It is seldom talked about as anything more than a bit of Hollywood folklore—and certainly not as significant as Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK—but the fact remains that the 1959 death of actor George Reeves is one of those defining moments of 20th-century American history. For those who don't know who he was, Reeves starred as Superman on the hit television series that ran for six years (1952-1958). On the night of June 16, Reeves died in what was ruled a suicide. In an era before the lives of celebrities were as common knowledge as the local weather, Reeves' death had a profound impact on the millions of children who religiously watched Adventures of Superman, shattering the innocence of a generation of children far less cynical than those of today.
Although all the official reports declared Reeves' death by gunshot wound to be self-inflicted, many other theories quickly arose, leading many to consider his death to be one of Hollywood's great unsolved mysteries. It is the mystery surrounding Reeves' death, as well as the sad life and unfulfilled career ambition that haunted him, that fuels the new film Hollywoodland.
Adrien Brody stars as Louis Simo, a two-bit private detective in 1959 Los Angeles, trying to prove himself. When word gets to Simo that Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), the mother of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is looking to prove her son's death was not a suicide, the detective sees an opportunity to get involved and make a name for himself. As Simo's investigation begins, Hollywoodland's second narrative unfolds, recounting the career of Reeves. First known as the young stud lover to Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), and then forever typecast as Superman, Reeves is portrayed as a serious actor who was never taken seriously.
"What really got me was the milieu, the idea of being able to look behind the curtain and see a different life in Hollywood," said director Allen Coulter during a recent phone interview, explaining what drew him to Paul Bernbaum's script. "Not just the lives of the famous, but of the struggling actor and of the actor who becomes famous for something he doesn't want to be famous for, and the frustrations that he feels."
Ultimately, the film is at its best when it focuses on Reeves. For an actor whose name has become a punchline, Ben Affleck gives perhaps the best performance of his career. Affleck has become typecast by his off-screen persona as much as Reeves was typecast by his role as Superman, which makes his performance as an actor trying to overcome other people's perceptions of him all the more revelatory. Affleck brings an emotional depth and complexity to Reeves that allows the actor to become something more than television's Superman or the victim of a mysterious death.
"This was a chance for us to give George his day in court—and, in a strange way, to give him the stardom that he never had to his own satisfaction," says Coulter. "As we know, he was famous to 30 or more million children, but it wasn't the kind of stardom he wanted. And I think that there is something, as we all know, deeply poignant about the story, and this was a chance for us to see him as a man."