Ben Affleck has been kicking around Hollywood for years, even decades. His early career carried with it the kind of promise careers are made on. But when Ben met Jen everything changed. Suddenly the public turned on Affleck and Lopez, deciding it was their turn to be stoned until they were forced out of the limelight. JLo went her way (back to her Puerto Rican roots and into the arms of Marc Anthony), and Affleck married another Jennifer, disappeared almost completely and had a baby girl.
Affleck’s biggest crime, it seemed, was dating a beautiful woman. And perhaps thinking himself beautiful enough to strut his stuff at public events in fancy clothes and a sleek haircut. All along, though, nothing inside Affleck changed; he is still that same good actor. With his latest film, Hollywoodland the actor has a second chance at proving himself. Again.
Directed by Allen Coulter and written by Paul Bernbaum, Hollywoodland tells the heartbreaking, mysterious story of the death of George Reeves, a.k.a. Superman of the 1950s. The film is bookended by the story of two men – Reeves (Affleck) and a private dick, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) out to investigate Reeves’ death.
Simo starts out as a semi-crooked, buck-chasing divorce detective out to trap supposedly unfaithful wives. He has no respectability, is divorced, and visits his son every so often even if he hasn’t committed fully to being there. He’s has no real purpose in life and certainly no success to speak of. He picks up the scent of the Reeves story, sensing there may be some money in it for him and maybe even some notoriety, if he can prove the suicide was really a murder.
Reeves had bit parts in Hollywood before hitting it big with Superman. He found it difficult to move past that role, though, and one night he supposedly wandered upstairs and shot himself in the head. But, as Simo quickly susses out, there is much more to the story than that.
For one thing, Reeves had been dating the wife of a powerful studio exec with mob ties. Diane Lane gives a riveting performance as Toni Mannix, an older woman who fell madly in love with Reeves. Her husband Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), who has a mistress of his own, lets his wife do as she wishes. There are two plausible suspects right there, because when Reeves meets another, younger woman, he must break Toni’s heart. Eddie apparently didn’t like to see his wife cry. It would have been easy to have him bumped off.
Or his wife could have done it in a jealous fit. Or Reeves’ latest lady friend and supposed fiancé, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), could have flipped out and accidentally shot Reeves during an argument. There are many holes in the case; it sure didn’t look like suicide.
The film, seen through Simo’s eyes, gives us a few working theories, but the case remains closed, ruled to this day a suicide. It is partly our pathos for Reeves and partly Simo’s transformation from shallow moneygrubber to a man of character that makes Hollywoodland the moving story it is.
Helping things greatly are the actors. There is something about Affleck’s portrayal of Reeves that is inexplicably heartbreaking. His prosthetic nose doesn’t work very well, and some of his dialogue seems needlessly stilted. All the same, he ends up hitting it on the head.
Unfortunately for this film, someone already made a better film – Robert Towne/Roman Polanski’s brilliant Chinatown. And though these are very different movies, it’s tough not think about Chinatown while watching Hollywoodland. Both films depict a private dick who earns his respectability as the film goes on. In both films the lead actor suffers a facial injury that visually marks his transformation. And both films deal with the unreal world of the rich and famous. But there are more differences than there are similarities.
If you don’t compare the two films, you will likely enjoy the pace and character exploration of Hollywoodland, one of those great, long movies that never rushes through a single scene. The actors all give exceptional performances, but Affleck is the real standout, partly because his portrayal of Reeves is so achingly sad. Recently, Affleck won Best Actor for his work at the Venice Film Festival. Not bad for someone who was known a long while back as the wrong half of a monster called Bennifer.