George Reeves is a Hollywood legend, as much for his work as Superman as for the mystery of his death. The original Man of Steel was trapped by his own image, locked out from serious acting because he had a fan base with an average age of ten. It was frustrating enough to make the actor kill himself… or did he? That mystery remains unanswered, and not even Hollywoodland, which centers around the mystery of Reeves’ death, attempts to come up with a conclusive answer – one of the film’s many, many strengths.
Part of the reason Hollywoodland makes no attempt to solve the mystery of Reeves’ death is that the film is not strictly about Reeves. Instead the movie centers around a two-bit private investigator, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). Simo is the type of detective who is forced to take the cases other, more established detectives, won’t touch, but is always convinced that big case that will help break him into the big time is right around the corner – something that has cost the detective his marriage and put him on unstable ground with his young son. When Simo is handed the investigation of Reeves death he finally gets his shot at the big time, but with the studios and police wanting the case to remain closed, the detective certainly has his work cut out for him.
Although the film is advertised as an investigation into Reeves’ death, the truth is the story is about both Reeves and Simo and the parallels in their lives. Both men find themselves unhappy with their own place in life despite having some success (Simo worked for a detective firm before and had a family; Reeves had “The Adventures of Superman”). The parallels become absolutely fascinating as both stories unfold and the similarities of the steps the men go through become so obvious, despite being in different career paths. In the golden days of the studio system, Hollywood itself is a strong entity and it takes its toll on everyone within its borders, be he detective, studio exec, or actor. Knowing Reeves paid the ultimate price in his search for success in Tinsel-town, one can’t watch the film with a bit of dread that Simo is heading toward the same fate.
The film has an incredible cast whose abilities become even more impressive as I realized how there really are two separate casts who barely cross over. Ben Affleck and Diane Lane are at their career bests as Reeves and his lover/sugar-momma Toni Mannix. Meanwhile Adrien Brody shows why he is a previous Oscar winner in the movie’s real lead role. Supporting performances by powerhouses like Bob Hoskins or Jeffrey DeMunn make the film’s lack of Academy recognition particularly curious and a bit disappointing. Again, like in the story, the golden age of Hollywood is a powerful force as a character in itself, incredibly reproduced with a dual nature: the glitz and glamour we have seen time after time, and a seedy less polished underbelly – the part of the city where people like Reeves and Simo can be consumed and spit out without much notice.
As mentioned before, the mystery of Reeves death was officially ruled a suicide and never pursued any farther. Writer Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter make the smart decision not to try and stray from that solution with useless conjecture. Reeves is a case and a frame for Simo’s similar story, allowing fact and fiction to mesh together in both an idealistic and slightly gothic Hollywood landscape. Instead of a murder mystery, this is more of a character study; a look at characters unable to accept small success in favor of continuing to seek out larger victories and the fame that goes with it. In the end it’s what we do accomplish that matters more than what we don’t, even in Hollywoodland.
Despite amazing performances, fantastic design, and great production values, Hollywoodland was snubbed by the Academy, which probably cost fans a decent DVD release of the film. This edition is a single disc version with some short featurettes, a few deleted scenes, and only the commentary track that can really be considered substantial enough to be satisfying.
The disc includes three short featurettes, which, for my money, could have been condensed into one longer one. After all, the same people, graphics, etc. are in use for all of them. “Behind the Headlines” addresses some of the facts of Reeves case while admitting the film’s parallel structure. “Recreating Old Hollywood” looks a little bit at the approach Coulter took for the film’s look and style (for both the glamour of the Golden era and the seedier element). “Hollywood Then and Now” compares the modern day system to the old studio dominating days of Hollywood. None of the featurettes are outstanding which is a shame. You’d think a team that worked so hard to create an era gone by would be more willing to talk about their work... which is why I think that lack of Oscar nominations factors in here.
The deleted scenes add up to just about five minutes and mostly deal with Simo’s relationship with the detectives he used to work with. It would appear he had more support from one of them in the original script, as filmed. Then Hollywood takes its toll on Simo’s friend and he’s alone. Since the final cut puts Simo alone through most of the picture, which I think makes for a stronger story and parallel with Reeves’ story, I can’t say the deleted scenes mean much at all.
That leaves it up to the director’s commentary and the transfer of the film itself to be the saving graces of the DVD. Coulter isn’t the most fascinating person to listen to but it’s obvious that he was passionate about making this movie and clearly did his homework about the history of his town and craft. The transfer of the film is quite beautiful, which is another benefit for a film that is visually impressive. It shouldn’t be something we have to take note of anymore, especially after the extended HD-DVD commercial on the disc’s trailers, but I’m trying to find the good in a mediocre release.
If you missed Hollywoodland in theaters then obviously DVD is the way to go. The movie is worth your time and I hold that it is one of the better films of 2006, even if it is unrecognized for it. The DVDs extras make this more worth a rental than a purchase, but as long as you give the film a look you’re getting the best this release has to offer.