LOS ANGELES — In 1951, George Reeves first donned the iconic cape and tights to play Superman, a role that catapulted him to national celebrity and made him a hero to children everywhere. In June 1959, just days before his wedding, he was found dead in his home, a victim of an apparent suicide.
George Reeves’ life made him famous, but it was his death that would go down in infamy. “Hollywoodland,” due in theaters Friday, examines the controversy surrounding the curious circumstances of Reeves’ death, using his supposed suicide to examine the nature of American celebrity. The film was directed by Allen Coulter and stars Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Robin Tunney and Ben Affleck, who plays Reeves.
While the role of Superman haunted Reeves throughout his life, his memorable portrayal of such an enduring character has kept alive the mystery surrounding his death for so many years.
“The man played a superhero,” said Tunney, who plays Reeves’ fiancee. “Everybody knows who Superman is, and the irony of how he died isn’t lost on them.”
For Reeves, the role of Superman was both a blessing and a curse. In later years he would complain of typecasting, and he was often unable to find work that didn’t exploit his public persona. Tunney found a clear parallel to Reeves’ life in modern-day celebrity.
“I think a lot of actors still struggle with the idea that they want to show a side of themselves that people don’t expect from them,” she said. “I think there’s a stigma: ‘Well, somebody played that role and played it well, so nobody will buy them as this.’ ”
According to Tunney, the effect is heightened today by the public’s intrusion into the private lives of actors.
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Perhaps no actor working today understands Reeves’ predicament better than Affleck, who has seen his name splashed across the tabloids for the better part of a decade. For that reason, co-star Diane Lane, who plays Reeves’ married lover, calls his casting “brilliant.”
“I know that Ben [understands] George Reeves’ experience of being almost entrapped, saying, ‘Well you’ve done this, so we’re not gonna let you do that,’ ” the Oscar-nominated actress said. “Ben’s a smart man, and he wants that diversity of experience. His affinity with George is very well-exercised in this because he gets to really act. It’s all about the performance rather than any kind of bravado, [even though] we look to Ben to traditionally be a hero figure in a movie, like George.”
“Hollywoodland” refuses to take a definitive stance on the nature of Reeves’ death, and Tunney believes the ambiguous ending makes for a more powerful film experience.
“It’s about the journey — that’s what good films are about,” she said. “It’s not about the ending. The film is not about who killed George Reeves. The film is about what happens when you’re ambitious and when you can’t look at the life right in front of you and enjoy that — when you’re blinded by the idea that you want to be remembered or famous and that’s more important than your everyday life.”
Adrien Brody, who plays Louis Simo, the detective in charge of investigating Reeves’ death, believes the film’s lessons about ambition extend far beyond the particulars of Reeves’ life.
“I think there’s a common thread in this that extends beyond actors and people in the industry, which is a part of our culture,” he said. “We want more, and we assume that by attaining whatever it is we desire, we will somehow be happier as human beings. This is exploited in marketing, and it’s something that we have to be aware of.”
According to Brody, it’s the death at the center of the film that enables Simo to escape Reeves’ tragic fate.
“Both characters in this film — my character and George Reeves — had this kind of intense desire for fame, respect, recognition or money, and they felt empty without that,” Brody observed. “But I think it was a kind of realization in my character’s journey that that wasn’t ultimately what would make him happy. And unfortunately he had to find that out through George’s death.”
Superman was heralded as being able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” In the end, Reeves’ death inspired Lane to recite another old maxim: “What goes up must come down.”
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