Friday, September 08, 2006

Hollywoodland - Movie Review

Hollywoodland 2006

"Strip the phony tinsel off Hollywood and you'll find the real tinsel underneath."
- Oscar Levant

While today’s stars dodge preying paparazzi and gossip mongering bloggists (shameful!), and pray for their worst sins to remain a mystery to the public at large, the stars and starlets of the Golden Age of Hollywood usually found themselves under contract to a powerful studio who hired a team of clever and manipulative folks to keep all the dirty little secrets just that . . . a secret. Throughout the annals of filmdom, there still to this day remain a few lost secrets and unsolved crimes. What really happened in that hotel bedroom between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and the doomed Virginia Rappe? Who murdered William Desmond Taylor? And two of Hollywood’s most famed suspicious suicides – those of Thelma Todd and George Reeves.

While the delectable Miss Todd only seemed to merit a Loni Anderson TV biopic, “Hollywoodland” focuses on the three possible scenarios to the final moments in George Reeves’ life. A onetime budding young star, who returned from WWII to see his film career vanish before his eyes, he famously scored lasting fame as the television incarnation of the “Man of Steel” – the great Superman. After an extremely successful run that lasted from 1952-1958, George Reeves found it difficult to score good roles and slowly descended into a depression that resulted in his taking his own life with a gunshot to his temple. Or so the official record states.

The only problem was that according to his co-stars, friends and lovers – George Reeves was never the type of man who would sink so low. And neither had the jobs completely dried up. He was still a working actor with dreams of outlasting his superhero image. That and the mysterious extra bullet holes found in his bedroom. The fact that his fiancée had failed to notify the police for at least half an hour to forty five minutes after discovering the body, and the unfortunate mob connection Reeves had via his famed love affair with one Toni Mannix, the sultry wife of an MGM studios executive who had more than a finger in some previous suspicious deaths – notably his own first wife and Paul Bern, another MGM brass who was married to the legendary Jean Harlow.

Ahhh, Hollywood. Where the Boulevard of Broken Dreams never seems to end.

There are many wonderful things to enjoy about this pseudo-Noir ode to the grit beneath the glitter. Namely, the performances of Ben Affleck and Diane Lane.

Hollywoodland” attempts to tell the sad tale of Reeves’ life through a kaleidoscopic viewpoint juggling the lead actor, his loves, friends, enemies, mother, private investigators, et al. And this is where the film begins to get a tad too crowded for its own good. We suppose by focusing on the private investigator as portrayed by Oscar winning Adrien Brody seemed a good idea to the creative team. We disagree. In the past, we have heard how some writers and directors choose to feature a nominally peripheral or fictional character as the guide who will allegedly help the audience discover the mysteries to be found in a complicated scenario such as this one. We think the real story is in the doomed love affair between George Reeves and Toni Mannix.

Affleck and Lane are so wonderful in their mid-century finery, as a pair of boozy battering rams who dance around their obvious attraction to each other and grow to hate the intensity of their passion as it begins to deteriorate against the pressures of stardom and the hypocrisy of infidelity.

Ben Affleck in particular has rarely been better. While his own stardom reached the supernova stage with his oft time partner, our future husband Matt Damon in their Oscar winning “Good Will Hunting”, Mr. Affleck soon found his chiseled chin at the helm of too many an empty headed popcorn flick. From “Pearl Harbor” to “The Sum of All Fears” to “Daredevil”, his career seemed to disintegrate slowly at the same time his personal life became the fodder for the tabloid mill. But the stunned reaction his delightful performance in this flick has been receiving seems a bit disingenuous considering the fine work he delivered in such underrated work as “Boiler Room” and “Changing Lanes”.

And speaking of “Lanes” . . . (subtle), the sparkling Miss Diane Lane who has finally grown into her own as an appreciated actress after her terrific Oscar nominated performance in “Unfaithful” is nothing short of magical as the older woman hellbent on having it all. The ballsy confidence she exudes as she smolders across a crowded dancefloor, dangling a cigarette holder and juggling a cocktail is the confidence that only a talented veteran such as Miss Lane can pull off with glee. We believe completely that every man in the room has his eye on this Hollywood trophy wife, even if the tarnish is beginning to show just a tad.

The film itself never quite reaches the polished level of the performances of Affleck and Lane, which is a true pity considering the talent involved. The supporting cast is filled with such talented actors as Bob Hoskins in the role of the cuckolded husband with secrets of his own, Lois Smith as Reeves' unbelieving mother, Jeffrey DeMunn as the seasoned flack caught in the middle, the aforementioned Adrien Brody as the private dick and the criminally underappreciated Molly Parker as his long suffering wife, whose very presence always brings us to delicious rapture. (Will somebody please find a good role for this talented lady! Besides her terrific turn on the little seen “Deadwood”.)

What the film seems to lack, is a solid point of view. For in attempting to sift through the conflicting rumors and possible motives for George Reeves’ suicide / murder / accidental death – it wants to embrace all of them and leave it up to the audience to decide. This might work as a conceit, if the director were up to the maestro level. Not to deny Allen Coulter his due, for he does have a way with period detail and composition, but he is simply short of the mark. We will not disparage his work completely. While watching the flick unfold we kept thinking how it seemed to play out as a truncated mini-series. Too many subplots and dead ends meant only to flesh out the characters. The payoff was lacking. A quick glance online only confirmed our worst fears. Mr. Coulter is a veteran of episodic television, where he is able to stretch out this technique to far better success.

Nevertheless, we found the film more than worthy to sit through for the star turns from Ben and Diane. Their scenes together are some of the best work on the screen so far this year. Hell, it’s some of the best work in their careers. And for that alone we are glad to have spent some time in the dirty back alleys of “Hollywoodland”. Bless you all!

Directed by Allen Coulter
Written by Paul Bernbaum

Ben Affleck as George Reeves
Diane Lane as Toni Mannix
Adrien Brody as Louis Simo
Bob Hoskins as Eddie Mannix
Molly Parker as Laurie Simo
Zach Mills as Evan Simo
Lois Smith as Helen Bessolo
Joe Spano as Howard Strickling
Robin Tunney as Leonore Lemmon
Jeffrey DeMunn as Art Weissman
Dash Mihok as Sergeant Jack Paterson
Veronica Watt as Rita Hayworth

Cinematography by Jonathan Freeman
Film Editing by Michael Berenbaum
Costume Design by Julie Weiss
Original Music by Marcelo Zarvos
Production Design by Leslie McDonald
Art Direction by Patrick Banister
Set Decoration by Odetta Stoddard


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