It’s a nice-boy notion that the real world’s gonna destroy
It’s a Marvel comic-book Saturday-matinee fairy tale, boy. — Steve Taylor, “Hero” (Meltdown)
Of course Superman belongs to the DC universe, not Marvel, and actor George Reeves played him on the small screen, not in Saturday matinees (that was Kirk Alyn), but still you get the idea.
So closely was Reeves identified with the archetypal hero he played on television that an oft-told, probably apocryphal story relates how a young fan once unexpectedly drew a real gun on the star, hoping to see a bullet bounce off his hero’s invulnerable chest as he had seen so many times on television.
Even grownups had a hard time disassociating Reeves from Superman — at least when it came to taking him seriously in other roles. In the end, apparently, unable to step out of the Man of Steel’s shadow, Reeves took his own life with a bullet, tragically highlighting in more ways than one the distance between the hero and the mortal man.
Both of those episodes (which every young Superman fan knew when I was growing up) appear in Hollywoodland, Allen Coulter’s fictionalized, speculative biopic starring a boldly cast Ben Affleck as the tragic star of “The Adventures of Superman,” and Adrien Brody as the gumshoe hired by Reeves’ mother to investigate her son’s death.
Perhaps inevitably, a film about a man so closely identified in the public mind with such an iconic hero must necessarily be somewhat iconoclastic — must explore the feet of clay, the dark side.
Yet in Hollywoodland that’s all there is to George Reeves. Despite a remarkable performance by Affleck, the film’s portrait is relentlessly, even monotonously iconoclastic, constantly rubbing viewers’ noses in one sort of hard reality or another, from ribaldry and scandal to pathos and despair.
There is Reeves’ lengthy affair of convenience with the well-connected older wife (excellent Diane Lane) of a studio executive (Bob Hoskins, also good), his more pathetic later affair with an earthy young gold-digger (Robin Tunney, whose character remarks upon meeting Reeves, with an opportunity-knocks note in her voice, “I think Superman wants to get laid”). Then there is his untimely death, explored from several possible angles.
Reeves makes lewd jokes on the set of “The Adventures of Superman,” falls painfully to the studio floor during a flying effect, gets drunk before a publicity appearance. He has nothing but contempt the role and the show, and considers it all degrading and beneath his dignity.
The total effect is underwhelming. Just as real tragedy requires some sort of greatness and real blasphemy presupposes some real sense of the sacred, so the iconoclastic depends on the iconic. Hollywoodland portrays a man so thoroughly trivial, so shallow and small, that it’s hard to see why anyone would want to make a movie about him, or watch one.
Not that a small man can’t be the subject of a worthwhile story, if he is given enough nuance and depth, or if the story has worthwhile insights. But Hollywoodland is as shallow as its protagonist.
Grant the movie its dark side, its hard realities. Can that really be the whole story? Were there never moments when Reeves derived any pride or satisfaction of any kind from the role or the show? Was there no corner of his heart in he sometimes felt that there was maybe something a little bit cool about being the Man of Steel? Was he never even positively inspired by the responsibility of being a hero to so many?
At the very least, did he never have an encounter with a fan that affected him positively? Hollywoodland hints at this possibility only once, in a scene in which Reeves poses in a restaurant window for a pack of Cub Scouts. Yet Affleck’s back is to the camera in this scene; he’s never actually allowed to enter the part that made the actor famous.
I’ve been rewatching “The Adventures of Superman” on DVD with my kids recently, and I have to admit that it was a pretty lame series — silly at best, often dull and inane, with too much talk and too little super-heroics — but still occasionally clever and sometimes reasonably satisfying. Hollywoodland only sees the down side. Did Reeves really see it that way?
At Wikipedia I read that Reeves took his role model status seriously, for example, avoiding smoking in front of children. That’s a side of the actor’s experience Hollywoodland has no interest in exploring.
The film does briefly rise to pathos in treating the disillusionment of Reeves’ young fans who are stunned by the reports of his suicide. What the film is really interested in, though, are the possibilities behind his allegedly mysterious death, and the efforts of Brody’s cut-rate private eye Louis Simo to uncover the truth.
But the filmmakers never sell this half of their story. If the movie’s Reeves is ultimately a bore, Simo is a cipher. Toward the end of the film, whenever Simo appeared onscreen, I wondered why anyone thought it was a good idea to put him in the movie in the first place. Whenever Reeves appeared, the question became: What’s the point of making such a hollow film about such a hollow man?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.