Thursday, August 14, 2008

And The American Way

2006's HOLLYWOODLAND purports to tell the tragic story of actor George Reeves, whose gunshot death in 1959 was ruled a suicide by Los Angeles County authorities. However, Reeves' death has been shrouded in mystery for nearly half a century, and, to this day, there are those who believe the actor's death was accidental or even murder.

Reeves, who began his film career in 1939 as one of the Tarleton twins in GONE WITH THE WIND, became a television legend, due to his starring role in the syndicated kids adventure series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which ran 104 episodes in the 1950s, and has not only been rerun in perpetuity since, but is also now available on DVD. During his SUPERMAN period, Reeves' companion was a slightly older woman named Toni Mannix, who was the wife of Eddie Mannix, the vice president of MGM. Toni's affair with Reeves was an open secret, though Mannix's alleged underworld connections give credence to theories that either he killed Reeves for dating his wife or that Toni did out of jealousy after George left her for a younger woman that he apparently planned to marry.

HOLLYWOODLAND, the feature debut of television director Allen Coulter (THE SOPRANOS), tells its story through the eyes and the prominent proboscis of private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). At first, I thought the film was going to take the CITIZEN KANE path and use Simo as Welles did William Alland's reporter, interviewing those who knew Reeves and then flashing back to periods of the SUPERMAN star's life. It should have.

Unfortunately, Coulter spends too much time with Simo's domestic problems. I couldn't care less about Simo's son's depression over his TV hero's death, his fights with his ex-wife, or his alternate job taking pictures of a cuckolded husband's wife. None of this has anything to do with George Reeves or good drama, for that matter. Somehow, I get the impression that Coulter and his screenwriter believed they were making a film about a down-and-out detective and not one of Hollywood's most intriguing mysteries.
George Reeves is essayed by a miscast Ben Affleck, who admittedly gets Reeves' voice down, but neither looks like the star nor duplicates the charisma that made him a hero to millions of children. Better is Diane Lane as Toni Mannix, with Bob Hoskins as her husband. Production values are solid, considering the low budget, though the film does feature more than its fair share of historical inaccuracies (such as a mention of Esso stations, which didn't exist in L.A. during the '50s). Warner Brothers forbade Coulter to use clips from THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, forcing the director to re-create the opening titles using a soundalike score. Reportedly, Warners also forbade Focus Features and Miramax from using Superman's eminent "S" logo in HOLLYWOODLAND's marketing, though it does appear on Affleck's chest in the film.

Reeves, I don't think, comes across well in HOLLYWOODLAND. Setting aside his long-term relationship with a married woman, he is portrayed by Affleck as charming (as best Affleck can, I suppose), but also shallow, desperate and ashamed of his Superman fame. I think the worst tragedy surrounding Reeves' death, at least if HOLLYWOODLAND can be believed, is that he was either never aware or never proud of the joy that he brought to so many people. THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, while cheaply produced from overly puerile scripts, remains a joy to watch more than fifty years later, and that's mainly due to the twinkling charm of George Reeves, whose Superman was stern but fair with criminals and a friend to those in need. It is a tremendous shame that he was unable to enjoy bringing so much pleasure to so many, young and old.

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