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On June 16, 1959, 45-year-old actor George Reeves was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the temple. At least that's what the police report said. His mother refused to believe it. She insisted that her son—a so-so film actor who became typecast playing Superman on television—would not have committed suicide. Did someone else pull the trigger?
Shabby, recently divorced private investigator Louis Simo, hungry for a client and affected by the impact "Superman's death" is having on his young son, thinks it's possible. So he follows the elderly woman's maternal instincts and uncovers a handful of people who might have wanted her son dead. Maybe it was his combustible socialite fiancée, Leonore Lemmon, an aspiring actress who saw Reeves as her inside track to fame. Or how about Toni Mannix, the wife of a high-ranking MGM executive whose affair with the younger Reeves ended when Lemmon entered the picture? And don't count out Mannix's powerful husband, Edgar, a former gangster who would do anything to protect the reputations of his wife and his movie studio.
"What [screenwriter] Paul Bernbaum did that was so original was to build the script around the [fictional] detective, Louis Simo," says producer Glenn Williamson. "This allowed him to be very authentic with George Reeves' story. So you're brought in by the famous mystery, and held by a multilayered and very human character story." That story includes Simo's romantic relationship with his assistant, Kit, and his attempts to remain relevant in the lives of his son and ex-wife.
The film jumps back and forth effectively. One minute it replays scenes from Reeves' life, the next it chronicles Simo's struggles to piece together those moments in order to catch a killer. The historical what-ifs surrounding Reeves' death make for a darkly interesting Mickey Spillane-meets-L.A. Confidential-meets-"How to Host a Murder" period flick set in a nostalgic, ostensibly innocent era when movie stars had a way of finding scandal, and studios did their best to avoid it.
Seeing children fail to differentiate between Superman and the actor portraying him sends shivers, reminding us of entertainment's ability to shape a person's sense of reality. Simo loves his son deeply, and hurts when he fails to connect with him. He also cares for the wife who left him. Home movies show Simo enjoying time with them. Deception and dysfunction among Hollywood's privileged, morally corrupt elite carries a price. Edgar Mannix comforts his distraught wife, vowing to protect her no matter what.
On the advice of his fatherly agent, George elects not to smoke in view of young fans. Reeves also personifies how a man can rob himself of joy by failing to count his blessings (being adored by millions of children for a cheesy TV show) while focusing only on the fame that eludes him (leading film roles and respect as a serious actor). Like Reeves, Simo doesn't consider himself "successful" compared to his peers—a similarity not lost on the detective, who gains perspective on his own life and presumably learns from Reeves' mistakes. Most notably, Simo more deeply appreciates his role as a father.
Cards containing images of Jesus are left at the crime scene to mark the location of bullet hits in both the floor and the victim. Simo advises a woman with marital troubles to consult a priest.
Though the filmmakers spare audiences nudity, several sexual situations are still explicit. A strategically clothed couple is shown having passionate intercourse in bed. Elsewhere, Simo and Kit's boisterous activities are heard through a motel-room door. They show up in bed together again later. The camera focuses on Reeves' face as a woman performs oral sex on him. There are also sexual innuendoes and racy come-ons, mainly from the foul-mouthed Leonore.
Toni and Edgar Mannix have an "open" marital relationship. He has his sexual liaisons, she has hers, and both are "OK" with that if it makes the other happy. Unaware that Toni is a mogul's wife, George meets her at a social function, kisses her and takes her home for sex. The one-night stand turns into a prolonged affair. During a dinner with Edgar and his Asian mistress, Toni playfully gropes George under the table.
George's buddy makes a crack about people mistaking them for a gay couple. Fifties pin-up photos line a wall. During an on-set prank, George (as Clark Kent) drops his trousers and starts simulating sex with the actress playing Lois Lane. Afraid that he might be harboring an attraction to that co-star, Toni suggests that the woman is a lesbian. Another female is accused of being a "slut." Simo scolds Kit for sleeping with someone behind his back. A paranoid man hires Simo to shadow his wife, convinced that she is cheating on him.
A tether's rigging breaks during a flying scene, dropping George face-first onto the wooden floor. Simo's investigation and comments to the press earn him a visit from thugs who beat him up and whack him on the head with a heavy chain (the side of his face is a mess). A headline and photo reveal that Edgar lost a previous wife in a suspicious car crash. Clippings report a similar accident involving Reeves after someone drained the brake fluid out of his car. George was under the false impression that his father, who actually abandoned the family, committed suicide.
Simo describes a riot years earlier that left him with a sizable scar. He later accuses Edgar of bashing someone's face in. We learn that a man consumed with jealousy brutally shot his wife to death. Her crumpled corpse marks the end of a bloody trail revealing how she dragged herself across the floor.
After a visit to the bloodstained crime scene (and another to the morgue) we see the shooting death of George Reeves played out in several different scenarios. One leaves his final moment more to the imagination (just a flash seen from the street), while others show blood spraying.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 60 profanities or instances of truly vulgar slang (sexual and anatomical). The profanities include 15 f-words, nearly as many s-words, several abuses of Jesus' name and a dozen uses of "g--d--n." Crass expressions range from remarks about bodily functions to an ethnic slur and derogatory terms for homosexuals.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Tobacco use is rampant, though Simo is clearly trying to quit and refers to smoking as a filthy habit. During a particularly stressful moment, he retrieves a hidden butt and takes a deeply satisfied drag. A guy gives Simo a cigar to celebrate the birth of a child.
A despondent Simo appears to have been drinking when he visits his boy after school. In addition, social drinking is common. After his first night with Toni, an anxious George turns to alcohol upon waking the way most people zero in on a coffee pot. Just before making a public appearance as Superman, George drinks from a flask and sucks on a cigarette. Reviewing evidence, someone notes that Reeves was on pain pills.
Other Negative Elements
Simo steals a newspaper and tells lies to procure information. Discreetly photographed from the side, a disrobing Reeves is obviously naked just before his death.
Faster than a speeding f-word. More powerful than a racy sex scene. Able to leap bloody reenactments in a single bound. Actually, that R-rated material isn't easily overcome. In fact, it's deadly kryptonite to Hollywoodland, an otherwise riveting, poignant statement about the complexities of tragic human relationships and how they can leave a wake of victims, suspicion and pain with no clear answers or obvious culprits. So much for "truth, justice and the American way."
First-time feature director Allen Coulter does a terrific job of re-creating the 1950s and shifting smoothly between the intersecting stories (and time frames) of Simo and Reeves. Star Adrien Brody is particularly effective as the flim-flam gumshoe who takes on the case as a $50-a-day meal ticket, only to identify more and more with the victim so that his search for truth becomes an intensely personal quest—one that will resonate with Superman fans of that generation.
I'm not old enough to have seen Reeves' black-and-white Adventures of Superman during its original run. Even so, as a child of syndication I recall my own disappointment upon finally learning that the Man of Steel had taken his own life—with a bullet no less. Didn't the adoration of millions of kids matter to him? Why would a beloved cultural icon do such a thing? Or did he? Decades later, a film arrives suggesting that Reeves may have been murdered. My disillusioned inner child hoped it might finally get some answers. Instead I got seedy insights into Reeves' immoral dalliances and professional frustrations. And no definitive revelations about who held that smoking gun.
That ambiguity felt uncomfortable until it occurred to me that that may be the filmmaker's point. Professionally and personally, Simo gets tossed around while trying to make sense of the destructive choices people make. The detective wants to know who pulled the trigger, what led to the chaos, where key players stand and why. He needs to make sense of tragedy—both in his criminal investigation and his divorce. It's so much easier to process pain and move ahead when all the evidence adds up and we have someone to blame.
But life doesn't always provide closure. Hollywoodland challenges audiences to process that, hoping that they will accept it and leave the theater nodding in agreement rather than shaking their heads in frustration. Of course, viewers blindsided by intense sexual situations and blue language will be shaking their heads in frustration for a very different reason.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Adrien Brody as Louis Simo; Ben Affleck as George Reeves; Diane Lane as Toni Mannix; Bob Hoskins as Edgar Mannix; Robin Tunney as Leonore Lemmon; Lois Smith as Helen Bessolo; Caroline Dhavernas as Kit Holliday; Molly Parker as Laurie Simo; Zach Mills as Evan Simo
Allen Coulter ( Remember Me)