One thing I'm noticing is that I enjoy watching movies set in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s but written with a more modern, somewhat more cynical eye. I think I enjoy the atmosphere and the contrast between the often-rosy historical image of those eras and the reality of what life was like then. (Not all films qualify for this contrast, of course, as no one has a rosy image of the Depression, for instance.)
Hollywoodland fits this bill nicely. It takes place in 1959, at the end of the classic (but oppressive) studio era of Hollywood, and concerns the death of George Reeves, best known for playing the title role in The Adventures of Superman. The film traces both the life of Reeves (played here by Ben Affleck) as he tries to resuscitate his career in the 1950s, and the investigation into his death by private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). (Simo is a fictional character based on a real person.)
Reeves meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) and they have an affair - it's an affair because she's the wife of Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), the head of MGM. Toni loves Reeves and buys him a house through her husband. Reeves is able to win the part of Superman, but the role pays little and he finds that he's unable to get major film roles when people are unable to see him as someone other than Superman when he appears in From Here to Eternity (though this may be a false rumor). Reeves tries other things to revive his career, and in the midst of this falls in love one Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney). Reeves dies of a gunshot wound in his own home after going upstairs during a small party, and his death is officially ruled a suicide.
Simo is a down-and-nearly-out investigator who is divorced from his wife and whose son is distraught over Reeves' death. Simo is sleeping with his assistant Kit (Caroline Dhavernas), and is stringing along a man who believes his wife is having an affair, even thought she clearly isn't. An old colleague tips him off to the Reeves case, and Simo is hired by Reeves' mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) to investigate. He uncovers some evidence, and ends up on the bad side of Eddie Mannix, causing him to take a hard look at what he's doing and where his life is going.
One has to approach Hollywoodland knowing that the mystery of Reeves' death has never been solved (it's still officially a suicide, and may well have been a suicide). Consequently the film must be seen as a portrait of two men trying to figure out what they want.
Affleck does a good job as Reeves, and at times seems uncannily like him, especially when wearing glasses. One wonders if Affleck (whose own career has foundered in recent years) felt some affinity for Reeves' situation. Reeves is not quite stymied at every turn, but he does find that his few successes may open one door, but they close several others, boxing him in more and more. He and Toni seem to genuinely love each other, but for Reeves he always puts his career first, and although he's not quite willing to outright use his friends to advance his career, he does feel that if they can't help him out in that regard then maybe he should be hanging out with someone else. (Lane, by the way, is excellent as Toni Mannix, a woman in love who is nonetheless in an untenable situation, with power over Reeves only so long as he thinks she's useful to him. She plays a role which could have been very over-the-top in a nicely low-key manner.)
Simo's dilemma is somewhat more basic: Trying to connect with his son, and trying to make a living in a fairly squalid career. Simo's story arc kind of peters out: His confrontation with Mannix and his men puts his situation into stark relief, but what he ultimately decides to do about it is not clearly portrayed. Brody is excellent as Simo, but not quite good enough to save Simo's arc. His investigation into Reeves' death is the best part of his half of the film.
The title is an interesting choice: Apparently the Hollywood sign originally read "Hollywoodland", but a reference in the film to Disneyland made me think that the title could also be seen as suggesting that Hollywood is a big playground for big children (something which is often said of Las Vegas). Given the tough competition in Hollywood, it's a cynical observation, since I imagine fighting for one's career there isn't a lot of fun for most people. Although the film has undertones of this, it doesn't go into Reeves' backstory in much depth and certainly doesn't go into the details of the studio system, so it never becomes a central theme of the film.
With little in the way of message to convey, Hollywoodland ends up feeling rather empty due to the ambiguous nature of its story. It's interesting, but not gripping. The scenes concerning the filming of the Superman show were intriguing for this childhood fan of the show. But overall I doubt this film will stick in my memory for very long.