The tragedy of George Reeves' life, according to the badly-titled new film Hollywoodland, is not that he failed to parlay his small role in Gone with the Wind into a bankable film career. It's that, following rejection, he demeaned himself by turning to television. "Take the job. Cash the check," his sweaty agent tells him, and with head hung low, Reeves heads off to a shades-drawn casting office from which we expect to see a woman come running, holding her top on. He is offered the lead role in a silly kids' show about an alien with a bulletproof torso who pranks everyone into thinking he's a human named Clark Kent. Smelling disaster, Reeves, played by a bulky and subdued Ben Affleck, puts up a small fight. "I see myself as more of a villain," he mutters. But it's too late. They have their mark. He's quickly fitted into Superman's traditional gay matador-looking outfit -- stone-gray, instead of blue and red, since there's no need to waste on color -- and pushed in front of a nation of cowboy-hatted children. To his horror, they fall in love with him.
Hollywoodland seems giddy over the fact that it's beaten James Ellroy to the punch on a story that would fit snugly into his peek-under-the-skirt-of-post-war-L.A. milieu. That special gin of seediness and sadness that abounds in Ellroy's L.A. Quartet has been mixed with care here, and it fills every nook and cranny of the movie's L.A., from the dysfunctional suburban outliers to the simmering streets of inner Hollywood. It's a town where everyone you meet has "contents under pressure" stamped on their forehead. The pool in the center of a cheap, wrap-around motel seems built for drowning someone in. The only person standing near it is a man with a tangerine-colored tan, grimacing as he lifts weights alone in the hot sun. Inside one of the motel's rooms is Louis Simo, who's having an impenetrable three-way conversation with a man in a suit and a young lady. Simo, it turns out, is exactly the kind of private dick who meets strangers in low-rent motels like this one, to pour out and pick through their dirty laundry.
As played by Adrien Brody, Simo is a man too busy juggling his life to work up much sympathy for the George Reeveses of the world, but he sees dollar signs when Reeves' mother comes rolling in, offering cash money for a useless investigation into her son's suicide. Her theory is that George could never have killed himself because stars don't do that. "They're going to build a statue to George, outside the Chinese theater," she tells Simo. As the detective begins to earn his money by nosing around, director Allen Coulter complicates the film's structure by introducing a half-heartedly constructed Rashomon turntable into the mix. We're spun repeatedly back in time to a memory-catching moment when Reeves sings a sad Mexican ballad in his living room to a few friends. When he finishes the song, the story branches out three ways: Reeves walks upstairs and either shoots himself in the temple, is accidentally shot by his unstable girlfriend, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), who only wanted his attention, or is pounced on by a hitman crouching in the dark.
Had Ellroy actually written this work, the hitman angle would sing. By the time it was over, we'd be convinced that some kind of foul lurker had popped out at Reeves because of something to do with a child pornography ring or cops taking graft or hookers cut to look like movie stars. Unfortunately, Coulter seems to have nothing to sell us. He pins his hopes entirely on Bob Hoskins, who is assigned the part of studio bigwig and possible mobster Eddie Mannix. Hoskins knows how to easily slip into his poisonous tree-frog thing by now, and he does it here, but to little effect. His only apparent motivation is that Reeves is banging his 40-something wife, Toni, played nicely by Diane Lane as a Stanwyck-style vamp who has calculated that she has exactly seven years left before the bottom drops out of her looks. There's a nice scene in which Mr. and Mrs. Mannix invite their respective lovers to a four-way dinner. They have no use for pedestrian secrets.
Reeves, like the actor who plays him, ultimately comes across as a man buoyed by a feeling that he's a lucky fellow, and if he can just keep himself anchored to the right spot, that lucky streak will kick in again. "We gotta cook something up for me," is the only timid instruction he gives his agent when things start to look bleak. Unfortunately, luck doesn't kick in. The Superman television show becomes more popular than anyone could have imagined, resulting in season after grueling season, as well as personal appearances in front of hordes of slobber-faced brats. A tug on a belt of booze becomes necessary before one such appearance. "You can't see my penis, can you?" he casually remarks to no one in particular while making a Herculean effort to stand up. Puffing out his chest, he strides out to do his bit, only to be approached by a kid brandishing an obviously-real revolver that he's picked up God knows where. He just wants to bounce a few bullets off of Superman's chest, that's all.
This kind of thing is just sad enough that they probably didn't make it up. From the look on Reeves' face, the kid may have given him just the idea he'd been looking for -- like most of the film's resonant moments, this one points a finger directly at Reeves himself as being the upstairs trigger man. The sheer fact that a Hollywood movie can't crowbar a reasonable doubt into the official explanation of Reeves' death suggests, to me anyway, that suicide was the only reasonable explanation ever offered. It's unfortunate that Hollywoodland can't resist opening the floodgates to decades of flakey conspiracy theories, which become a distracting drain on our sympathies for the man and his predicament, as well as a waste of time since there's barely any smoke there, let alone fire. This was a suicide, folks. I think the film gives away the whole game at one point, with a throwaway moment: It shows us that George Reeves was a man who could maintain a mope even as Rita Hayworth (Veronica Watt) sauntered near his table. What more evidence do we need?
For more on Hollywoodland, see Karina Longworth's Netscape at the Movies video review of the film.