In between the long stretch of time that George Reeves played one of the red-haired Tarleton brothers in Gone with the Wind and became the hero of every TV-watching kid in the role of Superman, he had a steady, but character actor-relegated career in endless movies and series. This sordid story of his mysterious death in 1959 by gunshot to the head picks up before he donned the cape and tights, when he was still trying to shake off his starring role in the awful The Adventures of Sir Galahad.

But that part of Hollywoodland is all flashback, and doesn't come up till the story of a completely different character is well underway. As a suicide investigation begins in Reeves' Hollywood home, we meet private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a sleazy fellow who works on seedy jobs that he gets from L.A. detectives who consider certain cases below their station. He also gets by following unfaithful wives and reporting to their husbands -- rather ironic, since his own shattered marriage, which has distanced him from his young son, is likely due to his own philandering.

When he first comes across the Reeves' death, he's told by Reeves' mother that it wasn't a suicide. It was something else. Simo talks his way into seeing Reeves' body, on which he notices a number of bruises, and he finds a watch inscribed with the initials "T.M."

But then the film jumps back in time, to Reeves (Ben Affleck) schmoozing it up at the swanky nightclub Ciro's, trying to meet the right people, making sure he walks into the proper photos as they're being taken. This is a man looking for opportunities, and he finds one in the older but very willing Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) -- though he doesn't find out till after some time in the bedroom that she's the wife of powerful, gruff, and nasty MGM general manager Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). & r & `The team of TV director Allen Coulter (The Sopranos, Sex and the City) and TV writer Paul Bernbaum (21 Jump Street, Special Unit 2) built themselves a cast full of intriguing characters, most of them real. (Only the private eye is what Coulter has called "a creation inspired by real people.") But the film they've created hints that they weren't sure which of the two major figures to focus on. Reeves is portrayed as a failed actor who took the Man of Steel role because he needed the work, not because he thought of it as acting. Simo comes across as a failure in general -- miserable in his personal life, unhappy with his career choice, much too obsessed with the Reeves case.

The stories of both men's downward spirals are given equal time, even though a study of Reeves would be much more interesting. He was an actor who tasted some early success but who, by the late '50s, was at the end of his rope. Simo was a two-bit private dick who hated most of his desperate clients. Reeves did what was necessary to get ahead (although sleeping with a studio mogul's wife could be regarded as foolish). Simo's biggest problem was that his son preferred being around Simo's wife.

In fact, despite a strong performance by Brody, whose angular face is amazing in close-up, the film would have been more interesting without his character in it. That's mostly due to what Affleck does with his part. Most film critics are going to call this the performance of Affleck's career. His Reeves is one complicated and confused person. He's relaxed about his acting abilities in one instant, then worried about his future in the next; He's happy and loose as can be on the set of Superman; then, when alcohol starts to take its toll at home, practically deranged. & r & But Affleck's not alone. Lois Smith goes through some amazing changes as Reeves' mother, leaving the viewer to wonder if she's just an overwrought mom or has a hidden agenda; Diane Lane perfectly captures the disparity of her character's belief that Reeves desires her and her own knowledge that he might be her last chance at a fling; and Joe Spano (Hill Street Blues) as MGM flack Howard Strickling, manages to keep a believable balance between being friendly and frightening.

Some imaginative storytelling shows different versions of Reeves' death (suicide, accident, hit man) being played out -- Rashomon-style -- in Simo's head. Was it Toni, when she found out there was a mistress? Was it the mistress when she found out about Toni? Was it Toni's husband? Or was it someone else altogether? & r & A single definitive answer isn't going to be supplied; the real-life case has never been solved. If you need to know more, check out the book Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. But while watching Hollywoodland, you won't care what you don't know: The detailed recreation of 1950s L.A., the colorful cast of characters -- and especially Affleck's performance -- are that good.

Rated: R.
Directed by Allen Couler.
Starring Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins.

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