Hollywood. It is where dreams are constructed, packaged, peddled and eventually broken. It is where heroism is defined, codified and deconstructed. It is where there are always more waiters than stars. It is the place most celebrated (and satirised) in Hollywood movies.
And it is where, late one June evening in 1959, George Reeves died in his home of a single gunshot to the head while his fiance Leonore Lemmon and two of her friends were partying downstairs.
Although the LAPD were quick to conclude that the cause of death was suicide, Reeves’ iconic status as the Man of Steel (“faster than a speeding bullet”) on television’s Adventures of Superman, and the subsequent discovery of two further bullet-holes in the house, ensured that the case attracted all manner of ironies, and not a little mystery. How could someone who had flown so high (and whose career had started, extraordinarily, with a part in Gone With the Wind) have fallen so hard? Did Reeves kill himself, or did something altogether more sinister conspire to bring about his premature demise? Hollywoodland uses this strange episode as the trigger for a dramatic examination of celebrity, ambition and darkest failure.
Shortly after Reeves’ death, sleazy private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) hears that the actor’s mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) is in town determined to prove that her son did not take his own life. Smelling an opportunity to make some money and raise his own public profile, Simo takes on the case, using the press to broadcast tawdry allegations of murder – except that, as he looks deeper into the life of Reeves (Ben Affleck), Simo begins to believe his own lurid stories.
Might Reeves’ goldchasing fiance (Robin Tunney) have killed him in a rage? Or was the death connected to Reeves’ previous lover and patron Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) and her husband Edgar (Bob Hoskins), who was the powerful manager of MGM and a one-time mobster? Yet to understand what truly made Reeves tick (and stop ticking), Simo must finally turn not to plots after the template of the conventional thriller, but to his own personal shortcomings and vulnerabilities.
If it was George Reeves’ fate to drift from big-screen stardom to small-screen hackwork, then Allen Coulter has travelled in the opposite direction, moving from success on the television series The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under to his cinematic debut with Hollywoodland. It is an auspicious calling card: for being a period piece that all at once mixes genres, leaps decades, and allegorises no less than the human condition, Hollywoodland is every bit as ambitious, if never as flawed, as the characters it portrays.
Befitting a Hollywood film about Hollywood lives, Hollywoodland is packed with self-referential detail. There is Ben Affleck, one-time star of Daredevil, playing a character who has bcome typecast by his superhero’s costume. There is Diane Lane exposing all the anxieties that any talented actress who has reached a certain age must face in the youth-obsessed world of movies. There is Bob Hoskins, whose gangster performances in The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa won him a ticket to Tinseltown, now embodying a former gangster who has made it big in Tinseltown. They are all excellent, and so is Brody as our conflicted guide through the story. And Paul Bernbaum’s screenplay, full of arch dialogue and cynical one-liners, eschews the rosy tints of nostalgia for more suitably acid tones.
As a noirish investigation into Tinseltown’s wannabes, also-rans, bottom-feeders, has-beens and no-hopers, Hollywoodland occupies that rarefied space somewhere between L.A. Confidential and Sunset Boulevard. Or, to put it another way, the film is in the same terrain as Mulholland Drive without ever quite achieving Lynch’s dizzy heights – but it is still several cuts above the recent, not entirely dissimilar Blue Dahlia. Hollywoodland may be concerned with men realising that they will never fulfil their dreams of being supermen, and learning to live, or die, with their inevitable compromises – but viewers, at least, will not leave feeling disappointed.