Recently I watched the 2006 film Hollywoodland starring Ben Affleck as George Reeves, Diane Lane as his love Toni Mannix and Adrien Brody as a private investigator questioning the events surrounding Reeves’ death. The film is both a detective story, following Brody’s character as a protaganist, and a biopic of George Reeves. What makes the film interesting today, almost a decade later, is Ben Affleck’s role. There has been a lot of ado lately with Ben Affleck cast as Batman in the upcoming Batman V Superman film and it really should be pointed out that only a few years ago Ben Affleck played Superman and did a damn good job at it.
A brief bio on George Reeves. He was an actor, mostly doing B- pictures and bit roles throughout the 1940s. In 1951 he landed the role of Superman/Clark Kent in the new television series The Adventures of Superman. Like many actors of the era, Reeves felt that television work would amount to nothing and that nobody would see him but, a paycheck’s a paycheck so he took the role. The television series became a phenomenal hit, popular mostly with children, so Reeves was guaranteed work for several more years. Unfortunately, The Adventures of Superman had a shooting schedule that was 13 weeks of the year (shooting two episodes a week), with a 30-day window before and after for anything that may come up; this left little time to pursue any other work such as feature film roles so Reeves made due appearing as Superman at various events and functions. When Reeves did find other film work, people found it too difficult to separate him from his role as Superman that no producer could confidently cast him in anything prominent. Though he was bothered by how Superman halted his career, he never let his disdain for that character show. He maintained his status as a positive role model for children, even giving up smoking, and kept his personal life completely out of the public eye for fear that the young fanbase would think less of Superman. Drinking heavily and depressed over his “failed career” and stagnation, Reeves took his life June 16th, 1959 at the age of 45. There was, and remains, some controversy over his death, circumstances that have led some to believe it to be murder rather than suicide. With no new definitive evidence in the many years since, this still remains classified as a suicide.
The film Hollywoodland has Adrian Brody as private investigator Louis Simo (inspiried by real life investigator Milo Speriglio) trying to make a name for himself by investigating the suicide/suspected murder of George Reeves. Simultaneous to this there are flashbacks showing Reeves’ life from the time he began a relationship with Toni Mannix (wife of an MGM executive) until his death. Reeves’ rise as Superman, his depression over the role and eventually feelings of failure are shown throughout and paralleled with Simo’s own personal life which he feels he’s failed as a husband, father and private investigator. In the end, Reeves’ death remains an unsolved mystery, different versions of his death are imagined but ultimately Simo settles on Reeves’ suicide as a both an apt explanation of events as well as a catharsis to his own feelings of hopelessness. With regards to Reeves’ biography, very little veers from actual events. The only truly non-factual moment is during a test screening of From Here to Eternity where Reeves appears onscreen and the audiences makes comments about Superman leading the executives to cut the scenes. In actuality, there were no test screenings of From Here to Eternity nor were Reeves’ scenes cut from the finished film. I can understand this change though as it contributes to the general feelings of failure Reeves’ experienced throughout his career and moves the development of his character along.
BEN AFFLECK AS SUPERMAN
I don’t know how I didn’t know about this movie before but I am glad I found it recently as it really does showcase Ben Affleck as a talented actor. This was the first film project Affleck signed on for after a two year hiatus from acting – mostly because, as Affleck stated “I was really unhappy finding myself perpetually in the sights of paparazzi cameras and in the gossip magazines. This chracter was broken, but he’s also the archetype of all those kinds of guys I had played – the actual, real version, which is damaged and somehow unhappy and trying to be something other than what he is. And to me that made it infinitely more interesting.” (http://variety.com/2007/film/news/ben-affleck-hollywoodland-1117955428/). Affleck prepared for this role by watching every single epsiode of The Adventures of Superman, meeting with Jack Larson who played Jimmy Olson on that TV show, and reading various books about Reeves life. To physically prepare Affleck gained 20 pounds and listened to hours of Reeves’ voice on CD so he could get the same intonations of his voice. This is what a professional does to prepare for a role, and Affleck is a consumate professional.
Prior to Hollywoodland, Affleck had done all kinds of roles, which can be summed up by a line he dialogue he has with Matt Damon in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: “You gotta do the safe picture. Then you can do the art picture…. Sometimes you do reindeer games.” His romance with Jennifer Lopez, then his marriage later to Jennifer Garner were constantly discussed items for gossip magazines and Ben Affleck was under constant public scrutiny. After that two year hiatus and after Hollywoodland, Ben Affleck’s career took on a very different direction. This is when he began to work more behind the camera, directing the critically acclaimed The Town as well as the award-winning Argo. Pre-2006 Affleck, it would seem, said yes to everything and there were some bad movies during that period (Reindeer Games, Phantoms, Gigli) but the current Ben Affleck seems to be more selective about the roles and work he does.
So when people discuss how they feel Ben Affleck was a bad decision for the role of Batman, a lot of people cite those movies such as Gigli or Daredevil or Pearl Harbor – but I would rather they look at something like Hollywoodland and the way he prepared for the role of George Reeves and the amazing job he did completely becoming another person. He played Superman wonderfully in this film so I’ve little doubt that Ben Affleck will be a competent Batman.
THE REST OF THE FILM
While the initial drawing point for me was seeing Ben Affleck play the role of George Reeves (which I’ve established was amazing), there is a lot more to this movie that’s quite enjoyable. Adrian Brody does a great job as Louis Simo – a role that’s emotionally heavy but he plays it convincingly without making it come off as an Oscar-baiting performance as most actors would. The whole of the supporting cast is great, especially Diane Lane and Robin Tunney as the two women in George Reeves’ life. The direction by Allen Coulter is serviceable and matter-of-fact. He’s a television director so the material is presented with only the most necessary emphasis and no artistic flourish that distracts from the story – he justly lets the charisma of the actors and quality of their performances drive the film.
Hollywoodland didn’t make a lot of money at the box office when it came out and isn’t really discussed a whole lot. It seems odd that it’s really only brought up as a quirk because ‘hey look, Ben Affleck in a Superman costume,” because this is actually a very well done movie. It should be remembered for that, not the actors in it but the roles they performed and the great job they did. I’d recommend Hollywoodland if you wanted to know more about the life and times of George Reeves or just to see a great ensemble cast. Also Ben Affleck… the guy can act and is a great professional, and somehow people forget that.