Fascinating characters inhabit ‘Hollywoodland’

Was George Reeves’ untimely death at age 45 a murder or suicide? That’s the question continuing to snake its way through the backdrops of Hollywood. Reeves’ story is the subject of “Hollywoodland,” a film exploring how he came to portray Superman on television and was ultimately trapped by the role.

The movie opens with the death of Reeves (Ben Affleck). Private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) takes on the case and learns that Reeves was an amateur boxer and musician who went from stage productions to a small role in “Gone with the Wind” before accepting a part that would change his life completely. “Hollywoodland” then takes us back to a few years before Reeves dies.

It’s the 1950s and television is emerging as a threat to the big screen. Not finding work in feature films, Reeves agrees to portray Clark Kent/Superman in the low-budget hour-long TV movie, “Superman and the Mole Men.” Reeves doesn’t enjoy the attention of the youngsters, but kids love the story of the Man of Steel and soon adults are hooked into the love angle between Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Lorry Ayers playing Phyllis Coates as Lane).

While dining at a posh club, Reeves grabs an opportunity for a headline when he sees a camera flashing and plunges into the picture with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane). She’s married to MGM studio general manager Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), but everyone knows he and Toni are not faithful to each other. Before the night is over, Toni and Reeves are sharing drinks in his apartment, and soon she has him set up in his own place.

As the Superman brand grows, Reeves reluctantly signs a deal for a television series. Meanwhile, Toni is feeding him promises about getting a movie deal, but secretly loving that he remains dangling from her string. At one point, she even arranges a dinner for herself, George, her husband Eddie and his mistress.

Years go by, and finally George has enough of Toni. He breaks off their relationship, making Toni desperately depressed and Eddie quite angry. He employs some of his former mob connections from back East to make George’s life miserable - until the night it ends for good.

Investigator Louis Simo isn’t exactly living the life he dreams. He’s no longer with his wife and kids, hits the bottle a little too much and is holed up in a Hollywood apartment working as a two-bit private investigator taking pictures of a cheating wife. When he hears about the Reeves’ death, he goes to the hotel where Reeves’ mother (Heather Allin) is staying. Certain her son was murdered, she hires Louis to find out the truth.

Although he first accepted the job for the money, Louis gets reeled in by his discoveries. Soon he’s butting heads with Sgt. Jack Patterson (Dash Mihok) and Detective Johnson (Ted Atherton), as well as with some of Eddie’s hired hoods who want him off the case at any cost.

Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum deserves credit for intertwining factual research about Reeves and his death with creative elements to produce an intriguing story.

“There have always been three particular theories: One, he committed suicide; Two, he was shot either on purpose or accidentally by Leonore Lemmon; and three, he was murdered on orders from Eddie Mannix,” Bernbaum said.

An excellent cast invigorates the film. Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) can mold a role like the finest potter. His character is the one this movie is really about. Through Louis Simo’s exploration of Reeves’ life, he comes to understand his own struggles. Brody takes us through all of Louis’ feelings as if he were really living them.

Academy Award winner Ben Affleck (“Good Will Hunting”) understood his character exceptionally well and plays it perfectly.

“He was known as ‘Honest George,’ and he spent a lot of time trying to make other people feel better, partly to shore himself up,” Affleck said. “George wasn’t perfect; he was too ambitious and impatient, and maybe too interested in what was on the surface. But I believe he lived his life with a tremendous amount of character.”

From the moment the light of love shines in her eyes when meeting Reeves until the moment it’s extinguished when he leaves her, Academy Award nominee Diane Lane (“Unfaithful”) handles the mixed emotions of Toni Mannix with ease and great self-confidence.

“Hollywoodland” offers a fascinating look at some interesting icons of Hollywood’s past. Don’t expect easy answers, and you’ll enjoy this fine cast in a well-made movie.

“Hollywoodland” is playing at Landmark La Jolla Village Cinema.