Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hollywoodland

(2006)
Directed by
Alan Coulter
Screenplay by Paul Bernbaum
Starring Adrian Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney
IMDB Entry

I don't really understand the current dislike toward Ben Affleck. He strikes me as a perfectly good actor who has put together good performances in quite a few films. He came off quite well in Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, and Shakespeare in Love, and he did a credible job with a weak script in Daredevil.  People do complain about his "wooden" acting, but I don't see that.*  It may have had something to do with the "Bennifer" tabloid fodder; I don't recall the vitriol against him before then.  But, for some reason, he's considered something of a lightweight.

That may be one reason he appeared in Hollywoodland.

The movie's title is especially poor, since it doesn't really give a good idea of what the film is about. At best, some film buff might remember that the famous Hollywood sign originally was "Hollywoodland," but that fact is also misleading.  The problem was that any title that made the subject of the movie clear would (and did) run into copyright problems. 

The film is about actor George Reeves, who became a star playing Superman on TV. Reeves had an interesting history.  His first film role was in Gone With the Wind, and he had a successful career (though not as a lead) in the 1940s. When a Superman TV show was in the works, Reeves was cast.  The role was a chore for him.  He didn't like the association, and felt it would keep him from getting good roles.** Superman became a straitjacket (though Reeves did like meeting kids) and when it went off the air, he found it hard to get roles.  He wanted to move on, but couldn't and eventually, he killed himself. 

Or did he?  And that's the speculation that fuels the film. In it, Louis Simo (Adrian Brody), a two-bit private detective, decides to make a name for himself by proving that Reeves (Affleck) had been murdered.  There are plenty of suspects.  Reeves had been having a long-term affair with the wife of the powerful studio head (with mob connections) Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). He had ended the affair, however, and Mannix's wife (Diane Lane) was furious.  And there are plenty of suggestions that the death was not a suicide.***

The movie is primarily about Simo, who tries to unravel the truth while also keeping his life from unraveling.  But Affleck's portrayal of Reeves is what really stands out. We see (in flashback, of course) the ups and downs of Reeves's career. Affleck plays him as a man ambivalent about his fame -- loving parts of it, but hating much more until he feels it's been a failure.

Brody and Hoskins can always be depended on to give good performances and this is no exception.  Brody brought a lot of depth to his detective, a man who starts out as an opportunist, but who understands the demons that haunted Reeves.  Hoskins brings his usual unpolished style to a role that is meant to be ambiguously threatening.

The film was stymied by trademark problems. Warner Brothers and DC Comics were very protective of their trademarks, so much so that they almost prevented the film from showing the Superman logo on his uniform.  They vetoed the original film title, Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and didn't allow the film to use the opening for the TV show (it was reshot for the film).

The film opened to mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office. Affleck's performance was overlooked, so it did nothing to rehabilitate his reputation. 

The film is a nice combination of film noir and historical fact and speculation.  It's a shame that it the film isn't better known.

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*I was equally perplexed about the same charge against Keanu Reeves, who had plenty of good performances.  The issue with Reeves is understandable.  His best performances were in films like I Love You to Death, Tune in Tomorrow, My Own Private Idaho, and Feeling Minnesota -- movies few people saw.  Reeves, like Affleck, also had some high profile flops. But I am also reminded of an actor who had the very same charge leveled at him throughout his career, but today is considered one of the greatest of Hollywood stars -- John Wayne.

**The most notable role around this time was a small part in From Here to Eternity.  Legend has it that audiences recognized him as Superman and that the film cut his scenes down dramatically, but those involved deny there were any changes. The makes sense, since From Here to Eternity was not a film many kids would be watching, and the adults would probably not pay attention to who was playing Superman on TV. I suspect the legend cropped up during revivals of the film; those who watched Superman as kids recognized Reeves immediately (I did when I saw in in the early 70s).

***This follows modern speculation; some have suggested that Reeves showed no signs of depression and was looking forward to playing Superman again when he died, leading them to look for foul play.  I'm always skeptical about this sort of conspiracy, and I don't find the lack of outward signs of depression particularly telling.  Reeves's friends could only know what he showed them, not what he was actually thinking.

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