When he died in 1959, George Reeves became one of the first television celebrities to figure in a full-fledged, national scandal. The star of over a hundred episodes of The Adventures of Superman, Reeves became the idol of millions of children at the expense of a serious acting career. Rumors that he was murdered began to circulate almost immediately after his death was judged a suicide. As details of his private life emerged, they revealed a far more complicated man than most had suspected.
Hollywoodland, the feature debut for director Allen Coulter, uses Reeves’s death as the basis for a complex, wide-ranging look at how the movie industry, and society as a whole, changed during the 1950s. Playing Reeves is Ben Affleck, who brings to the role an emotional depth and commitment largely absent from his previous career as a leading man. Framing the suicide is another plot involving Louis Simo, a shady detective whose investigations help trigger a personal collapse. As acted by Adrien Brody, Simo sees himself as a hardboiled private eye, an illusion nourished by pulp movies like Kiss Me Deadly. Both Simo and Reeves are in effect playing roles they learned from Hollywood. Both men will find out that they are in over their heads, controlled by forces they don’t fully understand.
It’s an ambitious project for Coulter, who established his reputation in commercials and then by directing episodes of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under for HBO. Hollywoodland not only compares and contrasts two story lines, but presents audiences with a shifting chronology that extends from 1959 to 1947 and back again, in some cases offering three different versions of the same event. Speaking in his office in New York, Coulter explains some of the steps he took with production designer Leslie McDonald and cinematographer Jonathan Freeman to make sure viewers didn’t become confused. “We shot the two stories in different styles, George’s like a traditional Hollywood film, Simo’s more contemporary: hotter, over-exposed, like Kodachromes left in a garage over the summer. George’s world is quiet, calm, while Simo is in the beginning of a modern world of casual dress, TVs on in every house, radios, people arguing, cacophony.”
Getting period details right was crucial, but Coulter tried to reach beyond the false, romanticized version of the past found in many films. Screening Kiss Me Deadly to see how its Los Angeles locations were used, Coulter realized that director Robert Aldrich essentially ignored props and landmarks. For a scene in Hollywoodland that takes place in front of City Hall, Coulter never focused on the building itself, or on the period cars that lined the streets, feeling that it was more important to capture the inner reality of what was happening in the story.
Reeves, in Coulter’s opinion a good actor “by the standards of his time,” had a supporting role in Gone With the Wind before military service during World War II. By the time he got back to Hollywood, roles he had specialized in were scarce. He embarked on a long-term affair with Toni Mannix (played by Diane Lane), the wife of one of the most important executives at MGM, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). After Superman was cancelled, Reeves tried to find work as a director. He also became engaged to Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney).
Coulter realizes that much of the audience will be unfamiliar with the real-life people and settings in his story. “To quote David Chase, ‘Someone will get it,'” the director jokes. He is also aware that Reeves still has a following of devout fans ready to pounce on what they might perceive as mistakes in the film. “Entirely out of our respect for Reeves, we were as truthful as we could possibly be based on the mixed information that’s available. There are different opinions on all kinds of things, when he met Toni, or where he met Leonore, for example. We had to be true to what we felt Reeves was. That was the longest and most important discussion I had with Ben, and with everyone on the film.”
Reeves allowed Toni to buy him a house in Benedict Canyon, an expensive wardrobe, and a sports car, fully aware that her husband could destroy his career at any moment. (The real-life Mannix, a one-time bouncer who became an “enforcer” of sorts at MGM, was involved in several scandals, not the least of which was the death of his previous wife. Hoskins captures him brilliantly, dressing down a recalcitrant actor with the warning, “You’re a face–faces change.”) Coulter and Affleck had to reach an understanding about the type of person who could accept such arrangements while still believing he deserved a better fate. In the director’s terms, “George is playing the role of a successful actor. He’s got the woman, the house, the car–all he lacks is the success. The challenge for Ben and me was like solving a mystery: Who was this man? What was he really like?”
Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum wrote Toni Mannix’s role with Diane Lane in mind. In the film, she sinks from glittering trophy wife to recluse, a departure from Lane’s glamorous image. “She wanted to play Toni because Toni is an interesting woman,” Coulter says. “I made sure that every character had a chance to reveal a secret, human side. That human quality is exactly why actors are willing to play characters who might seem unappealing. As Jean Renoir said, ‘Everyone has his reasons.’ I take that seriously, and in the movie we try to tell our story without blaming anybody.”
Finding a balance between fact and fiction, between the 1940s and the 1950s, between Reeves’s story and Simo’s, became one of Coulter’s principal tasks. “You can only think of things one at a time. They come in rapid succession, but all the time you have to hold onto the scene you’re working. What I try to do is keep things very relaxed, because you get the most complexity when people can think, when they can see and hear each other. That’s when those little moments rise up.”
Coulter readily admits that Chinatown was a big inspiration. “You can’t make a film of this nature without thinking of it. It’s one of the first noir mysteries that I was aware of that was character driven. Our composer Marcelo Zarvos even threw in a little homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown score. And there’s a least one cut that directly references the movie.” What Hollywoodland has in common with Roman Polanski’s film is its sense of unease, of a world that is hostile when it isn’t merely indifferent. It is a bleak vision.
“Ben and I thought about how poignant this whole story is,” Coulter says. “This is a man who got what he wanted, but it wasn’t enough. Who could be a hero to millions of kids, and still feel like he was a failure. But to be harsh, that’s life. Most people think that they could have been a contender. Most people go to their graves thinking, ‘I could have done so much more.’ We now live in a country of increasing celebrity worship, where everybody wants to be a star. Where everybody imagines that the camera is somehow rolling. Where everybody lives in a state of sort of hyper self-consciousness. This film was my chance to tackle that subject.”
Coulter’s next project is a black comedy by playwright Howard Korder about a born-again traffic expert on assignment in Baghdad who becomes involved in a monumental scheme to siphon millions of dollars out of government works programs. While it may seem a drastic change of pace from the subdued and troubling Hollywoodland, Coulter notes that, “My interest is in character. I admire filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Michel Gondry, filmmakers with a definite visual style. I have great admiration for them, but those aren’t my talents. What I do is try to give every character some human trait that connects them to the larger themes of the story. In that way I have to let the story dictate how to shoot the scene.”