There are countless tales of men and women who come to Los Angeles with stars in their eyes and leave with their dreams crushed or, in the most spectacularly tragic cases, in a body bag. One of the most famous such stories is that of George Reeves, who thought he had it made when he landed his first film gig, as a supporting player in nothing less than Gone With the Wind. But his career quickly faded and he found himself stuck acting in dumb serials. In the early days of television, he was cast as Superman and instantly became a hero to millions of kids, but he found that sudden fame to be a cursed gift, as he ended up typecast forever as the Man of Steel and never got what he really wanted: being respected as a serious actor. He ached to be Clark Gable, not a dude in a cape. On June 16, 1959, Reeves was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head, apparently self-inflicted. Superman proved not to be faster than a speeding bullet after all.
It would be excessive to call Ben Affleck a modern-day George Reeves, but I’m sure he was able to identify to a degree with the man – at least enough to deliver a great performance, probably his best to date. As you well know, while Kevin Smith and I have his back (gotta love the Affleck), most people think he’s a joke. He might be a funny, handsome movie star who’s married to Jennifer Garner (lucky bastard), but he doesn’t have the credibility that, say, his old pal Matt Damon has. Affleck wasn’t typecast as Daredevil or anything, but his heavily publicized relationship with Jennifer Lopez did torpedo his once promising career. Hopefully this film, in which he gets to be charming and eager (in his early scenes) and brooding and despaired (in the later ones), drinking before breakfast and getting into fights with both his fiancée and his mistress, will bring him back at the top. It could even earn him an Oscar nod, who knows?
Affleck alone would make the picture worth seeing, but he’s actually not even the lead! His story is told through flashbacks, which pop up regularly as someone investigates his life in order to make sense of his death, Citizen Kane-style… Except that the reporter, who’s in fact a private detective here, is not just an anonymous proxy for the audience. Played by Adrien Brody, Louis Simo is as fascinating in his own way as Reeves. I especially love how film noir this character is (as the whole movie can be, too). Divorced, living in a sleazy motel, working as a private dick who’ll take any job if the money’s decent, Simo maintains a façade of cool cynicism and what, me worry? swagger, but you can see all the weariness and quiet desperation in the world in his eyes, which is something Brody brings to every part.
The LAPD and most people in Hollywood think (or want to think) that the Reeves case is closed, but his mother doesn’t believe her son could have committed suicide. Enter Simo, who’s unafraid to stir some shit, step on a few toes, bribe the right folks, play the press like a fiddle, basically anything to get what he wants: Truth, Justice and the American Way – or at least publicity (and the money that comes with it) for himself. If this gets him into trouble, hey, it wouldn’t be the first time he got hit in the face with a chain!
Beside Brody and Affleck (feels like I’m writing about “Mallrats”), the cast also includes femmes fatales Robin Tunney and Diane Lane as, respectively, Reeves’ gold-digging socialite girlfriend and his longtime sugar mommy. The latter also happens to be the wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix (portrayed with gravelly malevolence by Bob Hoskins), a former New Jersey gangster (!) who kept “fixers” on studio payrolls to keep his stars’ problems out of the papers. You’d think he would have held a grudge against the TV Superman for schtupping his woman, but the Mannix had an open marriage – one amusing scene even has them on a double date with Reeves and the Japanese girl Eddie’s seeing on the side.
And then there’s Caroline Dhavernas. While I love Ben, I simply adore Caroline. She has a limited but memorable role as Simo’s girl Friday, but she adds to the film’s enjoyment whenever she’s on screen. She looks lovely with her 1950s hairdo (still blonde from “Comme tout le monde”) and bullet bra, not to mention her typically mischievous eyes and smile. There’s this close-up late in the film that will make your heart swoon, like Grace Kelly at the beginning of “Rear Window”. Which, now that I think of it, is quite fitting, as Dhavernas’ character is practically the same as Kelly’s in that Hitchcock masterpiece.
“hollywoodland” is a thoroughly involving modern noir, filled with hard-boiled dialogue and ambiguous characters. It’s obviously not on the level as “Double Indemnity” or “The Maltese Falcon” (what is, these days?), and it doesn’t quite pack the wallop that more recent predecessors like “Chinatown” and L.A. Confidential did. But I actually liked it more than Mulholland Dr., even though Allen Coulter’s direction has nothing on the stylistic brilliance of David Lynch. But what the fuck do I know, I’m an Affleck fan, right?