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Ben Affleck has taken a lot of heat for his acting in the past few years. He had a sense of humor about Gigli, but even his reunion with Kevin Smith couldn’t win him back into America’s heart. After Surviving Christmas we haven’t heard from him in almost two years. Now he’s back with Hollywoodland, playing tragic Superman actor George Reeves, and he’s sure to let us know he takes this seriously.
“I researched it pretty meticulously and there was a tons of research that had been done before I even came on which I was the beneficiary of in terms of the screenplay and [director] Allen [Coulter] and the producers and what they had done,” Affleck said. “I was keyed into where to look and who to talk to. I wanted to play him as authentically as possible and fortunately he left behind a body of work that I could look at and watch. I saw 104 episodes of the television show among other things, 52 in color and 52 in black and white. He obviously had other work like he was in the beginning of Gone With The Wind. So there is stuff available and so that was a great help to me, but to not belabor the point, yes, I really wanted to try and treat him fairly. And you benefit from the huge wealth of information to draw from. So, if I screw that up I really have no excuse.”
The obvious tragedy of Reeves was his relatively early death. The film questions whether it was indeed suicide or murder, but up until then, Reeves was so despondent that his career went the way of popcorn, he seemed like he could have used a telephone hotline.
“There is a line where George Reeves says, 'It should've been enough for life' [regarding] what he had. To me it's about the condition of humanity whereby it's never really enough. It's that feeling, that ambition that drives you to achieve and for people to invent rockets and to build machines and the industrial age. It also keeps us perpetually kind of dissatisfied, that sort of grass is greener thing. Those things that at propel us at the same time frustrate us and stifle us in trying to live and manage those two things. It's really that contradiction and the contradictory impulses that are universally human that I believe everyone can understand and that are really painful. It's like in life us going, 'If I just had this then I would be happy.' And then finding out that that's not really the thing, and I think that's really what's at the root of it all for me and I think that it really kind of transcends Hollywood even though it is a really good example of that kind of thing because it is to the extreme.”
Of course, the media didn’t make things any easier for Reeves, always referring to him as Superman and speculating on his private life. Somehow, Affleck could relate to that. “I think that Hollywood is really different now than what it used to be. There were three networks, one kind of studio approved magazine and some whistle stop tours for stuff back then. It was a much different thing. It had not become, for better or worse, the kind of cult of personality, culture of celebrity kind of continual, carnivorous, voracious machine of fifteen outlets, however many of you are writing for the internet. The internet, bloggers, gossip, there are just additional layers upon layers. Those exist because there are people out there who are demanding that and so that is a really different, faster, almost immediate news cycle now and there are more mouths to feed so to speak. Also, there was a kind of, ironically, polite distance then in a certain way. I mean, you were Rock Hudson and everyone knew you were gay, but it just didn't get written about. That's not how it would be now. It would be really different. I'm not sure exactly how it would be if you were Rock Hudson. Even then though Reeves interestingly highlighted the kind of beginning of that period. He got into this car accident and none of the articles mentioned him by actual name. 'Superman crashes car. Faints at sight of own blood. Man of steel.' And so on. So it was a kind of wry sort of schadenfruede, slightly smug, detached putting down of people who are supposed to be elevated and that practice of journalism which I'm sure none of you practice, but grew and has grown over the years. But I think that was the very first beginning of having idols who seemed bigger than everything and then the treat of it and the perverse thrill was finding out that they weren't really Superman, that in fact they were human and seeing them be destroyed to prove it and then lamenting them and looking back on the good things that they did.”
Affleck isn’t just whining for sympathy for actors. He acknowledges how the whole media has changed. “I think that it wasn't just Hollywood. I think that's the most trivial aspect of the media, the evolution of the media like to what degree they treat some celebrities sexual dalliances versus say presidential privacy. President Clinton versus Jack Kennedy. And the degree to which private lives being made public being accepted as what makes news and to what degree the media has to govern it's own self. It's like, 'Hey, look, we have this set of standards and we have to cite sources.' And the degrading of that is all part of the transition because the media, really, is a reflection of ourselves and what we show ourselves and there is also the thing where as the clothes became less formal, the way that we interacted and looked at one another and showed ourselves in our own society became reflective of that. I think that the movie doesn't necessarily pass judgment on that and I don't know what the judgment is, but it is certainly interesting to take note of. And for those of you folks in that job you would certainly know far better than I would to what extent that evolution has happened, what it feels like and what the differences are, to what degree you have editors who are telling you to go find this information versus that information.”
Hollywoodland began with the title Truth, Justice and the American Way. It was changed for fear of confusion with Superman Returns. “Sometimes there are these external circumstances that come into play after you've made a movie and before it comes out. Sometimes they work against you and sometimes they don't. I think that it's good. But I think that Superman as a character is pretty iconic. It's in the zeitgeist and that's why they keep making movies about it and that's why they keep making TV shows, and I think that it's a really good representation of this icon, the American hero icon particularly as seen through the media and movies and television. That's the guy and everything else goes down from there. So it's so perfectly emblematic for a certain kind of role. I think that would've made sense with or without the other Superman movie and I think that it's such a powerful and well known character that I don't think you have a whole bunch of the citizenry of the United States going, 'Wow, I forgot about that Superman guy, but then the movie came out this summer.'”
Hollywoodland opens Friday.