Hollywoodland the Death of George Reeves
by Ben Burgraff
"Hollywoodland": An Engrossing Mystery of TV Superman's Death...
It has taken nearly a half-century to finally produce a film about the mystery surrounding 'Superman' George Reeve's death, but it was worth the wait..."Hollywoodland", despite some minor factual errors, is, perhaps, the finest 'true' Hollywood film ever made. Unflinching in it's willingness to "name names", to illustrate the caste system that would make (and break) actors, and the extent the film community controlled both the police and the press, the film works as both a terrific noir-style detective story, and a bittersweet biography of the charming, doomed actor who would become an unwilling hero to a generation of children.
The film tells parallel stories, after Reeves' nude corpse is discovered, in June, 1959. The first involves a seedy P.I., Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is 'tipped' that Reeves' mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) believes her son's death was not suicide, but murder, and needs a good investigator to dig up the truth; the second, done in flashback, relates the post-war tale of actor George Reeves
(Ben Affleck), who will do anything to jump-start a career 'dead-ended' into 'B' serials by the late '40s. A flirtation with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane, who is superb), the aging but still-sexy wife of MGM exec Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), provides Reeves an 'angel' to promote him, but also erodes his dignity, as he becomes a well-compensated 'gigolo' to Mannix.
Simo quickly discovers that the police investigation had been botched, with incongruities (three bullet holes at the crime scene, the murder pistol having been wiped clean), conveniently ignored. A growing list of suspects emerges...could the killer be the jilted lover, Toni Mannix, her overly-protective husband, Eddie, Reeves' coarse ex-fiancÚ, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)...or someone else?
Meanwhile, an embarrassed Reeves auditions for a kiddie show, "The Adventures of Superman", never expecting it to get a sponsor...then sees the show 'picked up', literally changing America's viewing habits, and 'typing' him forever as Superman...costing him any hope of an acting or directing career...
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Brody's jaded yet still idealistic Simo both believable and sympathetic. He laughs at the hypocrisy rampant in Hollywood, but is torn by his son's pain over seeing his hero, Reeves, betray his trust by killing himself. The performance nearly equals Lane's complex, anguished portrayal of Toni Mannix, a woman watching the last of her beauty fade, ripped away by losing her younger lover.
Ben Affleck deserves a particular 'nod', as Reeves; while bearing only a passing resemblance to the star, at best, he gives the role a depth he has never displayed on-screen, previously. What you see isn't the smug, arrogant Affleck persona of nearly all of his films; instead, you see a sweet, often naughty but likable rogue, who sees his dreams of great roles and screen immortality end in red and blue tights in a 'kiddie' show...the only complaint I have is the nearly cartoonish portrayal Affleck gives, as 'Superman', in the staged AOS scenes and personal appearances; Reeves never portrayed the Man of Steel as a buffoon on TV, or drank heavily before a 'live' appearance; he was too much of a professional, and cared too much about his influence on kids, to give anything less than his best.
As I stated earlier, the story occasionally veers from the truth; while it was true that wrestling was considered, when acting and directing jobs 'dried up', "Superman" was again picked up, after a season off the air (a fact not mentioned in the film), and Reeves happily planned a return to the steady paycheck of the series, abandoning the wrestling move
(with NO 'training' film of an 'out-of-shape' Reeves ever shot); while Eddie Mannix and Reeves were portrayed as enemies, they were, in fact, at least casual friends (Reeves actually started dating Toni BEFORE her marriage, and Eddie was aware she was still involved, afterward); the fact that Reeves' body was embalmed before an autopsy could be performed is never mentioned, but is even further evidence of a police 'cover-up'; Reeves' mother was never 'bought off' to keep her silent; the 'kid-with-a-real-gun' scene never actually occurred (it was actually fabricated by Reeves to try to avoid making appearances in the uncomfortable and embarrassing costume, although his concern about children was genuine). There are other glitches, in the film, as well, but the film DOES accurately tell the story, for the most part.
All-in-all, "Hollywoodland" is a remarkable film, about a most bittersweet time in my generation's lives.
It should not be missed!
Hollywoodland A Little History by Ben Burgraff
Miramax is releasing "Hollywoodland";
the film actually got a lot of attention nearly two years ago, back
when the film's title was "Truth, Justice and the American
Way" (which Warner nixed), when photo captures of Kyle
MacLachlan's screen test for Reeves appeared on the 'Net. At that
time, Joaquin Phoenix was slated to play the detective, Michelle
Pfeiffer was the frontrunner to play Toni Mannix, and James Woods
was committed to play studio publicist /'fixer', Howard Strickling
(who, according to legend, 'covered up' the murder). I think
MacLachlan was dead-on as Reeves, but he lacked bankable 'star'
power, and Miramax wanted a big name as Reeves to draw in audiences
(they courted Mel Gibson, Clive Owen, and Robert Downey, Jr, but
they all 'passed' on the project).
Hollywood in 1959 wasn't quite the same, but nostalgia is more important for ticket sales than accuracy. Diane Lane, as Toni, is more accurate to the real woman than Michelle, though far younger (Mannix was 53 at the time of Reeves' death) and much more attractive (Mannix was vivacious, and very sexual, rather than 'traditionally' glamorous). Eddie Mannix, her husband (played by Bob Hoskins), was 68, and was, in fact, a very jealous man (although he had a history of ignoring his wife's frequent indiscretions). Howard Strickling (now portrayed by balding Joe Spanos, who doesn't resemble him much, either), was legendary in Hollywood for saving actors' butts when they did stupid things (he covered up Errol Flynn's escapades for years, before and after his infamous, though trumped-up, rape trial), and for protecting studio 'images'.
The popular theory is that Reeves, when he proposed to brunette Lenore Lemmon (portrayed by a FAR more glamorous Robin Tunney, in the film), dumped his long-time mistress/benefactor, Toni, and she, enraged, 'spilled the beans' of her affair to her husband, in tears. Eddie Mannix, enraged, hired a hit man, who murdered Reeves (who, though intoxicated and nude, put up a struggle), in Reeves' bedroom. Quickly attempting to make it look like Reeves had killed himself (despite Reeves' body being face down on his bed...which didn't jive with the angle of entry of the bullet...bruises on Reeves' face and body, and
Three bullet holes, one of which was in a wall), there was enough evidence that the police could have built a case for foul play, but Howard Strickling 'bought off' the detectives and Lemmon (who might have raised some embarrassing questions), and the official verdict was 'suicide'.
No one raised any questions at the time (who wanted to risk losing their careers?), but Reeves' mother insisted he would never have killed himself, and the popular (alcohol/depression at being unemployed) theory never made any sense (Kellogg had just renewed "Superman", Reeves had at least a couple of director jobs on tap, he was days away from getting married, and was, by all accounts, in very good spirits, despite the alcohol, on the night of his
Oh, and just to muddy the Reeves' death scenario further...his fiance, Lenore Lemmon, is as legitimate as murder suspect as Toni and Eddie Mannix! She was VERY free-spending of Reeves' cash (a part of which came from Toni Mannix, who spent lavishly on George), and was, by all accounts, not a nice person (even if George loved her). The pair DID fight, frequently, and her fingerprints were on the gun (while, amazingly, his were smudged, and apparently not as recent). Witnesses said she was downstairs when the shots were fired, and she would claim the 'second hole' was the result of his teaching her how to shoot (in his bedroom???), earlier...Strickling would have still performed a 'cover-up' if she were guilty, to protect the Mannix name, which would have come up in an
According to some witnesses, there were NO gunpowder burns on Reeves' fingers, which would have been easily seen if he ACTUALLY fired the gun!
Jack Larsen has always maintained an opinion that Reeves did, in fact, take his own life, but nearly everyone else who knew Reeves has agreed that murder was more likely. Reeves was a light-hearted free spirit, in real life, who enjoyed entertaining, spending money, and his friends' company. Certainly, he was bitter over the direction his career had gone, but he also saw many of his peers unemployed, and he was realistic enough not to complain that he was 'in demand', even if in a Superman suit! Plus, he loved children, and felt a responsibility to them (he even quit smoking, cold turkey, just so kids wouldn't 'light up', like Superman!) Suicide would have been something he'd never have even contemplated (which brought up another scenario, for his death...that he had kept 'blanks' in his gun, and was performing a 'Superman' stunt for Lenore, which backfired, as Eddie Mannix or the 'hit man' had substituted the 'blanks' with real bullets...in this scenario, Lenore attempted to make things look like suicide, just to avoid bad press for herself).
A mystery, with many possible solutions!
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