Look up in the sky! It’s one of two Hollywood murder mysteries that came out in the first half of September. The other was the Brian de Palma film “The Black Dahlia”, which suffered from a lukewarm reception at the Venice Film Festival and an even worse welcome from American critics. Which is why I opted for “Hollywoodland”, the true story of the mysterious death of 1950’s TV Superman George Reeves.
In real life, the police ruled George Reeve’s death a suicide. However, rumors started to fly that there may have been some foul play. To this day, it is not known for sure what really happened, and that is how the film approaches it. The film takes its time, pausing to examine each detail instead of racing and building toward a grand conclusion that assembles all the miniscule facts, a la “The Usual Suspects.”
It is this patience that gives the film its strength. There are a lot of factors to consider, many eyes to see through, and director Allen Coulter deftly handles them all, showing them through the eyes of private investigator Louis Simo, played by Adrien Brody. He starts out with a tip from a former partner, and slowly uncovers connections between Reeves and a studio mogul’s wife, played by Diane Lane. Her husband, played by Bob Hoskins, has a definite motive for murder, as does Reeve’s jilted fiance.
The film plays through each of the scenarios and also shows the suicide that the police envisioned. It ends without any single explanation being favored. The point of the film is the impact of the death on the people Reeves knew and the American people. What should a child think about a world in which Superman kills himself?
Besides the investigation, the film is also a look at the nature of working in Hollywood, being a star, and failing to achieve your dreams. Reeves was never a star, and despite being involved in such films as “Gone with the Wind” and “From Here to Eternity”, still remains in obscurity in spite of the Superman role. It is this part of the film that delivered the biggest surprise.
I’ve never really been a fan of Ben Affleck. Then I heard about him winning the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for this film, and I knew I had to see for myself. And the rumors are true; he really does an excellent job. He brings a surprising amount of emotion and poignancy to the role of George Reeves. Though the character exists only in flashbacks, Affleck manages to maintain a great presence in the film, turning Reeve’s death into a human tragedy that is just as compelling as any amount of mystery and intrigue can garner.
This is a film with a lot of layers, and a surprising amount of pathos. Coulter’s direction manages to handle all of the strong wills that come with a story set in Hollywood and still focus on the main tragedy of the story: that sometimes people die without ever achieving their dreams. That sometimes even Superman can fail.