August 24, 2020
Street Date 8/25/20;
Rated ‘R’ for language, some violence and sexual content.
Stars Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney, Kathleen Robertson, Lois Smith, Caroline Dhavernas, Molly Parker, Zach Mills, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Spano.
Given how much the current entertainment landscape is dominated by superhero movies and TV shows, it’s easy to forget the genre only came into prominence in the last 20 years or so. Even when Hollywoodland first hit theaters in 2006, the era of the superhero movie was just in its infancy, and still two years away from the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So, looking at Hollywoodland now, it’s hard not to see the film as a fascinating time capsule of a time when comic book fare was considered kids’ stuff, and actors decried being too closely associated with a single character.
Hollywoodland delves into the story of George Reeves, the actor best known for playing Superman on TV in the 1950s who died under mysterious circumstances from a gunshot wound to the head in 1959. Officials ruled it a suicide, but there were enough shenanigans surrounding his life that the specifics of his death have sparked numerous conspiracy theories that linger on to this day.
Rather than adopt a strict biopic or docudrama approach, Hollywoodland frames Reeves’ story as a case taken on by a hotheaded (and completely fictional) private investigator named Louis Simo, played with smarmy aplomb by Adrien Brody. Simo is hired on by Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith), who doesn’t buy the official reports. So Simo dips his toes into the waters of 1950s Hollywood to uncover the seedier aspects of show business, with Reeves’ story told in flashback.
Reeves (Ben Affleck) dreaded the prospect of playing Superman on a show for kids, but he needed the money. Like most actors, he dreamed of a career in pursuit of serious art, but after a bit role in Gone With the Wind he mostly struggled to get noticed on the big screen. Superman made him a star, and he seemed to hate every minute of it, particularly during a disastrous screening of From Here to Eternity in which the audience can’t help but yell Superman catch-phrases at the screen every time Reeves appears.
To top it off, Reeves finds himself wilting as the kept boy-toy of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of notorious MGM honcho Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). He doesn’t seem to mind her tryst, however, seeing as how he accompanies them on a double-date with his own mistress. But Toni also doesn’t use her connections to help Reeves advance his career, furthering some resentment.
So the questions arise over how Reeves was shot. Did Eddie order it, to protect his wife? Was in an accident during an argument between Reeves and his fiancée (Robin Tunney)? Or did Reeves, in pain from years of nagging injuries and emotionally drained from the stress of his career, simply put a gun to his head?
The screenplay bounced around in the early 2000s until landing at Focus Features (indie arm of Universal). During production, it was known as Truth, Justice, and the American Way, a phrase so connected to Superman that it’s hardly surprising Warner Bros., which controls the film rights to the DC characters, would make Focus change it to something more generic, which likely dampened the film’s box office fortunes. Further, with Warner releasing Superman Returns in 2006, Hollywoodland was forbidden from even using the Superman logo in marketing the film — leading to the shot in the trailer (also included on the Blu-ray) of Affleck looking at himself in costume in the mirror with a chest noticeably missing the iconic ‘S.’ Superman imagery was allowed in the final film however, though the filmmakers had to re-create the famous opening sequence to the TV show as Warner wouldn’t license it to them.
Another scene depicts the likely apocryphal story of a child approaching an in-costume Reeves at a promotional event and asking if he can shoot him with a gun to watch the bullets bounce off. Played as a tense moment in the film, the screenplay ingeniously manages to connect it to the larger plot. But the scene is also memorable for its sense of whimsy in how it adopts the anything-goes imagination mashup that was classic Hollywood — Reeves is performing for kids as Superman at a Wild West stunt show, stopping a pair of bank robbers of the type he would never find himself fighting in the comics.
The use of the film noir structure, another homage to classic Hollywood, sets Simo up as a mirror to Reeves, reflecting on his own career as he untangles the fate of his case subject. As noted in a newly recorded commentary track by entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman, What emerges is the parallel story of two men striving to become more than what anyone around them is willing for them to be, and struggling to take stock of the things in their lives actually worth living for.
Reesman also finds a lot of interesting contrasts between Reeves and Affleck, who unlike the man he’s playing had no problem stepping into the realm of comic book heroics. Affleck had played the title character in Daredevil in 2003, but the film was too poorly received to blossom into the franchise that perhaps the actor expected it too when he signed on.
But Hollywoodland also came at the tail end of the first phase of Affleck’s career, with audiences tuning out as he appeared in a string of brainless actioners and tepid comedies (including the infamous Gigli). Hollywoodland represented something of the first step of a reinvention, as he wanted to demonstrate he could handle more serious fare, and, indeed, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, in addition to wins at the Saturn Awards and Venice Film Festival, among a slew of accolades.
The next year, Affleck would make his feature directorial debut with 2007’s acclaimed Gone Baby Gone, following up with 2010’s The Town and 2012’s Best Picture Oscar winner Argo (for which Affleck was snubbed for an Academy directing nomination after winning the DGA trophy). The career boost would culminate in his casting as Batman for 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and a couple subsequent DC films. Given his scenes as Reeves making and promoting the “Adventures of Superman” TV series, Affleck would probably be the only person to wear both the Superman and Batman costumes on the big screen. He’d also reunite with Diane Lane in BvS, where she would play, of all people, Superman’s mother.
While Hollywoodland wasn’t much of a financial performer upon its release, it’s still fondly remembered for its cast and subject matter, particularly among fans of superhero movies.
In addition to the interesting Reesman voiceover, the Blu-ray also carries over all the extras from Universal’s old DVD release of the film, including an informative commentary by director Allen Coulter, three featurettes and a handful of mostly unremarkable deleted scenes.