Who Owns Superman?

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The reviews are in for Hollywoodland, the new film opening this weekend that covers the mysterious death of TV's Superman star and struggling B-movie actor George Reeves. While the critics have been mixed to positive, it's hard to argue with the degree of scrupulous detail in the picture, from the exacting duplication of Reeves' famous superhero costume down to the mid-century furniture and curtains featured in interior scenes.

According to director Allen Coulter, it wasn't easy. Hollywoodland was produced by Focus Features, a division of GE's Universal Pictures, but rights to the original Superman TV show are held by a competing studio, Warner Bros. (a sister company of this magazine and website). "It was difficult dealing with Warner Bros., because they were extremely protective of their ownership rights," says Coulter, a first-time film director who previously helmed episodes of The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

Hollywoodland was allowed to use a Superman costume, because the fictional figure is so iconic it's considered part of the public domain. But for the original 1950s' TV show The Adventures of Superman, Warners had more legal clout. The studio was highly restrictive regarding the new movie's use of the TV show's original theme and famous introduction ("Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive...") "They looked at the opening title of the TV series down to the second," says Coulter. "We had to re-shoot the entire title sequence." As a result, Hollywoodland's version of the TV show's intro is a bit truncated, but only die-hard geeks will likely know the difference. "We re-did the voice-over, re-scored the music, and had to lose a refrain," says Coulter, a bit wistfully.

Ben Affleck, who plays Reeves, was obsessed with getting his real-life role down perfectly. He watched all 108 episodes of the original Superman series, read stacks of material about the actor's life and death, met with the actor who played Jimmy Olsen on the old TV show, and gained 20 pounds to more closely resemble the hunky TV hero. He even listened endlessly to CDs of Reeves' voice so he could get the same intonations and timbre. "It wasn't an imitation of George's voice, but an embodiment," says Coulter. There were other, more subtle shifts as well: contact lenses and a "very subtle" use of facial prosthesis.

Reeves life was full of complex psychological underpinnings. He was a solid actor, but rarely given a chance to show his real skills. He was a heavy drinker, caught in a relationship with the wife of a menacing studio executive. And, of course, he felt trapped in the role of the most powerful man on the planet. "There wasn't a day when Ben and I didn't discuss being respectful to George," concludes the director. "We wanted to give him the respect that he didn't get in his life."