Hollywoodland: 2006, dir. Allen Coulter. Seen at Galaxy Highland (press screening).
I love watching movies that re-create or fictionalize notorious Hollywood history. For example, I’m very fond of The Cat’s Meow, the retelling of the mysterious death of Thomas Ince. The new film Hollywoodland, as indicated by its title, is also about a famous unsolved Hollywood murder, back in the day when the Hollywood sign contained four extra letters*. The difference between The Cat’s Meow and Hollywoodland, however, is that The Cat’s Meow devises a fictional and satisfying resolution to the unsolved murder. I’m told the upcoming film The Black Dahlia does something similar. Hollywoodland, on the other hand, prefers to stick to the facts as much as possible, which causes some problems with the ending.
The movie focuses on the unexpected death of actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck), best known for his TV role as Superman, by gunshot wound in 1959. The death was ruled a suicide, but detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) finds evidence that may rule otherwise. Was his death related to his longtime affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a studio exec’s wife? What about his fiancee, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)? Or is there some other, hidden motive?
Hollywoodland neatly wraps two storylines into one narrative: Simo’s involvement with the case, and the ways in which it affects his personal life; and a flashback of Reeves’ life from his meeting with Toni Mannix to the night of his death. The movie does an excellent job at tying the two storylines together so that we’re always aware of which time period we’re in. When the movie cuts from one time period to another, we immediately see one of the principal characters to anchor us in the proper storyline. My only complaint is that the film also includes some fantasy sequences about the night of Reeves’ death, which are filmed in the same style as the rest of the film. The first time, it seems to be done strictly for a “gotcha” effect (like the dream sequence in The Princess Bride); but it’s a weak device that adds unnecessary confusion. The story should be suspenseful enough without these scenes.
I enjoyed the Reeves’ storyline much more than the detective storyline, and was sorry not to see more of it. In fact, I would have preferred the detective story as a glorified framing device, especially considering the resolution of the film. One reason why is that I never connected much with Brody’s character. Brody is good, but when I looked at the guy onscreen, I saw Brody first and Simo second. Perhaps he’s becoming too instantly recognizable (although I didn’t have that trouble with Affleck). I last saw him in King Kong, a role quite similar to this one as well as another period film, so perhaps that’s the reason. Diane Lane, on the other hand, was quite believable as Toni Mannix, and one of the film’s more compelling characters.
Affleck is perfectly cast as Reeves — perhaps too perfect, considering Affleck’s own career and personal life. Reeves had trouble landing serious acting roles because everyone associated him with Superman, while Affleck’s personal life has definitely had a negative effect on his career.
Hollywoodland is gorgeously photographed, evoking the two time periods beautifully. Cinematographer Michael Berenbaum has also photographed the TV show Desperate Housewives, and a lot of Hollywoodland has a similarly lush look. In addition, the editing of Reeves’ films to substitute Affleck (as in From Here to Eternity) was seamless.
Overall, the dialogue is never quite as witty as it wants to be. The lines are more slowly paced than one would expect from characters trying to talk tough in 1950s Hollywood. However, the incidental music choices are excellent — I was amused by “Cheek to Cheek” playing in the background during a dinner with the Mannixes and their respective amours.
The structure of the film doesn’t support the ending well. I would have been happier if Hollywoodland had ended with the last scene about Reeves, or even if the last scene with Simo had indicated some definite resolution. The movie just stops, perhaps to let us know that real life ended in the same unresolved way, but it is unsatisfying. I also felt the film was a little too long (it’s over two hours, not counting trailers and such), and would have worked better with 20 minutes cut — the subplot with Simo’s paranoid client could have vanished with no difficulty.
Ultimately, Hollywoodland does not quite deliver what its suspenseful premise and lovely visuals promise, but the performances help make the film worth a look.
*Wikipedia claims the four extra letters were removed in 1949 — most of the events in this movie occur after the sign was altered. So how fitting a title is it, or is it supposed to evoke an even older Hollywood? Food for thought.