The 1959 death of George Reeves, star of the popular Superman TV series, created a tantalizing Hollywood mystery. Was it suicide as the official reports stated, or murder? The question is at the center of a new film drama co-starring Oscar-winners Adrien Brody and Ben Affleck. Alan Silverman has a look at Hollywoodland.
June 1959. George Reeves is found dead of a gunshot wound. It is is front page news and that attracts the attention of seedy, publicity hungry private eye Louis Simo.
Once he's on the case, Simo starts to uncover clues that suggest foul play: clues some powerful people would prefer remain hidden.
The more he delves, the more Simo learns about Reeves, an actor who never achieved what he thought he was capable of; and who was haunted by the fact that it may have been his torrid affair with a studio executive's wife that opened the doors for the success he had as a costumed super-hero.
"There's a line where he says 'it should have been enough for a life,' what George Reeves had," says Ben Affleck.
Affleck, no stranger to unwelcome tabloid attention and career frustrations, plays Reeves in the film.
"The way that I got into looking at the character and the things that I identified with him were, among other things, feeling like you were someone other than who the outside world saw you as [and] the injuries that he sustained, in some ways, from that. There's a lot about him that he went through as a person that, I think, a lot of people can identify with. I think he was an interesting guy who thoroughly lived his life and that offered a lot of entries into understanding him and he was a pretty rich character.
Adrien Brody plays the fictional character of Simo and Brody says the film is crafted so that, as the detective learns more about the case, there is a self-awareness that dawns.
"Simo starts out with a tremendous amount of apathy toward most things," explains Broday. "He craves what George craves, which is more success and more respect under the assumption that will bring him fulfillment. I think it was the fact that he gained some empathy and understanding of life ...that, in a sense, things are difficult either way ...so he grew up in the journey."
That journey leads to some evidence that could support several scenarios about Reeves' death; and the ambiguity is just right according to Diane Lane, who co-stars as Toni Mannix - a real person, the studio executive's wife with whom Reeves was romantically involved.
"Oh, I think it's much more fun to leave it up to the audience," Lane says. "I think the actors playing the characters have their vote about what they believe just as much as an audience member would."
"The reality is nobody knows what happened on the night of June 16, 1959 in that particular room on Benedict Canyon, " Director Allen Coulter says. He believes a solution to the murder-or-suicide mystery is less important than what Hollywoodland says to the living.
"It is a cautionary tale about the pursuit of fame and the belief that your life means nothing until you have a certain kind of fame," he says.
Ben Affleck agrees and adds that he hopes Hollywoodland, with its blend of fact and fiction, provides a more nuanced portrait of these show business celebrities.
"George Reeves was an iconic guy because of who he played and that was, in some ways, tragic for him," Affleck notes. " That very tragedy and paradox, in a sense that he got the thing that he wished for and it ultimately was very destructive, is part of what makes the story and character so good. The onus was on me and the writers to be consistent with who the guy really was. There is a kind of burden and responsibility and I think even more so because I think of George as a guy who never really got a fair shake. So I thought it was the least that we could do here ...to give him his fair shake, finally, that he did not get in his career or following his death."
Hollywoodland also features veteran English actor Bob Hoskins as the ruthless studio executive Eddie Mannix. Robin Tunney is a young starlet engaged to marry George Reeves and who was in his house at the time of his death. The screenplay is by Paul Bernbaum and Hollywoodland was shot at many of the locations where the actual events took place some 50 years ago.