“It should have been enough.”
So claims a friend of George Reeves in the superbly acted, compellingly melancholy new Hollywood biography, “Hollywoodland.” Reeves appeared in two of the most popular movies ever made (“Gone With the Wind,” “From Here to Eternity”) and achieved still greater fame in the 1950s as television’s “Superman.” Yet he apparently shot himself in 1959.
The movie presents him as hopelessly typecast, out of work and facing a career as a wrestler; he evidently did not think his achievements were “enough.” He was 45 when he died, and he didn’t really die alone.
As the film demonstrates, this was a tragedy shared by a nation of kids who knew little about suicide. They had a tough time linking their truth-seeking all-American hero with self-destruction, yet the link was as inescapable as a Page One headline. If you were the right age, Reeves’ seemingly inexplicable death marked a true loss of innocence.
“Hollywoodland,” directed by Allen Coulter (“The Sopranos”) and written by Paul Bernbaum (another television veteran), is built around the possibility that Reeves didn’t kill himself. It’s designed as a detective story in which a mercenary investigator, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), takes money from Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith) and tries to make the case that Reeves was murdered.
Coulter and Bernbaum even dramatize alternate versions of how he was killed. In one version, Reeves’ girlfriend, Lenore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), is responsible. Another version suggests the involvement of an MGM studio boss, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), whose wayward wife, Toni (Diane Lane), had just been jilted by Reeves. The evidence suggests that the case was closed before several essential questions could be answered.
In the movie, however, it’s Reeves’ depressed nature that rings true. He’s had it all, his future looks unpromising, and his fame is tied entirely to a kiddie-show character he detests. He signed on to the show because he needed a paycheck, he assumed few would watch it, and it ended up running his life.
Ben Affleck (never better) brings a surprising generosity to the role of George Reeves, hinting at the man’s personal charm, recreating the ironic humor he brought to Superman, and embracing the middle-aged, slightly paunchy superhero who would eventually be replaced by Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh. Largely through Affleck’s performance, Coulter generates a genuine affection for the character as well as 1940s/1950s Hollywood.
Bernbaum’s script sometimes accepts the myth rather than the man. Reeves’ scenes were not trimmed from “From Here to Eternity,” as the film suggests; his role was never a big one. When he died, Reeves was not really the midlife failure the film presents. He was engaged to marry Lemmon and he was about to recreate his most famous role in a CBS revival of “The Adventures of Superman.”
Truth or legend, the movie eventually shifts its focus from Reeves to Simo, whose problems with his wife (Molly Parker) and son Evan (played by Charlie Lea and later by Zach Mills) begin to connect with his investigation. The most moving scenes belong not to a deceased celebrity but to these seemingly peripheral characters.