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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Tinseltown Tragedy
by John P. McCarthy

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a first-rate look at the vagaries of a Tinseltown life! The iconic sign spelled Hollywoodland before it was shortened years before this doleful, fact-based riff on the 1959 death of TV's Superman, George Reeves. The truncated landmark -- omnipresent yet unseen -- symbolizes how movie folk must constantly reinvent themselves. Hollywoodland insists those unable to adapt must suffer.

Although the mystery surrounding Reeves' demise -- murder or suicide? -- fades out somewhat anti-climactically, this film set during the waning decade of the studio system has plenty to recommend it. The performances and hard-boiled dialogue are sensational, while the production design stylishly conveys the paradoxical atmosphere: glaringly bright and noirishly sinister. This is the Hollywood of The Day of the Locust -- a fantasy-spewing cauldron of riches and celebrity that people strive to immerse themselves in. They emerge either golden or broken.

The two central figures are men with dreams and ambition tempered by relative clear-sightedness. Adrien Brody limns Louis Simo, a two-bit gumshoe whose personal life and career are in tatters. Ben Affleck revitalizes his career by delivering a poignant performance as the contract performer tapped to play The Man of Steel in the hugely popular television series that ran from 1952 to 1958.

Reeves was also the paramour of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM studio honcho Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Following a supporting role in Gone with the Wind, his career languished in the 1940s. When he met Toni, she bought him a house and occasionally pulled strings, most notably to land him a part in From Here to Eternity that ended up on the cutting room floor. 

In Affleck's hands, Reeves is wittily self-deprecating and charming despite (judging by the cheaply-made TV show) his on-screen oafishness. The hard-drinking actor felt the role is undignified; not only was he typecast, he didn't make much money from the gig. According to screenwriter Paul Bernbaum's speculations, when he became engaged to party girl Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), Toni got jealous, which in turn displeased her powerful husband. 

The LAPD ruled his death by a single gunshot suicide. Reeves' incredulous mother (Lois Smith), in from the Midwest, hired Simo, an unscrupulous and savvy character skilled at manipulating the press, to investigate. Cutting between Reeves' career and life, and the private detective's troubles, we see three versions of the crime (and three perpetrators -- Lemmon, Toni, and Eddie’s henchman) in addition to the suicide angle.

Director Allen Coulter, a Sex and the City and Sopranos  alum, allows the complex story structure, which weaves back and forth through time, to detract from the narrative tension. Simo's plight gets too much focus and, while complimentary, is less compelling than what and who fells Reeve. Coulter is very comfortable with the performers and the milieu, however, and that compensates for any structural deficiencies.

The motion picture business is a big and familiar target. It's easy to contrast the make-believe products with the deceptively hard-nosed, harsh environment in which they're made. The fictions devised to cover up peccadilloes and scandals are often more artful than the entertainments being produced, particularly back then. And while Hollywoodland  vividly depicts a jittery system, fearful of the threat television posed, its strength is putting it in personal terms. 

Much of the credit goes to Brody, Affleck and Lane. Yet the smaller characters and performances are probably more telling. There's Lois Smith's corruptible mother, Jeffrey DeMunn's embodiment of Reeves' pathetic agent, and Tunney's tough-talking showbiz moll. And there's a background figure with no dialogue -- an elderly, suntanned man pumping iron and smoking cigarettes in the courtyard of Simo's apartment building. The glimpses we get of him suggest the stereotype is true: everyone in Hollywood is either crooked or crazy, desperately clinging to a dream long since sullied by reality. Film buffs have to love 'em for trying.

(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” for language, some violence and sexual content.)

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