By Mark Ezra Stokes
Don’t get me wrong. Hollywoodland isn’t the worst film I’ve ever seen. It’s got a lot of good things going for it: a star-studded cast, a parallel story structure and a retro sepia-toned color scheme. Adrien Brody is believable as Louis Simo, the stereotypically-cool, vice-riddled gumshoe. He, along with most of the cast, seems to have the colloquialisms and mannerisms of the 1950s down to a “T.” Though the music doesn’t seem as powerful as it could be at times, it’s got a nice, jazzy, film noir sound that really sets the mood. My main problem with Hollywoodland, though, is that it’s not about “the most famous unsolved murder in Hollywood.”
Hollywoodland (with a pretty strong R rating for language, some violence and sexual content) is based on the historical death of actor George Reeves (mostly known for his lead role in The Adventures of Superman, a popular kid’s show in the ‘50s). At a cursory glance, the death looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide. However, many today still suspect foul play. The film is divided equally into two storylines. One storyline follows Simo’s investigation after Reeves’ death, and the other shows Reeves’ rise to stardom and eventual downfall. It sounds simple enough, even with the interweaving lines of narrative.
But there’s a point in the film where I decided I don’t really care about how Reeves was killed, particularly when the film focuses on countless slow reaction shots that seem to hold emotional weight, but really don’t. That’s because the murder isn’t the main story. Instead, Hollywoodland is a story about fathers, how our relationships with those fathers affect how we perceive life, and how we interact with those around us. It’s just sheer coincidence that these discoveries about paternal roles happen at the same time as a famous murder/suicide. We could’ve learned the same life lessons in another setting or era. In fact, we have.
The father/child motif has been around, gaining popularity way back in ancient Greece with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. And why are we still harping on this issue? Because, Hollywoodland seems to say, father/child relationships have a huge impact on a child’s ultimate perception of the world around him or her. But not only that, our perceptions of our fathers often have bearing on our perceptions of the divine (which in most patriarchal societies tends to be identified as male). I think Sophocles knew of this direct correlation when writing his play. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus proudly challenges both his earthly father and the god Apollo. As a result, he undergoes some of the most agonizing physical and psychological pain imaginable. The moral of the story being that you might want to think twice before challenging the power of your father, earthly or heavenly.
So, what does a messed-up monarch have to do with a major motion picture? In the film, every male character with a child has a serious problem with his parenting techniques. As a result, the child suffers and is unable to function properly in society. This is a good lesson in and of itself, and it’s a vivid part of both the Reeves storyline and the Simo storyline. Then, there are deeper levels of father/child relationships. Reeves’ lover, Toni Mannix (played by Diane Lane), is married to an older man named Eddie (Bob Hoskins). Both Toni and Eddie openly have extramarital affairs with younger people, yet they stay together. Eddie protects and provides for Toni in a non-sexual, paternal way, and their relationship remains stable (well, as stable as can be expected, considering the disturbing circumstances). Also, adultery runs rampant within this Hollywood subculture, which pairs off the guilty parties with partners 20 years older or younger than themselves. I won’t go into all the implications of such relationships, but let’s just say Freud would have had a field day.
The intrigue, then, is in the actual major dramatic question: Is there hope for those with lousy fathers, or will the cycle of poor parenting continue on forever? The film freely acknowledges that it is difficult to overcome that cycle, and it’s more likely that the child will grow up to become his father (or to marry someone like her father), but that’s not always the case.
And what, you may ask, does this say to those of us who don’t worship Apollo or any other of Sophocles’ bi-polar pantheon? What does that say about our relationships with the divine? It’s no coincidence that Christians call God “Father.” It’s the way we relate, and it creates a mental image: God the Father. As a result of this label, we identify and understand God by many of the characteristics of our own fathers. This can be a good thing (if your father has admirable qualities like mine) or it can be a bad thing (if, say, your father’s aloof and conditionally attentive).
At this point in the discussion, you’re probably a bit confused as to whether I liked the film or not. On the level of entertainment and storytelling, I wasn’t so thrilled. Many critics have hailed the George Reeves role as Ben Affleck’s best performance, but I wasn’t so convinced. Throughout the film, I counted at least five different dialects used by his character, all of which were connected by his recognizable, trademark Massachusetts brogue. He seemed to be trying Nicole Kidman’s formula (biopic + prosthetic nose = critical acclaim), but it didn’t work for me. Brody’s approach to a normally-flat stereotypical gumshoe seemed to overshadow Affleck (plus, his schnoz was the real thing). Director Allen Coulter seemed to be taking a cinema verite/documentary approach to the story, but it only made the pacing slow and cumbersome. Story-wise, Hollywoodland didn’t seem to offer us anything we haven’t seen before.
On a thematic level, though, this lack of newness works in that it deals with a universal theme, and it draws some positive, family-affirming conclusions in dealing with that theme. This, to me, is the main redeeming point.
According to the buzz, both Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia are film noir/detective period pieces about what each considers the “most famous unsolved murder in Hollywood.” Don’t let the buzz fool you. I can’t speak for The Black Dahlia (which I haven’t yet seen), but I can say that Hollywoodland is more than just mystery. In this case, it’s a statement that there’s more to being a “super man” than long underwear and a red cape. According to the film, true super man status requires commitment and devotion to those you love. I would add that those characteristics can truly be understood by observing the ultimate source of paternal insight: a heavenly Father without the flaws or baggage of men on earth.