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Monday, March 19, 2012

Movie Night at the Hideout (#3)

          In the summer of 1959, George Reeves, the man who had played Superman in the live-action TV show from 1952 to 1958, shot himself in the head with a 9mm Luger.  Or at least, that was the official finding.  At the age of 10, and having been a huge fan of the show, the first thing I remember being told by one of my peers was that he had, in the delusional belief that he really was Superman, leaped out the window of a skyscraper.  Even at 10, this had an inferior feel to it as a scandal; I didn't want to think my hero was actually that stupid.  Of course, in the end, you could make the case that he was actually stupider than that, allowing himself to become the kept man of a married woman eight years his senior, the wife of MGM's general manager and reputed hatchet man with mob connections, Eddie Mannix.  Then, to pile stupid on top of stupid, having been accepted by Mannix as his wife's "boy toy," (and that is apparently what she called him, her Boy) he dumped her for a younger woman as she aged.  Yeah.  Stupid has many faces.

          The jumping out the window story aside (and in all honesty, that didn't last long), there was some controversy associated with his death, as I suppose there always is with figures in the public eye.  The king of this has to be President Kennedy.  Assassinated in 1963, you still can't swing a cat by the tail without hitting half a dozen people who don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald had a thing to do with it.  Did Hitler really die in Berlin in 1945?  Was it really Osama bin Laden that was buried at sea?  And The King?  You still meet people who believe that Elvis is working at a Burger King in Minnesota.  The list goes on, but I didn't realize there was enough controversy concerning the death of George Reeves to power a speculative movie 45 years after the fact.  Yet that is exactly what we have in Hollywoodland, (2006) starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, and Ben Affleck.

I'M GOING TO PUT A SPOILER ALERT HERE, ALTHOUGH BOTH THE FACTS OF THIS CASE, AND THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES, ARE KNOWN QUANTITIES, AND ARE PRESENTED AS ALTERNATIVE POSSIBILITIES.  I DON'T PLAN TO GIVE ANYTHING VITAL AWAY, BUT PROCEED WITH CAUTION.

Adrien Brody
          The movie begins with the Los Angeles Police entering a home to investigate a shooting.  Of course, it turns out to be George Reeves.  A parallel story begins shortly afterward with Adrien Brody as Louis Simo, a down-and-out private eye working out of a fleabag motel because he can't afford an office.  He is involved in the usual cheap P.I. stuff, following a man's wife to prove she is (or isn't) having an affair, and not putting too much effort into it.  He used to be part of a prestigious firm that investigated white collar crime, but wanted to branch out into more exciting adventures.  Now, his life is crap, except on rare occasions when his former firm gets hold of something they don't really want to be associated with, whereupon they throw him that bone.  One such bone proves to be the Reeves suicide.  His mother has come to Los Angeles to contest the finding of suicide, and the prestigious firm, not wanting to be involved in what is sure to be a scandal, sends Simo to see her.
George Reeves as Clark Kent
Ben Affleck as Clark Kent
          As he begins his investigation, things that he discovers are told in flashbacks, which almost takes the form of a parallel movie starring Ben Affleck as George Reeves.  Affleck appeared on a late night talk show when the movie was new, talking about the work he put into the role, and it is repeated and elaborated in the DVD extras.  He studied Reeves, screened every appearance he could find, including all his movies, and every Superman episode, learning his mannerisms, his speech patterns, body language, the way he carried himself, and even wore a false nose for the part.  Here are pictures of George Reeves and Ben Affleck made up as Clark Kent.  Obviously, it isn't like looking at the same person, but the level of effort he invested in getting it right is apparent.

          Eddie Mannix was a Vice President at MGM Studios during the period portrayed in the film.  A lot has been written about Mannix, and little of it flattering.  He arrived at a time when studios owned their actors, directors, crews, and staffs as surely as any antebellum plantation owner owned his slaves.  Studio executives went so far as to tell public figures, the actors, who they could date and marry, and if these stars wanted to remain stars, they obeyed.  In the 1950s, this system was beginning to be dismantled by guilds and unions, by new, independent production companies, and by the new medium, television, eager for stars of its own.  Mannix was brought in to deal with these "distractions," and not gently.  He was rumored to have mob connections, and was rumored to have murdered his first wife (or had her murdered), as well as producer Paul Bern, and, in the conspiracy theories, at least, George Reeves.  He had a completely open relationship with his second wife, Toni, in the sense that they both dated and bedded anyone they found attractive.  Toni found Reeves attractive, and they had a public relationship for a decade, during which he was almost completely dependent on her financially, meaning, of course, in every way.  Diane Lane plays a freewheeling Toni Mannix, and Bob Hoskins, famous for playing the lead opposite a cartoon in the odd but acclaimed Who Framed Roger Rabbit played the sinister Eddie Mannix so convincingly that I never connected him to his best-known comedic role.
Bob Hoskins
Diane Lane


         




          The movie plays up the notion that Reeves felt trapped by his Superman role in the same way that Adam West was taken over and ultimately destroyed by Batman, that he couldn't get "serious" work, and he was constantly despondent because of it.  There is a scene in the movie in which he has gotten a serious role in From Here to Eternity, that of Sgt. Maylon Stark, and at the preview screening, the audience begins to laugh at him, and quote from the Superman intro things like, "Faster than a speeding bullet!" and so on, and the movie Fred Zinnemann, the director, signals one of his minions to cut the scene.  Zinnemann later stated that, not only were Reeves' scenes never cut from any version of the film, but there was never even a preview screening.  Semi-documentaries often take liberties with the facts under the guise of artistic license, but I have to wonder, if they were willing to change this piece of history concerning a movie that won Best Picture, and seven other Academy Awards, and was nominated for five more, what else was completely skewed to fit the conclusions the filmmakers were trying to reach?

Robin Tunney
          Anyway, time passes.  Toni starts to show her age, and Reeves is unable to find any work with a decent paycheck.  As an aside, Superman never did pay that well, despite the fact that it was beloved by 30,000,000 American children, and presumably at least some of their parents.  Much of the problem from the actors' point of view came from the fact that the show was syndicated in each market, and the lion's share of the money went to the executives.  Anyway, Reeves decides to form a production company and be a producer/director.  To do this, he has to attend a series of meetings in New York, where he stays for two weeks.  While there, he meets Leonore Lemmon, a "socialite," or what we would call today a groupie.  Lemmon was the daughter of Broadway ticket broker Arthur Lemmon, and was well known and liked in the New York night club scene, where she gained fame as the only woman ever ejected from the Stork Club, a notorious haunt of the wealthy and powerful, for fist-fighting.  Lemmon sleeps with him while he is there (what they are portrayed doing in the movie is a long way from sleeping, those ten seconds accounting for most of the movie's R rating), and he returns to Hollywood to tell Toni that he is in love with this wild younger woman, and it's over between them.  Leonore, played by Robin Tunney with a perfect combination of grit and grace, moves to Los Angeles, only to find that the big star of a very popular series is virtually broke, and she begins to regret her decision to join him, and seldom fails to let him know about it.  There is much foot-dragging with his contacts to establish a production company, and he actually considers entering the ranks of professional wrestling, whereupon Lemmon asks him, "Why don't you just join the God damned circus?"  At this point, they are engaged, but her disposition isn't improved any when he calls that off.

          As Simo, loosely based on real life private eye Milo Speriglio, who later falsely claimed to be the lead investigator, keeps digging into the case, each answer produces more questions, and angers more people, most of them involved in the movie business, and not amused by any scandalous speculation that might harm ticket sales.  He is warned off, offered bribes, threatened by crooked cops, and at one point given a savage beating, administered with boots and a heavy chain.  Everything colors his view of events.  Who has motive?  Reeves himself, depressed over the fading of a career that was never all he thought it should be.  Toni, having been dumped for a younger woman.  The younger woman herself, having moved to LA to be with her fiance, only to be told the wedding was off.  Who had the grit to actually do the job?  Eddie, certainly, though his motive is weaker than the two women.  Leonore the more likely of the two, although when a woman invests ten years in a man only to be tossed aside when she can't cover the wrinkles any more, it becomes harder to make informed guesses about what she will or won't do.

          So Simo keeps visiting the house, wandering through the rooms, and playing different scenarios in his head.  The facts are that Reeves owned the Luger P'08 that killed him, and he kept it in the drawer of his nightstand.  Two bullets were fired into the floor, presumably at an earlier time, since only one casing was found.  There was no gunpowder stippling around the wound, a fact that was explained by the police as unusual but not impossible.  There were no fingerprints on the gun as it was too heavily oiled to hold them.  Reeves' hands were not screened for gunpowder residue, as that test was not routinely performed in that era.  Finally, the house guests didn't summon the police for 45 minutes after the shooting, all the time they needed to cook up a story.  The story was that they had been socializing late into the evening, he excused himself and went upstairs to his bedroom, and a short time later, there was a shot, after which he was found dead with the spent casing under his body.  Plenty of material for conspiracy theorists to go wild with, and they have.  Simo considers that Leonore shot him accidentally in a drunken rage as they wrestled for the gun after she had already put two rounds into the floor.  He then considers that Reeves went upstairs to be ambushed and shot by a hit man hired by one of the Mannixes.  Simo leans toward it being Eddie, based on the beating he received earlier at the hands of Eddie's thugs.  Finally, having obtained a final piece of information from Reeves' agent, Art Wiessman (Jeffrey deMunn), he gives full consideration to the suicide theory.  This seems to be the one he accepts, as all three scenarios are filmed as he imagines them, and the suicide is given the most detailed treatment, with him standing in the corner of the bedroom, and actually making eye contact with the broken Reeves before he reaches for the gun.

          Written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, this film works on many levels.  It lays out the chronologies of the various controversial theories of how this almost-successful, though beloved by children, actor met his untimely end.  It works as a detective story as "our" investigator, Louis Simo, pursues various lines of enquiry, and games them out in his head.  It works as a period piece, catching the end of the glamour era of old Hollywood, and finally, it is a wonderful piece of modern noir, with a lot of sinister characters none of whom are quite what they seem.  While I'm no fan of Affleck (for reasons that aren't germane to this discussion; I'll decline to be a Daredevil in this post), I have to say, the man went the extra mile, and really, seriously nailed his subject.  Similar effort was put forth by Diane Lane, who wore the right wigs, and clothes, and learned Toni Mannix's affected East Coast accent, and the other roles were similarly well drawn, which is what happens when interested actors combine with a serious director, all motivated by the desire to create a quality product.  This movie is a prime example of the perfect storm of talent, dedication, and belief in subject matter coming together on the screen.  In the end, it doesn't attempt to provide the definitive answers; it merely asks all the right questions to leave an unfinished, yet oddly satisfying taste in the mouth afterward.  I may not have been drawn to this subject had I not been a huge Superman fan as a small child, but having bought it, watched it, and hung on every scene, I would not hesitate to recommend this movie to anyone interested in Hollywood history, conspiracy theories, detective movies, film noir, or anything remotely related to any of these subjects.  This is the way movies were made before flash replaced glamor, and the big explosion replaced big talent.  Get this.  Savor it.  Then wonder why, given that this was made in 2006, nobody is willing to put in the effort to make a movie like this anymore; now that's a conspiracy worth unravelling...

Hideout Happenings

          As reported elsewhere, my next post, probably at the end of the month, will concern itself with some aspect of gaming; don't want to give away too much.  I have put up a poll now for you to vote on what you'd like to see covered (if you have any preference) in the post following.
          Okay, that's all I've got.  See you in a week or so.  Til then, get out there and live life like you mean it!

4 comments:

  1. I remember seeing this a couple years ago. I was struck at the time by a lot of the same things you talk about, but especially the sympathy each of the characters evokes. "This is the way movies were made before flash replaced glamor, and the big explosion replaced big talent." Well said!

    As to Bob Hoskins, I think he is an absolute genius that is completely underappreciated. His portrayal of Krushchev in Enemy at the Gates was chilling, and his portrayal of the theater manager in Mrs. Henderson Presents was more than a match for Dame Judi Dench.

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  2. I remember hearing several years ago that this was in the pipeline and my interest in it completely crashed upon hearing that Ben Affleck was going to be in it. I would have liked David Boreanez in the role, but no one asked me. Anyway, in the years since, I have heard nothing but good about it and clearly I need to look past my Ben Affleck issues and just pull the trigger on it. I'm hoping to start Netflix back up in a couple months so I'll make sure this is on early on my list.

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  3. I couldn't help but notice the 48 stars on the flag behind Superman in the top pic. Also I'd never heard of Robin Tunney before and I thought it was katy Perry when I saw the pic.

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  4. Bob: You are right, Bob Hoskins might be his generation's Robert Duvall, a guy who never looks quite the same from one movie to the next, and always nails his part. You know, the consummate actor.

    CT: I highly recommend you doing just that, and I know you can, because you recommended Inception with Dreamboat Leo. With the right script, and the right director, an actor can rise above his own limitations, and this is truly Affleck's moment in the sun.

    Joe: During my research, I learned that the opening scene was stock footage that was only shot once, and the copyright date on the prints is always 1952. Had they come back for another season in '59, they would have had to reshoot the 49 star flag for Alaska. Or maybe not; everything seems to have been done on the cheap, so maybe they wouldn't have bothered. Robin Tunney has done a lot of work in both movies and TV, her breakthrough role being one of the witches in The Craft. I haven't seen much of it myself, and don't know whether she is an actress, or just "plays herself." I'd like to think she's an actress, 'cause if she's just like Leonore, trust me, you wouldn't want to be her boyfriend!

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