The Strange Case of Superman

  • Share
  • Read Later
The best-case scenario for George Reeves would have been a car dealership in the San Fernando Valley. You know, one of those gigs where he could have donned an old Superman cape and done silly commercials — once all the rage on late-night TV in Southern California — in which he promised to make fabulous trade-ins faster than a speeding bullet.

That was not to be. Sometime in 1959, his Superman television series was canceled after 104 episodes, and, unable to find other acting jobs because he was so closely identified with his eponymous role, he died violently in what could be deemed mysterious circumstances. Hollywoodland tells Reeves's story through flashbacks and largely through the eyes of a private detective (Adrien Brody), hired by Reeves's mother, who suspects foul play, even though the coroner has ruled his death a suicide. The film focuses on the "mystery" of his demise, and there are just enough enigmas in it to — shakily, finally unpersuasively — support that premise.

Reeves had been having an affair with an older, married woman whose husband was no stranger to violence. And Reeves did have a live-in girlfriend with a jealous streak. But in the end the movie cannot link his death to either of these factors. Soberly written by Paul Bernbaum and unsensationally directed by Allen Coulter, it has to leave Reeves pretty much where it finds him, as a man who wanted to be a movie legend but ended up as the subject of movie gossip. That talk has always been minor — we're not discussing the industrial-strength suppositions impressionable people have created around the similar passing of Marilyn Monroe — yet it has also been persistent. That's because of the crude, inherent irony in it. Neither the Man of Steel nor the man playing him is supposed to have a rubbery psyche. Indeed, he's not supposed to have a psyche at all.

Hollywoodland, to its credit, does not give Reeves, who is well and affably played by Ben Affleck, much of an inner life. It presents him as a good-natured hunk, a kind of male starlet, who got off to a promising start — he had a nice little role in Gone With the Wind, a rather longer one in So Proudly We Hail — but then lost momentum because of World War II service. His casting as Superman in a 1950 "B" feature, which in turn led to the fairly long-running TV series, was, in a sense, a lucky break — a steady job, when he desperately needed one.

But, especially in show biz, bad luck often first appears wearing a smiley face. For what neither Reeves nor anyone else at the time could see was how television was beginning to reorder America's fantasy life. Yes, the movies had already lost about one-third of their audience to the new medium, but that had to be, in Hollywood's arrogant opinion, a temporary thing. How could a little box, projecting flickering black-and-white images in the corner of the rumpus room, replace the romance of movies on a big screen? It seems likely that Reeves thought he could hide in plain sight on the contemptible small screen — do his part, collect his paycheck and go on dreaming about getting a still bigger break. He reckoned without the bored and restless kids who quickly made Superman must-see TV among the after-school set. He reckoned without their bemused parents who made his tacky little show a camp favorite (before the term became common coinage). Mostly, though, his problem was that he had never had a strong, starry identity before his TV apotheosis; in the public's mind, he was Superman or he was — nothing.

Unfortunately, Hollywoodland is not really up to sophisticated social-psychological explorations of Reeves's situation at the time of his death. It wants to melodramatize it more than it wants to fully understand it. The jealous girlfriend business doesn't go anywhere beyond the conventional, but the affair with the married woman does have some traction, in that Toni Mannix — played with lusty high spirits by Diane Lane — was the wife of Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), who was Louis B. Mayer's enforcer at M-G-M, the man who knew all the studio's secrets, scandalous and otherwise, and made sure they stayed secret. He was one tough guy, with connections to all the right cops and crooks (though, curiously, there were people in Hollywood's creative community who quite liked him, if only because he rarely spoke with forked tongue). The movie plays him as a complaisant cuckold, allowing his wife her affair and the money to subsidize her lover's needs. Mannix seems to have loved her in his fashion, and so long as Reeves treated her well, he remained quiescent. It is only after their affair ended and she became miserable, that Mannix's wrath was aroused and it becomes possible to imagine him dispatching hit men to avenge her.

But the operative word there is "imagine." The movie can't really prove anything against him beyond bad temper and a foul mouth. Which leaves us reaching for Occam's razor, that most useful of philosophical concepts, which holds that the simplest explanation for complicated events is generally the best one. In that sense, the occurrences recorded in Hollywoodland are like the theories surrounding Monroe's death (or, for that matter, JFK's assassination); they require a lot of coincidences to fall into place, as well as the complicity of too many unreliable individuals, for them to be truly plausible. The film just can't prove the point it wants to make, and it leaves us muttering inconclusively among ourselves about what really happened.

That said, Hollywoodland is in many respects an enjoyable movie. It has a good sense of movie life at levels below the top — down there where people are still striving to make a living, and are still knocked out when they catch a glimpse of Rita Hayworth in a restaurant. The cars they drive, the houses they lived in, the flaky ambitions they harbor are realized with a nice, casual authenticity. (Brody's private eye is a good example; he thinks if he can sensationally crack this case he could become the town's go-to gumshoe, the first guy called when scandal threatens a star.) We're not really in the land of noir here; we're in a much sadder, more ordinary place, a place where desperation does not lead to murder, but to more pathetic (but in a way more believable) ends and ironies.