Truth, Justice And the HBO Way

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Allen Coulter. Never heard of him, and this seems to be by design. Some directors -- even in this era when the back of the camera gets as much ink as what's in front of it -- don't want to be famous so much as deliberate. He's this polite little man in a brown sweater and immaculate sneakers, hesitant to talk too much about himself, and politely refusing to tell us his age. (Fifty-something? A polite guess.)

He's directed, by his count, 1,000 television commercials ("Gosh, let's see, for Pepsi . . . and a whole bunch of other stuff," he says), and "ABC Afterschool Special" in 1991 (it was about censorship and rock music) and unsold cop drama pilots, and much later, some key episodes of "The Sopranos": the one where Tony takes Meadow to college, or the one where Tony has that undulating 40-minute dream sequence that drove some fans to fits. He directed four episodes of "Sex and the City." He did the "Rome" episode last season where Lucius Vorenus leaves Caesar's army and becomes a reluctant goon for hire. In other words, HBO made Allen Coulter, and Allen Coulter made some HBO.

Now comes his first feature film, "Hollywoodland," about Superman.

No, not about Superman. The whole time they were making "Hollywoodland," there was faint talk in the background about Warner Bros.' "Superman Returns" revival this summer, and it applied not in the least, because Coulter was busy putting a bullet through Superman's head, from about four or five angles. His Superman, played by a purposely doughy Ben Affleck, wears a gray and white costume because he's on black-and-white TV.

It's about George Reeves, the B-list screen actor and, late in his career, the Superman of the TV serial. George Reeves, who either did or did not shoot himself in the head, at age 45, in his Benedict Canyon home on June 16, 1959. The death raised a number of questions, and the evidence for suicide was always a little suspect. Reeves had a long affair with an MGM mogul's wife, and had dumped her for a younger woman; then again, friends said he was feeling washed-up. There's this line in Paul Bernbaum's script that Coulter just adores, uttered by Diane Lane, who plays the jealous mogul's wife: "George killed himself. He was shot."

He was shot. "Shot. As in used up, spent, which is what it also meant then," Coulter observes. "That's how I read it."

The line sort of reflects the ambiguity of "Hollywoodland," in which Louis Simo, a fictional, freelance gumshoe (played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody) tries to grab some public relations for himself by making a show of investigating the last days of Reeves's life.

Affleck, wearing blue contact lenses and a prosthetic nose, plus 20 pounds, plays Reeves as a spooky riff on celebrity downfall. "I tried to get him to pack on even more [weight]," Coulter says. An intriguing sequence re-creates Reeves's last big break -- a supporting, and ultimately uncredited, role in "From Here to Eternity." At the premiere, the audience giggles when he shows up on screen; they can't think of him as anything but Superman. Reeves is crushed, and one producer makes scissor-fingers to another. (Affleck, perhaps drawing on experience, has no problem evoking the sinking shame of sitting through a bad screening. "He wanted this part really bad," Coulter says. Affleck wore an iPod around the set with various clips of Reeves's voice; he also watched all 112 episodes of the TV show.)

The morning after Reeves's death, a nation had to console a lot of little boys in terry cloth towel capes who'd idolized TV's Superman, and when that was done, the culture, after some 84-point headlines in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and L.A. Times, churned forward. "Hollywoodland" is less a noir mystery, Coulter insists, than a character study and a careful fictionalizing of the evidence as known. That it is landing in theaters this Friday, so near to the Sept. 15 release of Brian de Palma's "The Black Dahlia," that legendarily unsolved murder from which all subsequent L.A. noir flows, is unfortunate. "Hollywoodland" is so studied, so precise, that it could get overlooked.

It's hard to get the '50s right. Much was made of a modern water bottle that popped up in a background still from George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck," last year, and Coulter lives in fear of this very thing. So far he's spotted no errors, although he was let down when he learned one of the supporting characters spoke with a stutter in real life. "I would have put that in," he says.

"Hollywoodland" is evenly split throughout between the glam, Kodachrome world of Reeves's Hollywood and the hot, washed-out look of Simo's grimy Los Angeles. Those worlds intersect only at a couple points, which means that all of Affleck's and Lane's scenes had very little to do with Brody. Affleck concerned himself with looking sturdy and yet pathetic, and Coulter had a lot of conversations with the actor about how men acted back then (as opposed to what passes for a man in Hollywood in today).

In Brody, meanwhile, Coulter found a colleague who is even more particular than himself.

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