Where were you the day Kennedy was shot? For those of us just a little too young to answer that question, there's a pretty good chance we were in the living room, watching "The Adventures of Superman" on television. Surely we got shoved out of the way when it came time for JFK Jr. to salute his commander in chief, but there was always the next day, when the Man of Steel would once again drop into our homes, dispensing truth, justice and the American Way. And to 7-year-old kids who hadn't gotten around to seeing any Bergman films, George Reeves was simply the greatest actor of all time, deftly handling those fascinating quick-changes between Superman and Clark Kent. Only later would we learn that the Superman costume was padded, that Reeves resented the role that brought him his 15 minutes of fame and that he'd taken his own life when those 15 minutes were up. With a speeding bullet, no less! Say it ain't so, George.
It ain't necessarily so. At least that's the premise behind Hollywoodland, Allen Coulter's noirish investigation into the circumstances surrounding Reeves' death on June 16, 1959. Drawing on the work of Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, whose 1996 book, Hollywood Kryptonite, left no stone unturned in its determination to dig up a scandal, Hollywoodland presents various scenarios by which Reeves might have wound up in the upstairs bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home, naked and lying in a pool of his own blood. But what the movie's really about is the price of fame ' that long, sad walk down the boulevard of broken dreams. Reeves had gone to Hollywood with an eye toward becoming a big-time movie star, had even landed a small part in Gone With the Wind. Instead, he became a small-time syndicated-TV star, prancing around the set in his underwear, the Lucy Lawless of his time.
Most of us would have settled, but Reeves wanted Clark Gable's career. Unfortunately, he didn't have Gable's charisma, which is one of the reasons Ben Affleck is the perfect actor to play him. Having endured his own career setbacks, Affleck no longer seems like the freshly scrubbed kid who brought his mom to help him pick up his scriptwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting. And he's put on a few pounds to convey Reeves' seam-busting fleshiness. But there's just enough charm there to suggest that, given the right roles, Affleck might be allotted another 15 minutes. He still lacks depth, which keeps the movie from building up much dramatic force, but Reeves may have lacked depth, too. And there's something fascinating about watching a second-rate actor portray a second-rate actor. You never know where being a second-rate actor ends and playing a second-rate actor begins.
Affleck does some first-rate acting in the scenes where Reeves, having escaped the cornfields of Iowa, is just getting started in Hollywood. He was a man on the make, and the movie adopts a screwball-comedy tone as he slides his way up the greasy pole. Along the way, he meets Toni Mannix, a studio executive's wife given the fading-beauty treatment by Diane Lane. She and Affleck are surprisingly good at putting over the snappy dialogue, which seems less Raymond Chandler than Chandler Bing. And we'd be content to watch these two lovebirds feather their nest, happily ever after. But theirs wasn't a conventional relationship, to say the least. Reeves was essentially a kept man, the whole arrangement pre-approved by Mannix's husband, Eddie (Bob Hoskins), an MGM Mr. Fix-It with alleged mob connections.
There's an amusing only-in-Hollywood scene where Reeves and his mistress go out to dinner with her husband and his mistress. ("That picture made money," the executive bean-counter says when Gone With the Wind comes up.) And because Reeves' life wasn't quite sordid enough, Coulter has conjured up Louis Simo, a down-on-his-luck private investigator played by The Pianist's Adrien Brody. Smelling a big score (although what exactly would be in it for him?), Simo starts sniffing around Reeves' alleged suicide, trying to turn smoke into fire. And we're supposed to see him as Reeves without the lucky breaks, a tick clinging to Hollywood's matted-fur underbelly. But Brody, with his finely chiseled features and slight European air, is perhaps the least scuzzy gumshoe of all time. Is this the kind of guy who would slip a coroner a double sawbuck for a private viewing?
Even if he were, Hollywoodland might have left us wanting a little more. Coulter has put a lot of effort into recapturing the look and feel of the day Superman died ' the cars, the bars, the lime-green/lemon-yellow flavors, everything slightly bleached by the relentless sun. But he has trouble squaring that with the noir atmosphere he's also trying to create. The movie seems less hardboiled than over easy, which is why it doesn't really bear comparison with Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, two movies that succeeded in plumbing the shallow depths of La La Land. And the possibility ' the various possibilities ' that Reeves was murdered? The filmmakers, like the authors of Hollywood Kryptonite, seem to believe that because there were those who had it in for him, they went ahead and done him in. Sound familiar? Kennedy conspiracy-theorists will have no problem with that line of thinking.
Alas, Reeves was no Kennedy. He was just another good-looking guy with more ambition than talent, not unlike half the waiters in Hollywood. At the time of his death, he was contemplating a career in exhibition wrestling. That's if he passed the audition, lost some weight and got in shape. What more do you need to know?