Superman jumped from the comic books to the TV screen in 1952 with The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, turning him into one of the most iconic superhero actors of all time. Seven years later, the man behind the hero was found dead. 2006’s Hollywoodland depicts an unofficial investigation into what really happened to Reeves (played here by Ben Affleck, who ironically will be trying to kill Superman himself a year from now). With a classic mystery noir feel and an all-star cast, this film aims to tell more about the actor’s life and death than most fans ever knew.
In 1959, the world woke up to the news of the suicide of George Reeves, the iconic actor behind Superman. Children cried, and people tried to make sense of why such a beloved actor would do such a thing. All the same, everyone eventually got on with their lives. Everyone, that is, except for Louis Simo (Adrien Brody).
We meet Simo, a freelance investigator looking to make a quick buck, while he’s working on a case involving a paranoid man’s wife. Frustrated with the entire ordeal, he makes a pit stop to see his son, only to realize how torn up the kid is over the death of his favorite superhero. Simo doesn’t think too much about the story until he meets with an old colleague at a diner. The man suggests there may have been foul play involved, so Simo jumps on the idea, hoping to score a big check from Reeves’s mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith).
Knowing how to slink into places he’s not wanted, Simo ends up in the deceased actor’s home, looking for anything that the cops may have missed. Simo lucks out, and uncovers two bullet holes in the floor and manages to snag a bottle of pills before getting kicked out by the police. He also wheels and deals his way into the morgue where Reeves’s body is being kept, and uncovers a lot of bruising on the deceased star as well as an engraved watch.
Simo’s overactive imagination immediately comes up with a scenario involving Reeves’s fiancée, Leonore (Robin Tunney) drunkenly confronting him with a gun while their friends are downstairs. He imagines a scene where Reeves tries to wrestle the gun from her hands and she accidently shoots him, and in order to cover up the incident, Leonore makes it look like Reeves shot himself.
However, this theory is soon laid to rest when Simo bumps into the grief-stricken Leonore when he sneaks back into Reeves’s home. Although the actress doesn’t defend herself when she’s face to face with Simo, she later calls to let him know all about Reeves’s mother, and her manipulation of her son, thus partially clearing her name in Simo’s mind.
Simo’s case takes another turn as he begins to dig up information on Toni Mannix (Diane Lane, who would later play Superman’s mom), the wife of the general manager of MGM. He soon uncovers a love affair between Mannix and Reeves which earned him many expensive gifts from the rich man’s wife, including the home in which he died.
A flashback reveals that with a lack of other lucrative offers, Reeves reluctantly took a job playing Superman. The job paid the bills, but left Reeves wanting to play more serious roles. And after many years of this, Reeves began to grow tired of Toni not helping his career. During a getaway to New York, he met his future fiancée, leaving Toni furious and heartbroken.
With these details adding to the case, Simo tries everything in his power to get in touch with Toni Mannix. However, Toni’s husband Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) decides to have his brute squad teach Simo a lesson. This leads to Simo coming up with another theory, which is that Eddie had his men kill Reeves.
Burdened by the case and his own personal stress, Simo makes a final stop to see Reeves’s manager, who passes on home movies of the actor. In them, Reeves struggles to pull off some of the moves he once did as Superman. Simo recognizes in his eyes the look of defeat, which leads him to his final theory, which is that Reeves actually just committed suicide. With this, Simo decides to drop the case and concentrate on becoming a better father.
If you haven’t already guessed, Hollywoodland is a period piece that pays homage to the old detective/murder mystery movies of yesteryear. Unfortunately, the central mystery of the film doesn’t leave you trying to solve things yourself, or wondering exactly whodunit. Instead, it’s all pretty bland and feels more like a overblown student film than anything else.
That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t start out strong. At first, the audience is thrown into an intense scene, the death of Reeves. In the first few moments, we got lots of questions: Why did it take the people in the house so long to report the death? Was Reeves really suicidal? However, this is all a mere tease. Once the big event happens, the film slowly turns into a tedious drama full of scenes that mostly feel strung together.
It’s not often that I can say Ben Affleck provides the strongest performance in a film. However, he actually does a pretty good job here. Maybe he was channeling something within himself where he felt his acting career was going down the tubes, much like Reeves—keeping in mind he took on this role only a year or two after Gigli.
Adrien Brody’s character, on the other hand, seemed to have no depth at all. So, he’s an investigator looking to turn a quick buck. Check. He has a disturbed kid and an ex-wife who seems to be alright in the grand scheme of things. Got it. After that, we have no real connection with his character. Brody’s acting seems shut off to the world, and Simo himself could have easily been eliminated in favor of a straightforward telling of Reeves’s life. Especially considering that “Louis Simo” is a totally fictional character invented for the film.
Along the same lines, the movie plays pretty fast and loose with the facts of Reeves’s career. Reeves had a small role in From Here to Eternity, and the movie implies he was cut from the film after preview audiences laughed and yelled out, “There’s Superman!”—but in reality, the movie had no preview screenings, and Reeves is still in it. The movie also implies Reeves was ecstatic over the cancellation of Adventures of Superman at the time of his death, when he had actually already signed on to do two more seasons.
And of course, we get a scene where Reeves performs as Superman for a group of children, and one boy, believing Reeves really is bulletproof, points a loaded gun at him. This is a pretty well-known story, but it probably never happened, and is most likely a story Reeves made up so he wouldn’t have to wear the Superman costume in public anymore.
Hollywoodland does a fairly good job at portraying the ups and downs of the life of George Reeves, and molding him into a tragic figure, and someone who just couldn’t get back up and grew old while waiting for his time in the spotlight, when in fact, he had a pretty good gig going. I think the different aspects of the film really added more depth to Reeves and to the legend behind his death. It made it far more interesting than just hearing a pro or con story about the actor’s life.
So, if you’re sitting around on a Saturday night thinking about the old Superman episodes, then this film just may strike your fancy. However, if you’d like a mystery film that’s going to leave you on the edge of your seat, you’re better off passing on this one. It’s a nice, introspective piece on the life and death of Reeves, but not much more. Ultimately, Hollywoodland will probably only be remembered for the novelty of Ben Affleck playing Superman years before he played Batman.