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What if Superman went up to his room, pulled out a Luger and blew his head clean off? OK, it’s a stupid question. Superman is the Man of Steel — bullets wouldn’t hurt him. But they did kill George Reeves, the first actor to play Superman on television — 104 episodes from 1952 to 1958. Kids loved him. But Reeves didn’t love himself. Typecasting had stalled a career that started with a bang in 1939 with Gone With the Wind. On June 16th, 1959, Reeves, 45, left the party he and his fiancee, Leonore Lemmon, were throwing at his Hollywood home, went upstairs and bang — he’s dead.

Homicide? Everyone thought so until the police later found two more bullet holes, one in the floor, the other in the ceiling. Was it murder? To this day, the question is still out there. We could have had sleazy guesswork from an episode of Cold Case or E! True Hollywood Story. Instead, we lucked out with Hollywoodland, a steadily engrossing movie that sees Reeves as human and treats his life and death with intelligence and compassion.on’t pinch yourself. Summer is over, the snakes have left the plane, and we’re all eager for the fall movie season to deliver provocative entertainment instead of the usual action drool and tabloid exploitation. I don’t want to pump you up too hard about Hollywoodland. It’s overlong, uneven and haltingly paced. But it’s also pungent and powerful. And director Allen Coulter, known for his superior work on superior TV (The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Rome), makes a truly exciting debut in features, the kind that makes you eager to see what he’s up to next.

Paul Bernbaum crafts a script that gets the period details right without skimping on the emotional ones. To deal with the facts of Reeves’ story, Bernbaum invents a fictional character, a desperate, deluded private detective named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). It is Simo who thinks he can make his name, and maybe win back the respect of his ex-wife (Molly Parker) and son (Zach Mills), by solving the mystery of Reeves’ death. He’s hired, at fifty bucks a day, by Reeves’ mom (the superb Lois Smith), who insists her son would never kill himself. The trail leads Simo to Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the older woman who set up Reeves with the right house, the right clothes and the right opportunities to screw around, with the blessing of her husband, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), a gangster from New Jersey currently making offers no one can refuse as the general manager at MGM. Lane tears into the role with a sass that doesn’t disguise the feelings she has for the guy in the Supie suit. She’s dynamite, and Hoskins is killer-good as a hard-ass who thinks nothing of inviting his wife and her lover to dinner. But Mannix has his limits. When Reeves drops Toni for Leonore (Robin Tunney) — a starlet with her own issues about Reeves’ roving eye — tempers flare as hotly as motives for his murder.

Past and present are all filtered through the detective, and Brody meets every challenge of an exceptionally demanding role. Though the film takes its time to hook you, Brody makes sure that there’s no wiggling off.

Which brings us to the big topic I’ve been saving: Ben Affleck as Reeves. That’s right, Ben Affleck, whose potent beginnings with Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy and Boiler Room deteriorated into the ego excess of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and — dare I say it — Gigli. The irony is that Affleck’s battering at the hands of fame has prepped him beautifully to play Reeves. He knows this character from the inside: the surface charm, the hidden vulnerability, the ache of watching a career become a joke and being helpless to stop it. Affleck beefed up twenty pounds to fill Reeves’ tights, but it’s the pain behind his eyes that makes this an award-caliber performance. Watch his fear and shame when the flying rig used to hoist Superman drops him to the ground. Or catch the moment when Reeves attends a preview of From Here to Eternity, the Oscar-winning 1953 film he hopes might lift him out of the kiddie-TV ghetto, and the audience laughs at the sight of him. Or the weariness with which he walks up the stairs on the final night of his life. This is feeling, nuanced work from an actor some of us had prematurely written off. In his generous spirit toward a forgotten icon, Affleck turns the death-obsessed Hollywoodland into, of all things, a film about resurrection.

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