Hollywoodland

One long-standing axiom of Hollywood mythology is that even an otherwise forgettable celebrity can sustain public interest by dying young or mysteriously. The actor George Reeves, who played Superman on television, may not have been a spring chicken by Hollywood standards when he died at 45 in 1959, but his demise was fertile with mythmaking mystery. The cause of Reeves’ death was clear enough—one gunshot wound to the head—but the reason for it, and the party responsible, less so. Hence: Hollywoodland.

The trailer calls it “Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved mystery,” and that too may be subject to debate (certainly by the makers of The Black Dahlia, in theaters at the same time). But no matter. The strength of TV veteran Allen Coulter’s feature-length directorial debut doesn’t depend on its high concept—nor even on its nostalgically noir-ish execution. What makes the movie good is that it’s actually driven by its characters.

The most important of which, in fact, is fictional. How poignant that in reconstructing the Reeves case for dramatization, screenwriter Paul Bernbaum sought a single figure to whom it meant everything—and ultimately had to make that person up. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a low-rent private eye, who grants the appeals of Reeves’ stunned mother (Lois Smith) for a post-police investigation of her son’s death. He was too big a star, she reasons, for suicide. Simo rightly figures this case is the break he needs, with a personal resonance he’ll only begin to understand as he gets further into it.

To introduce Reeves himself (Ben Affleck), Coulter braids Simo’s investigation with flashbacks narratively jury-rigged from the detective’s reconnaissance and his imagination. Naturally, the two have a lot in common. Each has made wrong turns on the course of public ambition. Each wants to be a better man and needs to be recognized. Each, Coulter gently points out, has the habit of forcing his way into newspaper photographs. Each has a couple of women in his life but only self-interest for a true companion. Simo recognizes that, for his own sake, his task is to determine how a glory-seeking man on the precipice of obscurity ultimately might do himself in.

Could Reeves have made deadly enemies? Maybe he was no match for the proverbial speeding locomotive, but he was at least powerful enough to cuckold the formidable MGM studio boss Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), albeit unwittingly. (It happened before poor George knew she was Mrs. Mannix, and clearly some of the power was hers; for one thing, she is played here by Diane Lane.) Otherwise, he was simply a lightning rod for stardom’s caprices—likeably handsome and generically heroic, but not excessively charismatic. In that sense, the role is right for Affleck, and the performance might be as good as his will get. Bernbaum allows him some rich dialogue and nuanced moments to play, and Affleck apes his way through with aplomb and due humility.

Meanwhile, Simo seems alternately wily and washed up. On a beat where myths of self are rampant, he has to play the part of a detective to become one—and he gets so wound up in the Reeves investigation that another case gets away from him, with devastating results. Brody, for his part, is calmly magnificent, calibrating his gestural details as carefully as those of the period-precise costumes and sets, and steering at-risk scenes away from cliché with a steady surety. He has help from a supporting stock of elegant character actors—from Joe Spano as a Mannix henchman to Jeffrey DeMunn as Reeves’ manager—but he doesn’t need it.

Given the nature of its milieu, Hollywoodland probably will earn comparisons to the overwritten, overacted, overrated L.A. Confidential; given the elegance of its restraint, the comparisons probably won’t be favorable. So much the better; that should dispatch less discriminating audiences, leaving this movie to contend with its more essential challenge: winning over the aficionados of Chinatown.

But Bernbaum and Coulter’s film isn’t merely a homage or an indulged film-noir fetish, any more than it’s an essay on what really happened to George Reeves. Nobly enough, the movie won’t answer that question. Unfortunately, though, by not wanting to shoehorn Hollywoodland into a Hollywood ending, the filmmakers only manage to paint themselves into a corner. Once there, their movie’s formerly pleasurable languor becomes harshly oppressive. But maybe that also goes to the main idea: that the real bitch about celebrity is never being able to rest in peace.