period mysteries such as Chinatown or L.A. Confidential. Hollywoodland isn't in that same league. It's a good movie, not quite a great one.
The HD DVD:
Hollywoodland debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The disc is a Combo release with a standard DVD version on the flip side.
The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (except in cases like this where the disc specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Hollywoodland HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 with tiny letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The film has excellent photography that evokes a period atmosphere, with distinctly differing looks for the two major storylines. The detective scenes have a hard-edged, contrasty and bleached appearance, while the flashback scenes are warmer and more diffuse. Both are well represented in the HD transfer. Colors are nicely rendered in their stylized way, noticeably richer and more precise than the standard DVD edition. The image is sharp and detailed, with good black levels and a terrific sense of depth. Unfortunately, edge ringing artifacts do intrude throughout the movie, most visible on the sharpest contrasts such as a dark suit against the blown out sky, which is something that happens a lot in the movie. The halos are low amplitude and not overly disturbing, but detract from an otherwise fine transfer.
The Hollywoodland HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. This is a very restrained sound mix, without a lot of showy surround sound action or rocking bass. The track is almost all dialogue or subdued music and ambience. Even the score almost never wells up in any big flourishes. The back channels are hardly ever noticeable. Fidelity is satisfactory. Dialogue is usually clear, but a little obscure in a scene or two. Sound effects are crisply recorded, and the few gunshots have a nice kick. It's a very professional soundtrack that serves the needs of the movie well, but not one that will have people popping in this disc to show off their expensive audio equipment.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired or French.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition. All of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
- Audio Commentary - Director Allen Coulter covers his artistic intentions, technical elements, his obsession with getting the period details correct, and the performances of the cast. Coulter is a good speaker and this track is a worthwhile listen.
- Re-creating Old Hollywood (7 min., SD) – A featurette about the production design, costumes, and photography, as well as the historical research needed to capture the period.
- Behind the Headlines (7 min., SD) – Further information about the George Reeves case and how the fictional Louis Simo character was integrated into the story.
- Hollywood Then and Now (8 min., SD) – A look back at the old Hollywood studio system and culture.
- Deleted Scenes (5 min., SD) – Three scenes that wouldn't have either helped or hurt the movie, including Reeves' funeral and more of Simo's detective work.
Hollywoodland is an intriguing if not quite completely engrossing period mystery. The HD DVD has nice picture quality, acceptable sound, and a couple of decent supplements. I'll give it a mild recommendation, though a rental may suffice for many viewers.
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