Hollywoodland is one of several recent films set in the bygone Hollywood of the late 1940s and the 1950s, and it is as good as any of them at what it sets out to do, even if it does not command a similar measure of popularity. First-time viewers may be forgiven for being deceived by the eerie light that one of its twinned stories of disappointed ambition casts upon the other, but with repeated viewings, the rich emotionalism of both plot lines emerges from the superficial décor of suspense that turns out to be a well-executed period detail.
Movies like Hollywoodland seem to me to be motivated by a desire to tell stories that couldn't be told at the time in which they are set. The stories are latent in the old movies, but overpowered by narrative conventions that were designed to suppress rather than to inform. Since the late 1970s, a new range of conventions has been developed, designed to work at an altogether different level of cinema. The old movies were required to comply with simplistic moral codes that prescribed certain outcomes for certain situations. The new conventions are designed to help viewers to follow narratives that aren't supported by the deterministic wishful thinking that made honest drama so difficult to produce at a time when the well-known Production Code was only one rather small aspect of Hollywood's self-censorship. More than any film that I can think of, Hollywoodland is about that difficulty. It looks through the movies of an era to see the uncertainty, anxiety, and tedium of life on the other side of the screen. At the same time, it supplants the falsity of those movies with its truth.
The old convention that Hollywoodland tirelessly upsets is the rule according to which good men are strong and sure of themselves, white knights to their fingertips; while men who express indecision, ambivalence, or even a surfeit of regret are not good, and almost certain to turn out to be bad eventually. In this, the movies of the old days simply mirrored American aspirations, instead of criticizing them as they do now (if not always very pressingly). The old ideal is captured effortlessly in Hollywoodland by the figure of Superman, a role that the hero of one of the movie's stories, George Reeves (Ben Affleck), does not want to take when it is offered to him. George sees himself more as the "criminal type" — shorthand for "complex." Having played a Tarleton twin in Gone With the Wind, and Sir Galahad afterward, George is deeply bored by white knights. But Superman is the best offer that's made to him, so he takes it — only to find that it destroys his movie career when he does land a more interesting role. At the preview of From Here to Eternity, the audience snickers at the sight of Superman wearing a sport shirt and drawling about a night on the town. George's scene is cut.
(The little scene that follows, in which George is shot from the rear, sitting on his patio in a bathrobe, lost in a funk, gives us time to reflect that audiences today would praise the versatility that an actor playing Superman in 1953 was not allowed to display.)
Ben Affleck's performance as George Reeves is astonishingly intimate. We see the self-consciousness of George's disciplined good manners, and we see the fatigue that makes that discipline increasingly effortful. Even though George eventually cheats on Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the studio boss's wife who keeps him in a charming cape in Benedict Canyon, there is something decent at the core of the man; he is no philanderer notching his belt. His desire to support himself with a fine acting career is heartbreakingly boyish, we can't help sharing George's optimism, even as the evidence of his professional mediocrity mounts.
Another convention that the movie belabors is the idea that anyone who does what Toni Mannix does must be a bad woman. One need think no further than of Joan Crawford striding into the surf at the end of Masquerade, quiescent at last about the punishment meted out to women who love outside of marriage. Diane Lane, a thousand times more interesting as an actress, seems at times to be channeling Gloria Swanson, in Sunset Boulevard, but her performance, as full of fire and music as any that I've ever seen, is in no way derivative. It's magnificently refreshing to hear Ms Lane act, with the full, womanly voice that today's ladies are not encouraged to deploy.
Hollywoodland's other story concerns a detective's ambitious attempt to prove, by "solving" the death of George Reeves, that Hollywood is bottomlessly corrupt. This is really nothing other than a frontal assault on the pretenses and hypocrisies that inspired the old narrative conventions. Louis Simo (Adrian Brody) is a disaffected detective who wants to do his job without wearing a suit, an extremely grating gesture at the time. Initially uninterested in Reeves's death, Simo doesn't take long to pick up the case — which is a case only because Reeves's narcissistic mother (Lois Smith) says it is — as a battering ram. Had Simo's story been told in the Thirties, with James Stewart or Frederic March in the lead, it would have had to end in triumph, with classic Hollywood unrealism. As it is, Simo must endure an ordeal of hard knocks. Mr Brody plays Simo as a stoic, but not as the kind of stoic who was admired in the Fifties.
It's to Allen Coulter's credit that Hollywoodland would, without a doubt, have been widely loathed during George Reeves's last decade on earth, and for the very reasons that we may find it maturely tender and freshly humane.
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press