Hollywoodland: Inspired by Life of George Reeves, Played by Ben Affleck, C0-Starring Diane Lane

Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland is a darkly humorous film noir that explores issues of fame and identity, success and failure, as inspired by the life of actor George Reeves, whose 1959 death remains one of Hollywood’s most infamous real-life mysteries five decades later.

Set in Los Angeles, for the most part in the 1950s, “Hollywoodland” is a period film noir that echoes such recent L.A.-based noirs as Curtin Hanson’s superior “L.A Confidential” (1997) and the recent Colin Farrell veichle, “Ask the Dust.” As such, it tackles the quintessentially noir themes of love and trust, lust and betrayal, hope and disillusionment, this time around within the movie industry, America’s dream factory at a crucial phase, the last decade in which it maintained its preeminent position.

Intriguing in its speculative investigation of the circumstances in which Reeves (best known as TV’s “Superman”) dies, the movie features a strong performance from cast-against-type Adrien Brody as the down-on-his luck private eye, a shining one Diane Lane as the adulterous, aging wife of MGM’s Eddie Mannix, and a surprisingly touching turn from Ben Affleck as Reeves, a role that enables him to act after a long dry season of poor and inconsequential work.

While the multi-layered storytelling is compelling, the film lacks a sharp vision and visual style. The former problem could be a function of juggling several time-frames–as soon as you get involved in Brody’s contempo story, the yarns shifts to Affleck’s past, and vice versa, in a way that becomee tiresome. The latter problem may be a result of budgetary constraints and also lack of experience on the filmmaker’s part. Thus, “Hollywoodland” is an impressive first (emphasis on first) feature, representing the directorial debut for Allen Coulter (Emmy and DGA Award nominee for “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City”).

Even more problematic is the film’s soupy ending which, for obvious reasons, can’t be told here. However, suffice is to say that it negates the more cynical and downbeat tone that defines most of the narrative.

The saga begins on June 16, 1959, when the promising and alluring glamour of Tinseltown fades for actor George Reeves, the heroic Man of Steel on TVs “Adventures of Superman,” as the actor dies in his Hollywood Hills home. Felled by a single gunshot wound, Reeves (Affleck) leaves behind a fiance, aspiring starlet Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), and millions of fans shocked by his death.

Reeves’ grieving mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) would not let the questionable circumstances surrounding his demise go unaddressed. She claims that her son is a good man, honest citizen, and a “serious” legit actor. Is Helen nave or just trying to protect her son’s reputation and her family’s integrity Helen seeks justice, or at least some answers to the mystery. When the LAPD closes the case, Helen hires, for $50 a day, private detective Louis Simo (Brody).

Snooping around, while trying to resolve another case, Simo soon suspects that the torrid illicit affair Reeves had with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), might hold the key to the truth.

Who killed, or is responsible for, Reeves’ untimely death Adopting a “Rashomon”-like approach, the film offers three alternative speculations, each recreated on screen from Simo’s POV as soon as he has enough clues to put the theory together.

Three particular theories prevail: (1) The official version, that Reeves committed suicide; (2) Reeves was shot either on purpose or accidentally by his fiance Leonore Lemmon, a party girl with her own agenda, who may or may not have been aware of his real intentions toward her; (3) He was murdered on orders from Eddie Mannix due to his affair with the latter’s wife and the affair’s remification. The filmmakers dramatize each of these theories, giving each enough factual credibility to hold our interest and attention.

As always in noir, truth and justice are at best elusive qualities, particularly when the context is that of Hollywood, an industry devoted to manufacturing dreams with which it manipulates both its movie stars and the large, more innocent public of moviegoers.

Simo pursues dangerous and elusive leads in high as well low places, following the path that Jack Nicholson’s Gittes took in the early chapters of “Chinatown.” In trying to turn up the heat, and get his name and the case on the front pages of the media, Simo risks getting burned. In due process, the detective also uncovers unexpected connections to his own life, when the case turns more personal than he had expected and he learns more about Reeves himself.

The film’s other case Simon tries to crack bears resemblance to the premise of “Chinatown,” except that here, it’s a married man who suspects that his wife is cheating on him. When this case ends disastrously, Simo, feeling guilty and even responsible, becomes even more obsessively dedicated to unraveling Reeves’ enigma.

Though the lead character is Simo, the tale jumps back and forth between his story, particularly his troubled relationship with his son and estranged wife (now dating another man), and Reeves’ rise and fall yarn, framed by his affair with Toni Mannix, the older “Other” woman who backs him financially, affording him a luxurious life in return for sexual services and perhaps even love.

Despite being notoriously unresolved, the Reeves case is so well-documented that screenwriter Paul Bernbaum is able to use equal parts factual research and inspiration to craft his original, often intriguing text, which captures an interesting era in Hollywood and American society at large.

For example, in today’s media climate, it’s unlikely that the longtime affair between Reeves and Toni would remain protected and uncovered–in the films, it comes across as an open secret. To protect his wife from depression, since he can’t divorce her, for a while Mannix has vested interest in the continuity of the affair.

It’s shocking to realize how these two go about their business openly, not only with the tacit support of Eddie (played like a Jewish gangster by Hoskins), who has his own Japanese mistress (who doesn’t speak one word of English), but also protected by the numerous execs of MGM, chief among them Howard Strickling, the studio’s powerful and ominous head of publicity who’s in charge of damage control.

If the mystery, which occupies the central story, is well-handled with intriguing suspense and moral ambiguity, the personal and family story of Simo take a mnore conventionally melodramatic turn. (They also make clear why noir has a genre is notoriously marked by the absence of children from the plot). It’s in these scenes that the movie is often weak and occasionally even sappy.

That said, through the story of Simo’s alienated son, who’s devastated by Reeves’ death, we get a glimpse of the meaning of TV’s Superman for millions of American kids, glued to the set when the show, first in black-and-white, is broadcast. Coulter reconstructs with fond affection the popularity of the show at a crucial time in American pop culture, when the movie industry begins to lose its hegemony as the primary mode of entertainment.

“Hollywoodland” offers a darker version of the period than usually seen in films. The sense of traditional formality and innocence give way to a more modernist and casual approach, reflected in various elements: entertainment, fashion, and architecture.

Visually, the cinematographer and production designer impressively create different looks for the saga’s two time periods. The camera is more formal and restrained in showing Reeves Hollywood, with more saturated color, whereas in Simos Hollywood, the color seems to have been bleached away by the harshness of California’s intense sun. The Hollywood in which Simon resides is increasingly characterized by informality, physical and otherwise.

This is also expressed by the film’s music and sound. If Reeves world is depicted through live bands playing standards and jazz in clubs and restaurants, Simos is shaped by radios, record players, and jukeboxes playing rock-and-roll.

“Hollywoodland” attempts to combine two contradictory elements; the air of nostalgia and the emphatic nature of the here and now, and also the more universal and relevant challenges and self-discovery that Reeves and Simo face. Reeves’ nave and self-delusionary dreams of stardom and Simo’s drive to be a player, or “somebody,” are well-depicted.

The phrase Hollywoodland, from which the movie takes its title, was the original lettering on the world-famous Hollywood Sign. These letters were later nipped-and-tucked to Hollywood as the towns world-famous image evolved.