The new film noir “Hollywoodland” has a title that may leave people scratching their heads: Isn’t the home of the movie studios called “Hollywood?” Well, yes and no. The original, iconic sign on the hillside read “Hollywoodland,” placed there in 1923 by some real-estate developers. It lasted only until 1932, when an actress who had just lost a big role jumped off the sign to her death. Thereafter, they dropped four letters from it, because it was felt the original 13-letter configuration was bad luck.

Bad luck. That’s an easy way to make peace with the fact that Hollywood always has been and always will be a ruthless place, not just the place where dreams are made, but also where they’re crushed. For every person who makes it, scores more don’t, and nobody wants to think about them too much. (See “Mulholland Drive” for an exception.) Not everybody has a strong enough ego to survive the cattle-call auditions, the constant judging of status and backbiting, the need to project an illusion of confidence and power at all times. And some of these weaker types wind up dead overdosed, murdered, or suicided off the Hollywood sign.

The most iconic of such deaths was certainly that of George Reeves, television’s original Superman, who embodied the “Man of Steel” perfectly until he shocked his fans by proving that he wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet, ending his career with a gunshot to the head one bleak night in 1959 at the age of 45. What drove a seemingly successful actor to do such a thing? Or, perhaps a better question, did he really kill himself, or did someone else pull the trigger?

Director Allen Coulter
Run Time 126 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (June 22, 2007)

“Hollywoodland” floats these questions and runs with them, fashioning a cynical, hard-boiled look at a town run by money, spin and connections. (And we’re talking 50 years ago; my, how times don’t change.)

Sure, the flick wants to be “Chinatown,” just like every other postmodern noir; you know to be wary of the old men, and that the hero will be flailing out of his depth, but this is still one of the better imitators. Director Allan Coulter has cut his teeth on two of the better American TV shows “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” and he displays a reverence for tight plotting and sharp acting that seems almost old-fashioned … until you realize that’s something that still marks good TV, despite being almost entirely absent from this summer’s blockbusters.

“Hollywoodland” starts with the cops at Reeves’ home, looking into the suicide, but not too hard. Seedy private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), hard-up for a job, manages to convince Reeves’ mother to hire him. Investigating Reeves’ death, Simo doesn’t have to dig too deep to find holes in the suicide theory, including two more bullet holes in the floor of Reeves’ bedroom. Simo muses what kind of guy would try to shoot himself in the head and miss twice?

The investigator then digs into Reeves’ past, and as he uncovers bits of the actor’s personal life we see them played out in flashback. As played by Ben Affleck and this must surely be self-referential casting Reeves is a likable dunce, a bland hunk who’s better at getting his photo in the papers and charming the ladies than he is at landing roles. He does land one aging beauty in bed, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), but only learns the downside the next morning: She’s the wife of nasty studio mogul Edgar Mannix (Bob Hoskins).

Reeves is afraid his acting career which started with a role in “Gone With The Wind” is as good as doomed, but Toni assures him it’s not, and she keeps Reeves as her toyboy. She supplies him with money, cars and a house, but what he really wants is respect, which means roles, and Mr. Mannix isn’t doing him any favors.

George is so desperate he even takes the role of Superman, complete with form-fitting tights and bad scripts, much to his own embarrassment. Trying on the outfit, he mutters “I look like a damn fool,” and when the show premiers, he proclaims, “one thing we can be sure of no one with a lick of sense would watch that show.” This can only be viewed ironically, given the show’s success, and the complete domination that superhero movies would achieve in this decade. It’s interesting to compare Reeves’ embarrassment, as a grown man playing such a juvenile incarnation, with Tobey Maguire’s simpering grin as he expounds on the supposed emotional and psychological complexity of “Spiderman.”

Brody, an Oscar-winner (for “The Pianist”), is great here, his voice a lower growl, with an aggressive, wired physicality not normally associated with the actor. Better yet are the leading ladies: Lane is spot-on perfect as a lover whose kindness manifests as control, while Robin Tunney is equally fine as the floozy Reeves eventually falls for, delivering her hard-boiled lines with a particular bite such gems as “when you’re drunk, everything’s funny.” (Referring to firing a gun inside Reeves’ bedroom.)

If there’s any flaw with the film, it’s that “Auto Focus” covered this territory in 2002; Paul Schrader’s film, which looked at the seedy private life and mysterious murder of popular TV star Bob Crane of “Hogan’s Heroes,” was an even more bizarre tale, and similarly concerned with the shadows lurking behind a cheery TV star image. On the other hand, “Auto Focus” was twisted and psychotronic, while “Hollywoodland” is more of a traditional noir detective story, with simpler pleasures. Take your pick: both cast a little light under the rock of stardom, and you can watch the critters squirm.

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