Our recent trip to the New York Historical Society and our glimpse of the costume George Reeves (1914-1959) wore during his titular stint on The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), got us thinking about that noteworthy and rather sad talent.
There are many today who sneer at Reeve’s performance as Clark Kent/Superman, most of them too young to have seen the show during its original run, or even in reruns. A quick view at the comments section of science fiction junk-news site www.io9.com, for instance, would reveal pimply basement-dwellers labeling Reeves as creepy, fey, lightweight or overweight. This is, of course, a sad commentary on contemporary science fiction buffs. In a world where Superman films are grim, ponderous affairs, where superheroes are treated with a weight and reverence denied even the greatest of literary classics, certainly the talents of a man like Reeves would be unwelcome.
However, sometimes it’s the times, and not the levels of artistry, that are off track. Reeve was the perfect Superman for what was fundamentally a different (and better) America. In the absence of identity politics, and buttressed by an intelligent and informed middle-brow, middle-class, it was possible to attack comic book material with both sincerity and fun without slipping into pretention and flummery.
Reeves was a player with an easy smile (indeed, a high-octane smile), a gentle demeanor and a true Everyman accessibility. His Superman was decent, kind, concerned and engaged. He was also distinctly American, back when American idealism and values actually, to some degree, existed. One well remembers Reeves as an angry Superman chasing away a mob of rednecks who wanted to murder some rather child-like people from the Earth’s core. “You’re acting like Nazi Stormtroopers!”
Better still was Reeves’ take on Clark Kent. Rather than the high-voiced milquetoast heard on radio, and later essayed by his successor, Christopher Reeve (1952-2004), Reeves’ Kent is a confident, capable investigative reporter, more than equal to most any occasion. One often wondered why Superman was needed at all – with this Kent on the job, things were already on track for a just resolution. (This is essential if one is going to understand Superman rather than, say, Batman. The benign, decent and crusading Clark Kent is the real human being, and Superman merely the disguise. Batman, though, is the real human being, or what is left of one, and Bruce Wayne merely a convenient fiction.)
The great tragedy of Reeves was his untimely death, deemed a suicide, though clouded by mystery to this day. This incident has haunted many Baby-Boomers for decades, (for instance, Frank Dello Stritto writes about it eloquently in his recent book, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It), and has fueled the speculations of countless armchair detectives.
So it is no surprise that Hollywood would eventually attempt to tell the story itself. The resulting film, Hollywoodland, written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, is a hit-and-miss affair, but it does manage to remain affective and poignant.
To tell the story, Bernbaum creates a fictional frame to tell the actual facts: a down-on-his-luck private eye named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is hired by Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith). She is convinced that Reeves would never have killed himself; Simo takes the case to win back the affection of his ex-wife (Mollly Parker) and son (Zach Mills).
The trail leads him into the world of Hollywood high-rollers Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), general manager at MGM, and his wife Toni (Diane Lane), who was Reeves’ longtime lover.
Brody is miserably miscast as the gumshoe, a part more suited to the melancholy talents of someone like the late Robert Mitchum (1917-1997). (The framing device of Simo never really takes off, either, and one wonders why Bernbaum thought it necessary.) Hoskins maintains a dangerous edge of menace and animal cunning … it would be an intrepid (or stupid) man who tangled with him.
Lane is nothing short of magnificent as Toni Mannix, a bottomless pit of doubt, need and self-pity. Her hungers and humiliations are uncomfortably real, and it’s stunning for an adult actress to allow herself to appear so naked and vulnerable. Why this performance wasn’t considered Oscar-worthy is a great injustice.
However, the film belongs completely to Ben Affleck (born 1972), who plays Reeves in flashback. While not as winning or innocently charming as Reeves himself, Affleck successfully channels the late actor’s nonchalance, his easy manner and his doughy sensuality. An inherently decent man in an indecent place, Reeves’ life spirals out of control as he loses his career, his self-respect, and his own self-image. It’s a complex and ingratiating performance, and Affleck has never been better.
Finally, the reason Hollywoodland works so well is the reason so many superhero films are disappointing: this film relies upon complex human relationships and often contradictory emotional attachments. It’s an internal drama, rather than an empty spectacle, and it details the inner turmoil of a real super man.