Imagine a version of “Citizen Kane” that puts its emphasis on the bland, shadowy investigator played by William Alland and pushes the title magnate’s story into the background, and you’ll have some idea of what’s wrong with Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland.” Ostensibly it’s the story of the last days of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the fifties television series and died of a gunshot wound, self-inflicted as a result of his despondency over his failing career according to the official findings, in June, 1959; headlines like “Superman Shoots Self” devastated his legion of schoolboy fans. But suspicion persists that he was actually killed by somebody else, by either accident or design, and Paul Bernbaum’s screenplay raises that possibility, focusing on the actor’s long-term romantic (and financial) relationship with Toni Mannix, the wife of powerful MGM vice president Eddie Mannix, and the explosive ramifications of his taking up with a younger woman, the notorious party-girl socialite Leonore Lemmon, who was living with Reeves at the time of his death in the Benedict Canyon house Toni had bought for him.
The strategy Bernbaum has adopted, however, is not to have the matter investigated, as it was in reality, by famed Hollywood lawyer Jerry Giesler (admittedly not the most photogenic of characters)–who was actually hired by Reeves’s mother Helen Bessolo–but by his own fictional creation, a down-on-his-luck PI called Louis Simo. In the course of the narrative, Simo imagines various scenarios about how and why the actor might have been killed by a hand other than his own (although they’re not always made ideally clear, and one possibility–that he was murdered by a hit-man from the Mafia, with which Mannix definitely had contacts–isn’t considered, just one of the historical details that are either fudged or ignored).
Still, in itself the dramatic decision to use a dramatic creation like Simo isn’t indefensible. The problem is that in Bernbaum’s treatment, the detective’s story is allowed to overshadow Reeves’s. Entirely too much time is given over to the shamus’ troubled home life with his estranged wife (Molly Parker) and young son Evan (Zach Mills), who’s distraught over the death of his television hero as well as the absence of his dad, and to his relationship with his “secretary” (Caroline Dhavernas); he becomes the picture’s central character, and frankly he’s not a terribly interesting one, nor is the role especially well played by the intense but one-note Adrien Brody. The point, one supposes, is to explain the low-rent detective’s increasingly obsessive attention to the case as a kind of psychological displacement–seeing its solution as the key to address his personal problems–but neither Bernbaum nor Brody (nor director Coulter) ever finds a way to make that connection dramatically viable.
By contrast the portion of the film actually dealing with Reeves is more satisfying, even if the treatment could have been deeper and more detailed. Ben Affleck works very hard as Reeves, and actually catches the slickness affectation that seems to have marked the man off-screen. He also makes a pleasant Clark Kent. It’s in the costume of the Man of Steel that he’s least convincing, all pillows and padding and too comical by half: the character on the show never appeared so puffy and bloated, even in the last years. Diane Lane is excellent as Toni, both sophisticated and fierce, and though Lemmon remains a rather opaque figure, Robin Tunney fills the bill well enough physically. And while Bob Hoskins can’t do a great deal with Eddie, his mere air of gruff authority is welcome. Even better are Jeffrey DeMunn as Reeves’s supportive if inept agent, Joe Spano as famous MGM fixer Howard Strickling, and Lois Smith as the fragile but determined Bessolo.
One does have to admire the look that “Hollywoodland” achieves on an obviously modest budget. Jonathan Freeman’s cinematography, using washed-out brownish tints, gives the period images an appropriate sheen, the picture gets the clothes and settings mostly right, and it can’t have been easy to assemble so many fifties-model cars in drivable shape; one can even forgive the over-emphasis on the Etch-a-Sketch Simo gets for his kid, given how hard it must have been to find a model in decent condition. But even in this area it doesn’t quite make the grade. Why, for example, is the script in the introduction to “The Adventures of Superman” series altered? To anybody who watched the program the change will destroy the mood of authenticity that’s otherwise decently established.
One leaves “Hollywoodland” with a sense of frustration over an opportunity fumbled. The circumstances surrounding George Reeves’s death are intriguing, but overall the picture doesn’t do the story justice–not just because the script gets some of the details wrong and errs in putting too much emphasis on its fictional detective, but because ultimately Coulter’s staging is too often phlegmatic and imprecise. Though it also had its faults, Paul Schrader’s “Auto Focus,” about the death of “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane, dealt with a similarly sad, violent tinseltown subject more compellingly. By comparison “Hollywoodland” is imbalanced in the narrative department and oddly staid and static in execution, failing to do dramatic justice to a potentially fascinating story.