Superman, Without The X-Ray Vision

In "Hollywoodland," Ben Affleck plays 1950s TV Superman George Reeves and Diane Lane his spurned and maybe vengeful lover. (By George Kraychyk -- Focus Features)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006

Look! Down in the bed! Faster than nothing, more powerful than nothing, able to leap nothing. It's Superman! He's dead!

And so it was, at least on the night of June 16, 1959, when George Reeves, the handsome, affable, seemingly simple and decent star of the TV hit "The Adventures of Superman" and an icon to an entire generation, was found with a bullet hole through his brain (the bullet itself was in the ceiling) in his house in Beverly Hills.

Where were you when Superman died? Not yet born? I was in the eighth grade, and even if a tad old for the building-leaper, I wept a little for him anyway, as did so many fellow boomers. He stood so foursquare for truth, justice and the American way. Later, when I learned that his interpretation of that code turned out to mean two martinis at lunch and let's get laid as often as possible, I wept again. Who among us could not embrace those goals?

"Hollywoodland," with Ben Affleck, the great Diane Lane and hangdog Adrien Brody, investigates his death, penetrating the "mystery" that has surrounded it since the big bang. The event appears indeed to boast some genuine mystery. Some facts: Though Reeves was said to be depressed because he couldn't get any roles other than Superman, the series had just been renewed. He was engaged to a young, beautiful New York actress; he had finally broken off with the married woman with whom he had been having an affair. He was filming "Psycho" for Alfred Hitchcock in the role of the detective, Arbogast (played ultimately by Martin Balsam), his biggest non-Supe role in years. These circumstances don't sound much like they'd lead a man to an appointment with a Luger.

Some other facts: He had been hanging out with his fiancee and some friends, drinking a bit, playing the guitar, seemingly happy. He'd been upstairs but a minute when the fatal shot rang out. Nobody called the cops for 45 minutes. He was found lying on top of the ejected cartridge casing, while the Luger itself was on the floor. He'd just had two suspicious car accidents that may have been caused by tampering. His rejected lover had been making death threats. Her husband was a famous studio exec, known as MGM's enforcer and said to have mob ties.

Hmmm. Allen Coulter's film explores these conundrums faithfully and fairly; it reaches no conclusions but speculates on the possibilities in an evenhanded way and lets us wonder while not beating us over the head. (The facts support no solution, only interpretations.)

It's almost a good movie.

But though brilliantly acted, it's not. For some reason, the director and the writer (Paul Bernbaum) have chosen an exceedingly awkward path into the material. They break the narrative into two strands, and play them off each other in cheap and easy ways for insubstantial effect. The first is a biographical account of the big lug who flew through the air, bumbled into iconhood and then tried to continue a serious career knowing that too much of Hollywood thought he was a joke. That's moving, if never heroic; it shows manliness, gumption, guts and grit.

The second strand is far less interesting. Really, what's the point? It takes off from the fact that Reeves's mother -- bitter over his death at 45 -- hired famous Hollywood private detective Jerry Geisler to investigate the circumstances of the shooting and challenge the police and district attorney's hasty, but not necessarily wrong, conclusion that it was suicide. But the filmmakers don't "fictionalize" the Geisler initiative in substantive or satisfactory ways; instead, they invent a dick named Louis Simo and play out almost a pastiche of private-eye cliches, down to long dark nights of the soul, a broken marriage, veiled warnings from the big boys -- tin-plate versions of the tropes that Raymond Chandler alone was able to make real and fundamentally American.

Meanwhile, Affleck gives his best performance in years as Reeves, and the material is fascinating, as most star bios tend to be. Reeves, handsome and athletic, made it to Hollywood in the late '30s and, hair dyed red, spoke some of the first lines in "Gone With the Wind" as one of the Tarleton twins before being shunted aside by folks named Gable, Leigh and Howard. He struggled throughout the early '40s in poverty-row westerns, where his symmetrical features, pearly-white smile, bulk and grace made him a natural B staple, if never quite the guy who got the gal or sang the songs. After the war -- during which he made training films for the Air Corps -- he began an affair with a beautiful, slightly older married woman, Toni Mannix, who appeared to have an arrangement with her forgiving, even older husband, Eddie. These less than charming people are played by Diane Lane -- who, rather than let vanity rule, has the guts to show her age and her character's aging process -- and Bob Hoskins. Lane, especially, is dynamic: Smarter than George, more manipulative, she was also generous (she bought him his house) and genuinely in love. They seemed to live together quite openly, with Eddie content to be the little man behind the curtain. But he was, it was said, a very tough guy, with possible mob connex, as Variety might put it, and when Reeves finally dumps her, the movie (and a book) argue that it's possible Eddie set up a little payback for the hurt done his wife.

In professional matters, Reeves made a movie in the "Superman" role in 1950, thinking very little of it; and the film evidently never got wide release. A little later, however, it was the basis for a TV series that was picked up with Kellogg's cereals as its sponsor and became one of the reigning phenomena of early tube culture, with its campy beginning soon etched into the American consciousness forever. Reeves was fine for the limited ambitions of the thing: square of jaw, broad of shoulder, steely of glare, yet softened and humanized by the horn-rimmed glasses. (Am I alone in liking him more as Clark than as Superman?)

He was utterly unprepared for what us millions of kids unloaded on him: idolization and weirdness. The movie dramatizes a famous episode in which a small boy approached him with a loaded pistol, meaning to shoot and see whether the bullets would bounce off. But it also repeats a canard: Reeves's one late claim to respectability was a small role in Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity." Myth has it that when Reeves came on screen as one of Burt Lancaster's sergeant buddies and confessed to an affair with the captain's wife (played by Deborah Kerr), preview audiences hooted. The film shows its version of Zinnemann turning to a producer and brutally making a snipping motion with his fingers. But comparisons of the script and the film show that all of Reeves's lines remained intact; possibly he'd exaggerated in his own mind the importance of what was, after all, just a bit part.

Covering this incident, "Hollywoodland" gives us a digitally inserted Affleck sharing the black-and-white screen with Burt Lancaster. I concede that it works, particularly if you know nothing; but if you have an abiding fondness for George Reeves, Fred Zinnemann, Burt Lancaster and "From Here to Eternity" (admittedly, about six of us) the sequence will seem a desecration.

The movie is at its best in its evocation of Hollywood at the dawn of the television era, when the town was reinventing itself and people were scrambling to find a place in the new structure. Maybe Reeves was too one-dimensional to play anybody but a comic book character, though now and then he showed a kind of charming irony even in the simplistic scripts and against the backdrop of clumsy special effects. Maybe he was too handsome in a boring, character-free way. Maybe he liked drinking and partying a bit too much.

Whatever, the film is all but mesmerizing when it evokes the old rogue with charm and affection as it studies his last, doomed, Icarus-like fall to earth.

Hollywoodland (126 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, violence and sexual innuendo.

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