Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ben Affleck as TV Hero

After his screenwriting Oscar win with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck hit some potholes on the road to movie stardom.  No, he wasn't acting up.  He was acting in films that were pretty limp at the box office. Critics weren't enthusiastic.  Moviegoers weren't enthusiastic.  Pearl Harbor, bombed in 1941 -- and again in 2001.  There were others.  Remember Gigli, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Reindeer Games and Surviving Christmas?  Things started to change when he got behind the camera.  Gone Baby Gone was good, baby, good.  The crime drama marked Affleck's directorial debut.  He guided actress Amy Ryan to an Oscar nomination.  He got behind the camera again for The Town and directed Jeremy Renner to an Oscar nomination.  Now big Ben Affleck has a hit movie.  He directed Argo and he's in Argo.  He won the Golden Globe for Best Director.  Bravo, Ben!

I paid to see Argo on a Saturday afternoon last year.  That movie ticket was worth every single penny.  I wanted entertainment.  I wanted good performances.  I wanted a happy ending.  That's what I was up for and that's what I got -- an entertaining, satisfying movie with substance.  For my review, click onto the 2012 section, go to October and read my "On Ben Affleck's ARGO" entry.  He starred in another film based on real-life characters that I liked very much.  It didn't do The Town or Argo business at the box office.  But I gave it a solid review nationally on Premiere Radio. If you enjoy films with the mood and tone of Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, you may enjoy 2006's Hollywoodland.  Ben Affleck plays the late George Reeves.  Like Lucille Ball, Robert Cummings and Buddy Ebsen, George Reeves was an actor who did years of good work in films.  But his career didn't really catch fire until he acted on the small screen as the star of a TV series.  For millions of kids, he was "Superman."  Fans of classic films know that George Reeves played one of the Tarleton Twins (right side) chatting up Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in the opening moments of Gone With The Wind.  It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1939.
He was the love interest to Claudette Colbert's character in Paramount's women-in-World War II drama, So Proudly We Hail.  Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake co-starred.
He appeared in another top Oscar-winning Hollywood classic -- From Here To Eternity.  It focused on lives about to be affected by the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Reeves acted with Burt Lancaster.  The film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1953.

Being onscreen with those stars, being in those Oscar winning classics didn't elevate his career the way putting on a pair of tights did for a kiddie show did.  He was no young dude when he played that superhero.  But kids did not care.  They loved him.
They believed him as Superman, the flying hero from another planet who defended "truth, justice and the American way," as they heard before every episode.  They believed him as mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent.  Reportedly, Reeves was a bit irked at having to do a kids' show but it did what movies didn't.  It made him a big star.  He did TV commercials, personal appearances and guest appearances on other shows -- like the hugely popular I Love Lucy.  In the open of Adventures of Superman, a narrator proclaimed that our hero was "faster than a speeding bullet."  Ironically, Reeves was killed by a bullet in 1959.  Millions of kids grieved.  His death was a Hollywood mystery.  Accident, suicide or murder?  Death kept George Reeves' name alive.  Affleck donned the cape and tights and took on the role of Reeves in Hollywoodland.
I like Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies.  Especially those that take place during the town's studio system.  Not that Reeves was with a major studio when he played the TV hero but he made movies for top studios in his frustrating film career.  Some actors considered television to be...well...unsophisticated and beneath them in the 1950s.  There were others, like Reeves, who realized that working in television led to a paycheck.  Seen here as mild-mannered Clark Kent, the dorky reporter who wore glasses and then stripped down to become the Man of Steel, Reeves became a recognizable face.
Affleck (below) plays Reeves with a nice, casual weariness.  Not bitterness -- an acceptance that years of hard work don't guarantee stardom.  His career had stalled. That was the luck of the game.  But the game changed in a way he never expected.
What draws you to Reeves in Affleck's portrayal is that lack of bitterness and the grace with which he accepts his fate.  He plays the hand he's been dealt as well as he can.  He commits to the work and the TV character.  In his personal life, it's been said that he was having a very intimate friendship with the wife of a powerful studio executive.  Diane Lane is excellent as Mrs. Mannix, the actor's rich and generous Hollywood lover.
There's a strong thread of responsibility to children that runs through Hollywoodland.  In this film, Reeves takes him Superman image very seriously.  It's not vanity.  It's regard for children.  He cares that they look up to him.  He gives them more regard than he may have received from a parent.  What is the deal with his mother?  As I've blogged before, childhood is the blueprint to the rest of your life.  Did an emotional abandonment from his mother affect his adult relationships with women?  There's a detective working on the Reeves death case.  Played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody, he's been hired by Reeves' mother.  The private eye knows this celebrity scandal case could be great for his career.  He's a divorced dad.  Is he paying more attention to his career than he is to his child?
There's a rich maturity in Affleck's Hollywoodland performance.  He's younger than Reeves was.  He doesn't have the actor's square face and barrel chest but that doesn't matter.  You see Affleck challenging himself as an actor, committing to the role and giving you something different.  He's especially good in the "Superman" production scenes.  You see Reeves, with humility, having fun with the work and starting to respect his little fans.  On the series, kids could count on Superman/Clark Kent never letting a bully harm cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, seen in this photo from the television show.
Affleck's Reeves was warm with his cast and crew.  He sweetly teased Jimmy Olsen actor, Jack Larson.  George knew what viewers would discover decades later -- that Jack Larson is gay.  On the "Superman" 1950s television set in Hollywoodland, Reeves is cool with diversity.  This info helps if you see the movie.  The friendly joshing in one scene isn't just a piece of business tossed in by screenwriter Paul Bernbaum to show cast comraderie.  It's a reference to truth about an actual castmember.
Jack Larson, who went on to writing success in real life, was the life partner of the late film director, James Bridges.  The China Syndrome starring Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda and Urban Cowboy with John Travolta and Debra Winger are two of the hit films Bridges directed.  Larson's ex-boyfriend was From Here To Eternity star, Montgomery Clift.  Larson is now in his 80s.  He acted in a 2010 episode of NBC's Law & Order: SVU.  (Actress Noel Neill, so wonderful as spunky Lois Lane on the TV series, is now 92.)
Affleck gives a smart performance with an outer charm and inner dissonance that are most captivating.  Reeves death was perfect fodder for an old show like Mysteries & Scandals on E!  This movie tastefully avoids cheesiness.  Yes, there are those in Hollywoodland who are out to ride on Superman's cape to financial good times.  The aspect of "truth, justice and the American way" having a totally different meaning in Hollywood is not exactly new.  But the thread of responsibility to children in this screenplay is fresh.  Affleck's Reeves is a man who gave children what he didn't seem to get but wanted in his life.  In the end, you feel that the man who played a superhero on TV was basically a good guy who needed someone to protect him too.  This is one of Affleck's best performances after Good Will Hunting.  It's smart, confident and complicated.  Co-stars Diane Lane, Adrien Brody and Bob Hoskins are also in fine form.   For some weekend rental entertainment, consider Hollywoodland.  Directed by Allen Coulter, it's not a Grade A movie like the two I mentioned up top -- Chinatown and L.A. Confidential -- but it's definitely not bad.  Actor Ben Affleck can be proud of this one.

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