When I was a kid growing up in Southern Colorado, my grandfather had one of those black-and-white TV sets with a screen a few inches across that sat in a box a little bit smaller than a tower PC case. He kept it near his regular chair at the kitchen table, where he smoked cigarettes and worked crossword puzzles. I can’t remember exactly how, but I discovered that under certain conditions you could use that set — and no other TV in the house — to tune in the independent channel 2, broadcasting out of that metropolis 120 miles to the north, Denver. And if you tuned in weekdays at 5 p.m. and squinted through the snow, and were willing to sit there at the kitchen table staring at a tiny, black-and-white screen, you could see the Adventures of Superman series in syndicated reruns. It seemed like it was worth going through just about any inconvenience to see Adventures of Superman.
That’s just to say that, although I was about 10 years from being born when George Reeves died, I’m solidly within the demographic for Hollywoodland, which aims to investigate some of the circumstances that could have led Superman on a tragic downward spiral. Some of the facts here are well-known, and uncontested. George Reeves was a frustrated actor who played mainly small roles — as a mail lead opposite Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake in So Proudly We Hail! he almost broke through — in major Hollywood films but stumbled into fame playing superhero to a generation of 10-year-olds for no fewer than six seasons. The role was a blessing and a curse for Reeves, whose kid-friendly image was at odds with his real life and aspirations, and whose career never recovered from his being typecast as TV’s Superman. He had an affair with the wife of the head of MGM at the time. He was found dead in his home in 1959 in what was officially ruled a suicide. There have been rumblings for years that he was actually murdered.
There’s got to be a fascinating yarn in here somewhere, a character study in quiet desperation and a look at how a man kissed by celebrity can still be tormented by the fame he never achieved and disillusioned by the promise of a Hollywood that turned out to be little more than a tease. What we get is more like a TV movie — a run-of-the-mill and by-the-numbers biopic that’s missing its conclusions. As Reeves, Ben Affleck employs a pinched impersonation of the kind that can only come from close study of another man’s mannerisms and vocal stylings. But his mimickry fades in and out like the signal from a distant station, and he’s most effective when he comes closer to just playing Ben Affleck — a onetime Hollywood golden boy who may these days have a little in common with Reeves himself. It’s tempting to say he’s in over his head in this role, but there’s precious little for him to grab onto. Because screenwriter Paul Bernbaum can’t decide whether Reeves was the victim of a cuckold’s jealousy, the object of an angry girlfriend’s violent and spontaneous rage, or just terminally depressed, Affleck has a nigh impossible task. It would be a miracle for him to conjure the kind of performance this film requires out of the material he’s given.
The big surprise is that Affleck gets relatively little screen time. The real star of the show is Adrien Brody, oddly cast as a private-detective type whose dogged investigation of the circumstances of Reeves’ death earn him little more than a quick descent into the twin vices of alcohol and nicotine abuse. Brody has a beautiful face, and I love to watch him up there on the screen, but in his grace and polite beauty he’s more or less the opposite of the actor — scruffy, unbalanced, nearly unhinged — this role demands. His story unfolds, The Godfather, Part II-style, through cross-cutting that seeks to emphasize the similarities between his character and Reeves. The Hollywood he inhabits has a warm, sun-baked cast to it and has been largely sapped of color, which helps you tell the two worlds apart as Hollywoodland swerves, rapidly and with increasing ostentatiousness, between them. He goes through all the motions that you expect a private dick in a Hollywood movie to go through. He gets too close to the truth, whatever it is. He gets roughed up. He gets in dutch with his wife and kid. About all he doesn’t get is a girlfriend — and this movie could have used another one of those.
Because Diane Lane, playing Toni Mannix, the apparent love of George Reeves’ life, is terrific. She lends this film’s incarnation of Reeves a life force just by standing up there on screen and demonstrating how one woman falls in love, succumbing to a combination of manly charm, little-boy-lost looks and sexual flattery. When Reeves abandons her late in the film, she plays it with just the right degree of wounded dignity. She feels like a real person. Robin Tunney has a less meaty role but brings a welcome spunkiness to Reeves’ gold-digging girlfriend Leonore, who, the film suggests, may (or then again may not) have had a role in the man’s ultimate fate.
It’s not all bad news. The material is intermittently fascinating, and there are a few haunting moments, some of them courtesy Affleck’s own uneven performance. But some of the decisions that the film makes are odd. Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter both have a background in TV, so it’s hard to believe they don’t have more of an interest in going behind the scenes to follow Reeves in his workaday life. There’s a quick, funny bit involving a flying stunt gone wrong, and that’s about all we see of the story of working in TV circa the mid 1950s. Instead we spend lots of time with an ordinary schmoe whose slow awakening to the idea that his own life is growing meaningless (and that, somewhat like Reeves, he has some daddy issues to contend with) is supposed to have meaning in the context of a classic Hollywood murder mystery. The film oughta be Reeves’ story — except the filmmakers, like everyone else, couldn’t figure out how the poor guy really died. Although they seem to have some of the same theories that everyone else does, in the end they hedge their bets and stash away their hunches to make a movie that essentially throws up its hands and says, “Who knows what happened? Maybe dude killed himself after all.” Sometimes that’s what you’re stuck with once you get to the end of what the facts can tell you. But it doesn’t always make a very satisfying story.