“Superman Kills Self” ranks as one of the most traumatic newspaper headlines of the 1950s to many Americans who were kids then, and the little-discussed sad and seamy aspects of the case are explored in “Hollywoodland.” First-time scripter Paul Bernbaum’s framing story, designed to stir up suspicion that George Reeves was a murder victim rather than a suicide, unfortunately proves far less intriguing than does the melancholy tale of a limited actor reaching the end of the line during a transitional period in Hollywood. Despite solid cast names and the notoriety of the subject matter, just moderate biz looms for this generically titled piece of Tinseltown self-reflection.
Real poignancy might have been wrung from the predicament of Reeves, a good-looking he-man type who started out prominently with a small role in “Gone With the Wind” but whose career did not soar until he started leaping off tall buildings in the ’50s TV smash “Adventures of Superman.” Even this inadvertent success was undercut by a certain feeling of ridiculousness, this on top of the fact that he was partly supported by an older mistress, the wife of a top MGM executive. At age 45 in 1959, there was the very real possibility that he was washed up, one more pretty face Hollywood had used and spit out.
Bernbaum uses the doubt that has swirled around the circumstances of Reeves’ death as a framing device that serves to enumerate the other possibilities — most prominently, that Reeves was whacked on orders from his scorned mistress’s husband — but that annoyingly distracts from the most flavorsome and involving matters at hand.
Adrien Brody rather frantically plays a young private detective, Louis Simo, who’s close to washed up himself. Tipped off that foul play may have been involved in Reeves’ death, Simo persuades Reeves’ estranged mother (Lois Smith) to make a stink about an alleged cover-up, which puts the desperate dick at odds with civic powers-that-be.
Adding to Simo’s woes is his separation from his wife (Molly Parker) and son (Zach Mills), who’s withdrawn into a near-catatonic state over “Superman’s” demise.
Simo’s discoveries about and encounters with Reeves’ intimates trigger flashbacks, although it soon becomes clear that Bernbaum should have taken a cue from “Citizen Kane” and realized that there was no need to beef up the investigator’s story when the core material held so much more potential.
Pic begins clicking when Reeves, appealingly played with evident depth of sympathy by Ben Affleck, meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), showgirl-turned-BevHills grand dame who’s all over Reeves within minutes.
The openness of Toni’s marriage to Metro “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) is neatly illustrated in an amusing scene of the couple dining together with their respective lovers; the relationship between Reeves and Toni is a civilized and mature one with needs tended to on both sides; the only slightly eyebrow-raising element is Toni’s purchase of a lovely Benedict Canyon home (for $12,000!) for Reeves.
Reeves takes the Superman role — initially for a low-budget 1950 movie, “Superman and the Mole-Men,” that a year later morphed into the TV show — out of near-desperation at the insistence of his practical agent (Jeffrey DeMunn). Toni attends the shooting, both to support and keep a close eye on the new “star” — and behind-the-scenes glimpses reveal near-Ed Wood-level production values, from the grungy gray-and-brown Superman costume to a flying rig that causes the Man of Steel to crash ignominiously to the floor.
Nevertheless, the show becomes a sensation, a universally shared experience for kids of the era. It’s never stated how much (or little) Reeves was paid but, whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t enough. He also suffered the curse of the public’s total identification of the actor with the role, to the point where his taking other parts became nearly impossible.
All the same, pic errs in implying Reeves was cut out of “From Here to Eternity” due to a preview audience’s reaction (a doctored clip from the 1953 Oscar winner shows Affleck in a scene alongside Burt Lancaster); Reeves received 21st billing for his brief part.
Eventually, Reeves dumps Toni and takes up with a younger woman, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney). Trying to get to the bottom of the murder possibilities, detective Simo invades the Mannix home and has sporadic encounters with Leonore, enabling him to imagine scenarios in which Reeves is murdered by a Mannix goon and, alternatively, is accidentally shot by Leonore. It hardly supports the time given over to Simo’s investigation that neither theory plays out very plausibly.
The film’s strengths lie in the unstated assumptions and emotional undercurrents developed among Reeves, Toni and, to a lesser extent, Eddie Mannix, along with its unstressed but vivid portrait of a Hollywood still dominated by big studio grayhairs but in the midst of a major overhaul to youth and television.
Detracting are not only the mess of Simo’s life but the lack of resonant period feel. First-time feature helmer Allen Coulter, responsible for many impressive episodes of “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under” and “Rome,” juggles the action competently but without real flair, and the drably brown images suppress the sort of strong atmospheric charge that can still be achieved on modest budgets, such as in “Auto Focus.”
Along with Affleck’s happy change-of-pace turn, Lane impresses strongly while riding the emotional rollercoaster from self-assured seductress — she at one point acknowledges she’s got seven years left to trade on her looks — to devastated woman scorned. This is not Brody’s finest hour, to put it kindly. Stand-out supporting work comes from Joe Spano, who with great subtlety suggests the supreme power of veteran MGM publicity man Howard Strickling.