Hollywoodland (movie review) 2006
About a week ago, Benny asked me about my movie reviews in general and “Hollywoodland” in particular. I’ve never had a cat ask me to review a movie, so how could I resist? I hadn’t seen the movie since it’s still in the theaters, but as it happened my wife decided that we should go to our first movie in a theater in almost a year (my birthday).
Every now and then, Hollywood makes movies for adults and that almost always results in the creative folks trying to get artsy. This often means that a couple things happen. If it’s a murder mystery of any kind, the director goes all film noir, an accidental art form that sprung from the B movie in the 40’s and 50’s. The other favorite bit is to homage Kurosawa’s masterful film about the interrelationship of self-interest and relativism, “Rashomon”. This appears to have started in 1964 with Martin Ritt’s “The Outrage” which literally westernized Kurosawa’s original by giving the characters cowboy boots and spurs. Paul Newman played a Mexican bandit, William Shatner played a preacher, Edward G. Robinson played a con-man, and Claire Bloom played the woman who is not what she appears to be. The result was like there’d been some terrible accident in the transporter room of the Enterprise.
In any case, Hollywoodland gives the real life mystery of the apparent 1959 suicide of George Reeves, best known as the tv Superman, the full noir goes Rashomon treatment. The look of LA in the movie is straight out of Polanski’s “Chinatown”, maybe the best noir take on Hollywood/LA post-1956. Perhaps they got a deal on the same brown lens filters. Director Allen Coulter’s movie consists of two crosscut narratives. The first follows down on his luck private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) as he investigates Reeves’s death in 1959. This half of the movie is filled with cheap motels, starkly decorated housing developments, and diners. At one point, an image of an aging Charles Atlas weightlifter type appears in the courtyard of an apartment house then suddenly disappears from the scene. The second tells Reeve’s (Ben Affleck)story from just before he got the Superman role till his death. This half is set in movie Hollywood with nicer houses, restaurants, and film sets. For some reason, Coulter chose to give both halves of the movie the same look which gives the narrative a possibly intentionally confused feel.
I’m all for complex narrative in detective movies. The “Usual Suspects” comes to mind as a good example. “Identity” is one where they got too caught up in the gimmick to tell the story. “Hollywoodland” falls between the two. The story of George Reeves, ambitious but struggling actor, who gets caught both in the role of Superman and in a long affair with Toni Mannix a studio executive’s wife (Diane Lane) is genuinely touching. Affleck, whose own career seemed to be swallowed by his run as Jennifer Lopez’s fiancé, brings a real sensitivity to the role that “having lived it” seems to have made possible. Affleck, the real life actor, is trying to make the turn from boyish leading man, smart aleck types (Clerks, Good Will Hunting, Pearl Harbor) to weightier roles after some disastrous role choices in Gigli, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas. For Hollywoodland, he manages a “trapped” look that conveys the essence of Reeves’s personal dilemma—Was he an actual talent trapped in a limiting role or was he a mediocrity who used his longing for more serious roles as a crutch to keep him from facing his own failure?
Affleck creates just enough doubt about this through two scenes. In the first, he is confronted by a boy who wants him to prove that he’s Superman in the most direct fashion imaginable. Affleck’s Reeves combines a kind of open-eyed terror while still staying in his Superman character for his audience. In the second, he is out to dinner with Mannix, her husband (Bob Hoskins), and his mistress as he catches the tensions between trying to curry favor with the man whose wife he is sleeping with and his disgust with the Hoskins character’s dismissive treatment of both the women in his life. The result is a restrained but very deft portrait of Reeves as a kind of tragic clown, a naturally charming man who became all too aware of the fact that he’d painted his life into a corner.
Diane Lane’s, Tony Mannix, may be even more deftly drawn. Like Affleck, Lane’s own career is at a crossroads. In Lane’s case, she’s hit the Jane Fonda line. If you remember, Fonda’s career started with glamour and ingénue roles and then began to shift after “Klute” to more dramatic material where she actually had to act to get attention. Somwhere after Electric Horseman, Fonda had to get box office as an “Actress” only and had a difficult time with the transition as she struggled in movies like The Morning After (a fictionalized Frances Farmer) and Old Gringo (a fictionalized Pancho Villa and Ambrose Bierce). Fonda didn’t act for several years then appeared in the disastrously overwrought Monster in Law with who else but Jennifer Lopez.
Segue: Appearing in movies with Jennifer Lopez who’s not necessarily a bad actress (Selena, Out of Sight) has to be one of the more dangerous career moves. Some of her co-stars survive, but has anyone’s career actually been enhanced after being in a movie with her? In fact, she was even in “Jack” (1995) with Robin Williams and Diane Lane at one point and Lane essentially disappeared until “Walk on the Moon” (1998).
The Ralph Macchio effect is the exact opposite of the Jennifer Lopez. The guy was in generally lightweight stuff like the Karate Kid yet anyone he got near, Pat Morita, Elizabeth Shue, (not sure I can count Hillary Swank since they weren’t in the same installment of the Karate Kid), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinnie), and Joe Pesci all seemed to have their careers take off after they were in one of his movies. End segue
When Lane’s Mannix offhandedly tells Reeves that she has about eight years left before her looks give out, she gives the scene a poignancy by pairing her matter of fact vocal delivery with a facial expression that seems to be staring into a far off mirror. Lane brings just enough ambiguity to the question of whether Mannix actually supports Reeves’s ambitions or subtly thwarting them so she can keep him in her life as her boy toy to give Hollywoodland’s plot a pulse.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the movie is that the screenwriters’ leave both the question of Reeves’s actual talent and Mannix’s darker side just ambiguous enough. A home movie snippet of Reeves brings this home where you glimpse just how hard Reeves worked to be “Superman” while still pretending that he couldn’t or shouldn’t take it seriously.
One of the harder parts for me in watching “Hollywoodland” is seeing how well Lane pulled off the “older woman” role. I was a young adult when she first appeared in a “Little Romance” so it’s a little painful to see her be a credible Tony Mannix circa 1959. The real Mannix was 52 when Reeves dropped her for Lenore Lemmon.
Bob Hoskins is not quite as good in the gruff, gangsterish role of Eddie Mannix. Hoskins, you may remember played a Hollywood detective in the mock noir “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. Even in his limited role, he seems to be parodying his own parody from twenty years ago. Still, even second-rate Bob Hoskins is better than whoever the current version of George Reeves’s happens to be best performances. If you want to see Bob Hoskins act in a recent movie, I’d say see “Mrs. Henderson Presents”, but he remains one of these actors who knows how to grab the camera no matter who else is in the scene.
My problems with “Hollywoodland” start with the Adrien Brody half of the movie. The makers crammed in every noir private eye cliché they could find at the scriptwriter Costco. Brody’s fine in the role, but the script runs the familiar obstacle course of down on his luck detective, with the tough exterior, who gets to recall his childhood so you can understand why he can’t quite love anyone, though he really wants to be a better person, and something about that won’t let him let go of what he knows to be a dangerous case. Had that not been enough, they then forced a subplot about Brody’s son having emotional difficulty with Superman’s suicide as a metaphor for Brody’s emotionally kryptonited attempts at family life. Making matters worse, the Rashomon dons a cape part of the movie also gets shoehorned into the Brody half. As too often happens, the film school types who mixed and matched this part of the script failed to notice that Kurosawa was making a point about storytelling in his original. In Hollywoodland, the multiple scenario trick feels more like they just didn’t have the guts to stand by any particular theory of how Reeves really died. The Private Detective half of Hollywoodland reminds you that for all the self-conscious artsiness, it’s at heart a creatively timid bit of filmmaking.
One irony is that Hollywoodland is the sort of movie that George Reeves would have loved to have been in himself. It’s also a movie that likely gets Ben Affleck out of having to do sequels to “Daredevil” and promises Diane Lane an acting life on the other side of the Debra Winger/Jane Fonda line. Of course, Lane and Affleck both have to promise not to make any more movies with Jennifer Lopez. That said, I’d say that Affleck, Lane, and Brody all have better movies ahead than Hollywoodland, but I’d still recommend it as a DVD rental.
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