The creators of Hollywoodland have styled the movie as neonoir—complete with a mysterious death, a bottom-feeding private detective, and several untrustworthy women—but those trappings aren’t really the point of the film. Despite feints in that direction, it’s not a murder mystery. It’s the sad tale of two lonely people whose lives don’t match their dreams. It’s about soul-crushing disappointment and the relentless indignities of aging. It’s about mortality.
That’s a lot to pack into the small, pitiable history of George Reeves, an actor who aspired to the realm of Hollywood stars but who foundered playing Superman in the trenches of kiddie television, but the film works surprisingly well. The screenplay is perceptive, the period detail is immersive without being ostentatious, and the strong cast boasts two remarkable performances: Ben Affleck is startlingly good as Reeves—this is the best work he’s ever done—and Diane Lane beautifully captures the complexities and contradictions of the unhappy Toni Mannix, Reeves’ older, wealthier, married lover.
The scenes between Affleck and Lane are the most affecting and memorable moments of Hollywoodland, for the heart of the movie is George and Toni’s affair. Tainted by imbalances of wealth and power and youth, the relationship degrades them both. At first, George appreciates Toni’s extravagant gifts, but when his career collapses, her lavishly shared wealth humiliates him. (Toni’s attempts to ease his despondency—“I’ll always take care of my boy”—are counter-productive.) Toni, meanwhile, knows that George will tire of her eventually. She predicts as much when she meets him: “I have another seven good years; then my ass drops like a duffel bag.
Psychoanalyzing the actors, treating the movie as a meta extravaganza, is all too easy here. Affleck, once a tabloid fixture as half of “Bennifer,” surely understands what it’s like to be an actor whose audience won’t permit him to grow beyond earlier missteps. Lane, a former ingénue now in her 40s, must know something about how Hollywood treats aging women. Yet it would be unfair to define their performances so narrowly. Perhaps personal experiences served as a point of entry, but both Affleck and Lane have crafted distinct characters apart from themselves.
Their performances are so compelling that I found myself growing annoyed whenever the movie shifted away from them to what is, ostensibly, the primary plot: George Reeves has been found shot, and though his death has been ruled a suicide, detective Louis Simo believes he can prove it was murder. Brody is perfectly serviceable as the seedy, fame-hungry private eye, but his story arc doesn’t really fit thematically with the rest of the movie.
The parallels between Simo and Reeves, both emasculated men with unfulfilling careers, are only superficial (the underlying issues are quite different), and Brody simply hasn’t been given material as rich as Affleck’s. To be fair, Hollywoodland probably does need a framing device, but when the canvas is so much more interesting than the frame, why spend so much time trying to gild that ordinary rectangle?
I suspect screenwriter Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter wanted to use the Simo angle to expand upon their themes and turn Reeves’ story into a classic tragedy, but in that ambition, they misunderstand the tale’s appeal. Hollywoodland taps into weighty issues, yes, but its core is intimate, not grand. In the end, Reeves is simply too small a character to be a tragic hero. That inescapable ordinariness might have been one of the factors that fueled his depression, but ironically, it’s also one of the elements that make Hollywoodland so sadly human and so beautifully sad.