With its opening shot, which begins from a soaring superhero’s point of view and then descends to a tawdry crime scene, Hollywoodland takes the viewer beyond the superficial glamour of show business to the gritty reality of 1950s Los Angeles. The film combines biography and fiction to tell the story of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), the actor who gained minor fame as television’s Superman and then died under mysterious circumstances. Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum uses the structure of a murder mystery to examine Reeves’ life by comparing and contrasting it with that of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a fictional private eye investigating the case. Simo has something in common with Reeves: both men desperately want to be more successful than they are. As Simo learns more about the dead actor, he is forced to confront his own shortcomings.
The parallel storylines provide director of photography Jonathan Freeman (The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio) with the raw material for a rich visual tapestry. Throughout the film, Freeman uses contrast to emphasize the distinctions between the characters; Simo’s world is often harshly lit, and the action in it is captured with handheld camerawork that conveys energy and instability, whereas the flashbacks depicting Reeves’ life use fluid, elegant camera moves and have a glamorous sheen.
Unlike most pictures about Hollywood, Hollywoodland takes as its subjects the everyday citizens who haven’t “made it” and probably never will. The characters struggle to make connections — emotional and professional — with one another, and their isolation is underscored by compositions that emphasize frames within the frame, separating the actors from each other. Although a great deal of the story is about characters’ inability to take action, Freeman’s carefully crafted visuals keep it from feeling static.
This recently released DVD impeccably reproduces the intentionally overexposed approach to Simo’s world and the lush palette of the flashbacks. Many of the images have the contrast and density of great still photography, and the nuances of Freeman’s lighting have been carefully preserved on this transfer. The sound mix is equally impressive and adds a great deal of emotional subtext to the film. For example, Simo’s scenes are characterized by street noise that accentuates the coarse nature of his existence, whereas Reeves and his wealthy girlfriend, Toni (Diane Lane), live in a milieu defined by constant musical accompaniment.
Hollywoodland was the feature-directing debut of Allen Coulter (The Sopranos, Sex and the City), who brings an assured technical proficiency to the picture. The director does an excellent job of explaining his approach to the project in an audio commentary track. Much of the film relies on misdirection, both in terms of the image and the plot, and Coulter enthusiastically describes the means by which he and his collaborators achieved their effects; he tips his hat not only to Freeman, but also to operator Angelo Colavecchia, whom Coulter describes as a great visual storyteller.
This package contains three short featurettes, each less than 10 minutes long, that provide brief but informative interviews with Coulter and his collaborators. “Recreating Old Hollywood” explores the film from the standpoint of production design, costumes, and cinematography; oddly, Freeman isn’t interviewed for the latter discussion. “Behind the Headlines” focuses on character and performance, and “Hollywood Then and Now” addresses the changes in the studio system at the time of Reeves’ career. Five minutes of deleted and extended scenes round out the supplements.