'Hollywoodland' Only Compounds a Mystery

Most Hollywood movies aim for tidy endings. The only threads usually left intentionally dangling are meant to lead to sequels. But when a Hollywood celebrity meets an untimely demise, it's a different story altogether. The coroner's report is only the beginning, not the end. It's as if, when Hollywood contemplates itself, it can't avoid spinning conspiracy theories and building up the mystery.

When producer Thomas Ince died in 1924, his death officially was attributed to a heart attack suffered at his home, but suspicions centered on a shooting said to have occurred during a celebrity-filled birthday party for Ince that William Randolph Hearst threw on his yacht, the Oneida. Marilyn Monroe may have famously died of an overdose in 1962, but questions about who spoke with her or visited her in her final hours have spawned a cottage industry of investigative books. In 1981, Natalie Wood's accidental drowning off the coast of Catalina similarly triggered waves of tabloid speculation.

Focus Features' "Hollywoodland," written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, is the latest case in point. Focusing on the death of George Reeves, TV's original Superman, the film noir isn't content to offer one explanation but instead posits three possibilities for how the actor was felled by a gunshot to the head.

Police originally concluded that Reeves committed suicide. And the film devotes a good deal of time to the actor's frustration at being typecast as the stalwart hero in the hugely popular kiddie show.

But over the years, books and Web sites have relentlessly questioned the logic of that finding. As summed up on TheStraightDope.com, "In 1959, the producers of 'Adventures of Superman' decided to film another season's worth of shows in 1960, so seemingly (Reeves') career slump was over and he was feeling good about life. The year was shaping up to be a good one after a few rough years. He was scheduled to shoot a film in Spain, and was to be married to Lenore Lemmon. The wedding date (was) set for June 19, 1959. Then, in the early morning hours of June 16, 1959 -- three days before the wedding -- BLAM! His sudden death."

Certainly, the divide between the fledgling TV medium of the '50s and the swankier world of movies was a major one that Reeves -- never having established much of a film presence in the first place -- would have had difficulty crossing. On the other hand, TV also was beginning to demonstrate its own power to establish a rival star system. Just consider a contemporary of Reeves' like Fess Parker, who enjoyed enormous success as TV's Davy Crockett, starred in Walt Disney Co. movies and then became a successful winery owner.

By contrast, "Hollywoodland" presents Reeves as a man at the end of his rope. It also paints his fiancee, Lenore (Robin Tunney), as an angry woman who could have shot him, either intentionally or accidentally. And it offers up a third theory: that Reeves' longtime romance with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of studio boss Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), could have led the tough-guy exec to dispatch a couple of thugs to do Reeves in -- even though Mannix also is pictured earlier in the film as having a fairly blase attitude toward his wife's indiscretions.

Rather than unearthing the real truth of Reeves' death -- which may be impossible nearly a half-century later -- "Hollywoodland" is more interested in compounding the mysteries. Ironically, though, it also has given the late actor some of the respect he yearned for in life. Its premiere at the Venice Film Festival earned a best actor citation for Ben Affleck, who convincingly plays Reeves as a bon vivant whose spark is going out. Albeit by proxy, Reeves has finally made the A-list.