What would make me feel safe is not prancing around in a monkey suit in front of 8,000 kids.
—George Reeves (Ben Affleck)
Near the end of Hollywoodland, someone watches a home movie of George Reeves (Ben Affleck). The image is projected onto a screen, and, per all home-made films of the 1950s, it’s grainy, with slightly jerky motion and faded color. Reeves is performing in a white karate uniform, against a green-grassed backyard, showing his skills, such as they are. His face is small in the frame, but intent, concentrated on his orchestration of moves: he poses, chops, tumbles. He looks comic, but also, since this clip comes at the end of a two-hour investigation into his death by a gunshot to the head, also tragic.
Context is everything in Hollywoodland. The title alludes to the fantasy realm in which Reeves (and, by implication, all other aspiring stars, made or unmade) endeavored to make his name. His career, as the film has it, simultaneously exploded and stalled when he took on his most famous role as Superman on television. Though Reeves wanted to be a movie star, as if this is somehow more meaningful and significant, he ended up a tv personage, fake-pec-ed and beloved by children, such that he felt demeaned by his so-called peers, deemed un-serious and trivial. While such crossing from movies to tv (or stage, music or politics) is more common, even expected for working actors. But here, Reeves is despondent for a number of reasons, and appears to have killed himself in 1959.
The movie offers up an investigation of the death—revealed in bloody aftermath and even replayed a couple of times during the film, in different configurations, including suicide, accident, and assault by vengeful lover—conducted by another L.A. wannabe, the (fictional) private dick Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). Though he’s hired by Reeves’ apparently angry mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), Simo soon makes the case personal. He’s down on his own luck, fired by one firm and now on his own, engaged in the sort of depressing, voyeuristic “matrimonial work” that Chinatown‘s Jake Gittes called his “métier.”
The Reeves case looks different, though it also involves adultery and meanness. As the flashbacks that make up the bulk of Hollywoodland reveal, Reeves was immersed in a longtime relationship (since 1951) with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), ex-showgirl and unhappy wife of thuggish MGM executive Edward J. Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Early on, Simo discovers a lighter she had given Reeves, inscribed “Mad about the boy,” in case you need to be reminded of the similarities between Reeves’ relationship with an older woman and the equally violent-ended relationship depicted in Sunset Boulevard. As fiction and not, the romance that structures Hollywood and Hollywoodland is awful, at once seductive and deceptive. Reeves is initially flattered by the attentions of his wealthy paramour, then comes to understand her as jealous and demanding, and perhaps a cause of his non-career.
Lane’s Toni isn’t ferocious or wicked like Norma Desmond, though she does age over the course of her film, appearing in wrinkle makeup by the end, making her unsuitability for Reeves more pronounced. She and her husband have something of an arrangement (he sleeps with young Asian women who don’t speak English, at one point joining Toni and Reeves for a bizarre “double date”), but their marriage is ugly, mean-spirited and vengeful. Even as Reeves also ages, becoming bloated with drink and cigarettes, he picks up a woman closer to his own age, the gold-digging Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), whose name sounds like she lives in Metropolis and who encourages him to move away from La-La-land in order to pursue other sorts of work, producing and even writing. Or not. The cleavage-baring, gum-snapping Leonore is hardly a devoted supporter of her man, except as he can show her good times, and so her status as “suspect” in one of Simo’s scenarios seems plausible.
These scenarios are fed by Simo’s considerations of the crime scene (extra bullet holes in the floor, lackadaisical efforts by the local detectives) as well as his own imagination. Recently estranged from his own wife Laurie (Molly Parker) and young, hero-seeking son (Zach Mills), Simo appreciates the need for Superman, as concept and icon, and even a kind of role model. He wants to do right by the “American Way,” and wants to make his own name, beyond the dismal cases now his purview (when a case that he’s more or less abandoned in order to focus on Reeves goes brutally wrong, Simo takes it as one more sign of his personal failures).
Given his own context and upset by the headline that has announced Reeves’ death—“Superman Kills Self”—Simo decides to pursue the case in the papers. He convinces Helen she needs her own headline, “only with the truth,” to “shove it in their faces” that industry callousness and scheming have killed her son. Simo wants to show that Reeves is symptomatic rather than deviant or individually incapable. In other words, the detective sees himself in Reeves. He establishes his own rapid-patter relationship with the press to cast aspersions on the glittery surfaces that elude him as much as they eluded Superman, whose most famous big screen role was an orange-haired suitor for 1939’s Scarlett O’Hara.
The questions posed by Hollywoodland are perennial and endlessly interesting, both trivialized and enhanced by Simo’s own sense of tragedy: he’s as self-inflating and lost as Reeves, his heroism as flimsy and sad. When he watches Reeves’ homemade karate film, Simo’s eyes soften. He recognizes in Reeves’ pathetically gallant figure a certain desperation and self-delusion, as well as a childish faith. He can “make it,” if only he’s earnest and devoted enough.
But the trouble, according to Hollywoodland, is that there is no “enough.” There’s only luck and connections, as well as brute force (Mannix appears here as a literal gangster, quite capable of murder as a standard means of doing business. His presumption and power make would-have-been heroes like Reeves and Simo irrelevant, along with the women who want to love them. As much as it gestures toward unpacking myths and deceptions, Hollywoodland remains rather mired in a conventional moral scheme. Superman was done in by a system designed to do him in… and then remake him in multiple, repeatedly lucrative forms.