Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Adrien Brody, Diane
Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney, Lois Smith
Director: Allen Coulter
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Focus Features
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: February 6, 2007
“I can see the pieces. How they should fit. How I want them to fit…but I can’t.”
When did the backlash against Ben Affleck really begin? I think it was about the time the trailer for Changing Lanes came out, boasting its cast included “Oscar WINNER Ben Affleck” and “Oscar NOMINEE Samuel L. Jackson”. Movie fans protested it as misleading…true, Affleck won the statuette, but not for acting…it was for co-writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting. Was the studio trying to tout Affleck as a more acclaimed actor than Jackson?
Maybe that was only part of it, but for whatever reason, Affleck became the man critics loved to hate. But now, with his superb turn as George Reeves in Hollywoodland, critics are forced to give him his due, however begrudgingly. Now Affleck may just be the man they hate to love instead.
Affleck leads a truly terrific cast in this tale of Hollywood in 1959, which was the year George Reeves departed this world by what many believed was suicide, but others were convinced was foul play. Reeves had been in the game a long time, with his first paid movie role a biggie, starring as one of the Tarleton boys in Gone With the Wind. He would earn most of his fame later, playing Superman on television, and spent his remaining years trying to shake that image.
His death brings the involvement of private eye Louis Simo (Brody, an Oscar winner, and not for screenplay). Simo is a fictional composite of actual investigators of the day, and like Reeves, there seems to be a huge difference between the role he wants to play and the one he’s been given. He acts like a noir cop, but seeks the glamour more than the results. As fellow disrespecting PIs point out to him, his true job is to keep things OUT of the paper, not to get himself INTO one.
As Simo roots through the clues, we see Reeves’ life in mostly flashback form. His story really begins when he meets Toni Mannix (Lane, an Oscar nominee, and not for screenplay), the older wife of MGM studio boss Henry Mannix (Hoskins, an Oscar nominee, and not for screenplay). Toni and Henry both have open infidelities, and Toni turns George into a kept man, providing him with everything he ever dreamed up, except that elusive super-stardom.
Reeves fortune changes, for better or worse, when he gets offered a silly role, playing the Man of Steel for a little black and white TV show that doesn’t even have a sponsor. Thinking at first it will be an easy paycheck, the show becomes a hit, especially with kids, and the fandom becomes bizarre in a tense scene where Reeves has to play Superman for real facing one of his youngest admirers.
Reeves, as he aged, took up with the much younger Leonore Lemmon (Tunney), jilting the possessive Toni. Were George and Leonore supposed to wed? Depends on who you ask. But there’s George, trying to salvage a career, losing his famed good looks, and getting only a professional wrestling offer, while dealing with two lovers.
So what was the end result? Murder or suicide? The question has never really been answered, and the movie doesn’t pretend to know. It successfully argues a few different scenarios, including the concluded one that Reeves ended his own life, and each one is convincing enough to make you think, “that could have been it.”
As a period piece, Hollywoodland is unique in that it strives painfully for authentic touches and then more or less ignores them, as though the film really were shot in 1959 and not just designed to look like it does. The cars are all right, but not with the factory showroom finish you tend to see in most 50s movies. The art and décor are exact, but pushed into the background. The story and characters are in the forefront…credit director Allen Coulter and his production team for knowing exactly the way to make the picture work.
It lets you focus on the performances, all of which are top notch. Brody is as capable as ever as the private eye who ends up taking as close a look at his own failed life as he does Reeves, and Lane is startling as the lovely lass whose lines are starting to show. Hoskins is one of the most consistently excellent actors around, and a man who knows how to make the most of a supporting role, lending weight to the elderly studio head who’s seeing his time pass before his eyes.
But it all comes back to Affleck, who embodies George Reeves so perfectly you tend to forget it’s not the real thing. Charming, funny, and yet ultimately tragic, Big Ben should have scored a nomination for his revealing work. The only question is, would he have then preferred to be billed in the future as “Oscar nominee” or “Oscar winner”? For me and my comrade in arms at DMC Gordon, he’ll probably always be “Mallrats’ Ben Affleck”. But there it is.
I can’t say this movie is quite at the level of L.A. Confidential, which captured the look and feel of Hollywood noir like no other and forever raised the bar, but it’s pretty close. Solid and entertaining, with a great cast and sure-handed direction, Hollywoodland is just about all you could ask for from a movie.
BONUS TRIVIA: The film depicts a scenario where George Reeves' role in From Here to Eternity was cut way down after preview audiences recognized him as Superman. The film's producers have always protested that never happened, and that every line written for Reeves' character was filmed and used in the movie. Fact or fiction? You be the judge.
The most interesting aspect of the film’s look is how un-artificial it is compared with most 50s period pieces. As mentioned, Coulter strived for a look that was completely natural and not Technicolor. As such, the colors don’t jump off the screen the way you would expect, but this anamorphic transfer captures just what the director intended, and the choice was ultimately the correct one.
The film is mostly driven by dialogue, so you don’t get many demands on your rear channels or your subwoofer. A few touches of music add to the authenticity, but overall, the 5.1 track is exactly as good as it needs to be and nothing more.
Allen Coulter offers a solidly insightful commentary track on the disc, which delves into his thought processes and how he envisioned both Reeves and Simo and the sunny yet shady world they occupied. There are also three featurettes on the making of the film, the look of old Hollywood, and its re-creation, plus a 5 minute compilation of deleted scenes (you can’t select them individually).
Three cheers for Hollywoodland, the movie that looks at one of Tinseltown’s most notorious unsolved mysteries and will probably solve at least one for many fans who have wondered why Ben Affleck is a star. He proves his mettle once and for all with his funny and touching portrayal of the enigmatic George Reeves. Recommended.