Out of the many tragic deaths that litter Hollywood history, none stand out more tragically and ironically than that of George Reeves, who had achieved his greatest fame for portraying the comic book superhero Superman in the hugely popular 1950s television series. When his death was ruled a suicide, millions of children and parents were left to grapple with the reality of television’s Man of Steel purportedly putting a bullet into his head.
Based in part of the book Hollywood Kryptonite, Hollywoodland is an examination of Reeves’s death on the part of a down on his heels private investigator (Adrian Brody) named Louis Simo. Although Brody’s private investigator is a composite of a few real life personages and his own character arc fabricated for the film, all the evidence he investigates is factual. As Simo investigates Reeves’ death at the behest of his mother (Lois Smith), the film flashes back through Reeves’ life, revealing a man who is not as squeaky clean as his television persona. A struggling actor whose best role, a small speaking part in Gone With The Wind, is definitely in his past, Reeves (Ben Affleck) still moved through Hollywood trying to make the right connection to re-energize his career. A chance encounter in a swank dinner club leads Reeves to taking up a relationship with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive and pitbull Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Reeves soon finds his career re-invigorated when, through no help from Toni and much to his own dismay, he is cast as Superman in a low-budget television series no one expected to succeed. But it soon becomes apparent that his success is a trap. While Reeves is on a business trip to New York City to secure support for a career transition to producing and directing, he meets and quickly becomes engaged to the gold-digging Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), a turn of events that does not sit well with Toni. But what in this story is relevant to Reeves’ death is what Simo is having trouble determining.
While Affleck may not be the spitting image of Reeves, he does come close when decked out in Reeves’ Clark Kent costuming. He also manages to bring a certain combination of charm and layered intensity to the role, rising to the script’s complex portrait of Reeves as a down on his professional luck actor who could still move through legendary Hollywood high society hot spot like famed Ciro’s with suave aplomb to the subtle blend of desperation and resignation in his eyes as he sits in the waiting room outside of the Superman auditions.
On a separate level, Hollywoodland is also the story about the dying days of the studio system. The iron grip that studio moguls held on both the public and private lives of their stars was slipping, no matter how much tighter they squeezed. Studio chiefs like Hoskins’ Mannix tolerated their stars’ peccadilloes and infidelities, so long as they never became public and threatened their studio’s profit statements.
Interestingly, Hollywoodland parallels another film that attempts to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of another beloved American- Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Both Reeves as Superman and President Kennedy were looked up to and idolized by millions of who saw them as emblematic of the American Dream, whose tragic and unexpected deaths shattered those admirers innocence and left just enough unanswered questions to fuel conspiracy theorists for the decades that followed. Like Costner’s dogged District Attorney in JFK, Brody’s private investigator examines the various theories surrounding Reeves’ death. The film gives us four suspects- Eddie Mannix, his wife and Reeves’ mistress Toni, Reeves’ fiancé Leonore Lemmon and Reeves himself. But much like Brody’s investigator, we are left wondering what happened that hot June night in 1959 Los Angeles.
But no matter what the circumstances of his death may be, Hollywoodland remains the story of an actor who, much like his most famous role, tried to fly up to touch the sky, but instead tragically fell to Earth.