ABOUT THE REAL-LIFE PEOPLE PORTRAYED IN HOLLYWOODLAND
George Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer on January 5, 1914, in Iowa. His birthdate is often given as April 5, 1914, because he was born less than nine months after his parents' wedding. His mother, Helen, even told Reeves himself the April 5 date, and it wasn't until he was an adult that he learned the truth. He was adopted by his stepfather, and his given name changed to "George Bessolo" before he took "George Reeves" as his stage name.
An amateur boxer and musician while growing up in Pasadena, California, Reeves also trained as an actor at the Pasedena Playhouse. It was this vocation that became his calling. He made his stage debut in 1935, and went on to appear in multiple productions at the Playhouse over the next eighteen years. One of his early theatrical performances caught the eye of a Hollywood talent scout, and in late 1938 he took the stage name of George Reeves, landing his first studio contract and film - the instant classic Gone with the Wind, in which he played Brent Tarleton.
The following years brought him more stage and film work, including starring opposite Claudette Colbert in 1943's So Proudly We Hail!, directed by his mentor Mark Sandrich. He served in WWII and was married to actress Ellanora Needles for a decade. Reeves' journey to his most famous role coincided with seismic changes in the movie world - and in the new medium of television. During and after WWII, the major movie studio system began to change because of competition from television; talent was less likely to be under seven-year contracts at the studios.
In 1950, without major studio work on the horizon, the actor agreed to play Clark Kent/Superman in a low-budget hourlong movie, Superman and the Mole-Men. Kirk Alyn, who had recently played the role(s) in a couple of movie serials, was priced out of a reprise for the feature, directed by Lee Sholem. Reeves, playing opposite Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, made such a strong impression on Sholem and the producers during the 12-day shoot that another, more long-term, stint as Superman was proffered.
So it was that in 1951 (the same year MGM studio general manager Edgar [Eddie] Mannix married his longtime mistress Camille [Toni] Lanier) Reeves signed a low-paying but multi-year contract to star in a new syndicated half-hour television series, Adventures of Superman. The actor well knew the mindset that television was considered inferior to feature films. Yet he quickly achieved the fame that had eluded him in films, though not the fortune.
The show (several episodes of which were directed by Sholem) was the first television program about the exploits of the character, who had been created for comic books in the 1930s and broke out as an international favorite at the end of that decade. The Man of Steel had then been portrayed on radio (from 1940 to 1951), in 17 animated shorts, and in the two movie serials. But with the television medium coming into its own, it was Reeves' portrayal that most strongly imprinted the character on the world's consciousness.
Filming on the show (with Jack Larson, as Jimmy Olsen, joining Reeves and Coates) began in July 1951, with 24 episodes produced. Laying the groundwork for the program, Superman and the Mole-Men was released theatrically at Thanksgiving 1951, and enjoyed a successful run. In 1952, Reeves landed a role in what would be his last major motion picture, From Here to Eternity.
But once the Kellogg's-sponsored Adventures of Superman began airing in September 1952, it became an instant favorite; as appointment television for millions of children, it catapulted its leading man to household-name status. One year later, Reeves (pictured in his dual role of Clark and Superman) was on the cover of TV Guide (the cover headline read "George Reeves - Man and Superman"); the Mole-Men feature had been cut up and aired as two additional episodes of the series; and another cycle of 26 half-hour episodes had begun filming (with Noel Neill, who had earlier starred as Lois Lane in the movie serials, succeeding Coates in the role).
The compressed production schedule and budget called for Reeves to film as many five episodes at once, and in as little as twelve working days. Additional 26-episode shoots took place at staggered intervals over the next few years, with the production switching to color film stock. The total number of shows (counting the Mole-Men segments) was 104; Reeves directed 3 of the episodes. All the while, a generation was tuning in to watch - and re-watch - Superman's heroics on behalf of "truth, justice and the American way."
Reeves was contractually required to make personal appearances wearing the Superman costume, at which throngs of children would seek to test "his" invincibility, often physically. In an especially accurate gauge of just how much his characterization had impacted the popular culture, Reeves in 1957 made a special guest appearance on another phenomenally successful half-hour program, I Love Lucy. The episode uniting two of television's earliest and biggest stars (entitled, in heroic team-up tradition, "Lucy and Superman") centered on Little Ricky's wish for Superman to come to his birthday party.
Reeves completed filming a new batch of 26 Superman episodes in November 1957 - by which point the ABC network had commenced airing daily reruns of previous shows. This brought even more new viewers to the series, and further typecast the actor in the industry's eyes as Superman. The last new episode aired in syndication in April 1958, and preceding episodes also continued in rotation - all around the world.
By the time the series first began airing, Reeves had already begun his longterm affair with Toni, a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. Toni had met her future husband, the general manager of the storied film studio MGM, when she appeared in the 1936 movie The Great Ziegfeld - and became Eddie's mistress. A former New Jersey gangster, Eddie had been a suspect in several murders, and was said to have maintained his mob connections long after he broke into Hollywood as a fixer. Kept on studio payrolls, fixers solved the problems of stars (i.e., hid their crimes, kept their secrets, covered up their scandals) by whatever means necessary to keep their names out of the press. The Mannixes' marriage was an open and unconventional one, and Toni's ongoing arrangement with Reeves became a well-kept yet widely known Hollywood secret; out of respect and fear, the press (expertly held at bay by MGM publicity chief Howard Strickling) never exposed the relationship.
Toni was at least eight years older than Reeves, and although he was the celebrity, it was she who paid for his Benedict Canyon (in the Hollywood Hills) home and the lifestyle he enjoyed. But in mid-1958, Reeves left her for a younger woman, NYC socialite-turned-L.A. would-be starlet Leonore Lemmon - which devastated Toni and, therefore, upset Eddie.
With no film offers coming in and production on another cycle of 26 Adventures of Superman episodes planned but not yet underway, an unemployed Reeves was even considering an attempt at exhibition wrestling. Lemmon, by now his fiancée, held parties at his home. She was at one on the main floor of the house when, in the early morning hours of June 16, 1959, George Reeves died in his bedroom of a single gunshot wound. He was 45 years old.
It was instantly and widely reported that Reeves' death was suicide, with a typecast and/or fading career theorized as the cause. Still, 10 days afterwards, on June 26, reportage surfaced of two more bullet holes being discovered by police who had pried up the carpet covering the floor where Reeves was found. These shots were fired from the same Luger automatic that killed him. One bullet had gone through the floor and lodged in the paneling of the living room downstairs; the other one was recovered from a ceiling beam. Only one cartridge case was found in the bedroom, however, and no fingerprints were found on the gun.
Leonore Lemmon claimed that she had fired a bullet into the ceiling beam weeks earlier to demonstrate to a friend just how loud a shot would be. The friend corroborated her story, and Lemmon immediately left Hollywood. Abandoning her intended career, she returned to New York. She died in 1990.
Reeves' mother Helen Bessolo did not believe that her son had killed himself. She soon commissioned an investigation of her own, but an autopsy determined that the circumstances were consistent with suicide. Helen died in 1964.
Widowed by Eddie Mannix in 1963, Toni Mannix lived out the remainder of her years wealthily in Beverly Hills, and died in 1983.
Nearly 50 years after the fact, speculation continues to surround the death of George Reeves. The case remains one of Hollywood's most enduring unsolved mysteries, as well as one of the harshest instances of a gifted actor's life and career being cut tragically short.
THE ROAD TO HOLLYWOODLAND
The 1959 death of George Reeves, an icon to millions as Superman, is a Hollywood mystery that continues to command interest nearly 50 years later. Despite being notoriously unresolved, the case is so well-documented that Hollywoodland screenwriter Paul Bernbaum was able to use equal parts factual research and inspiration to craft his original screenplay.
Bernbaum reflects, "I lived for Adventures of Superman as a kid. I read the comic books, I'd seen the cartoons, but there was something about Reeves - I knew he was an actor, and I knew it was a TV show, but I also knew that if Superman were real, he would be exactly like Reeves. He connected with me and with every other kid who used to watch. As an adult, looking back on my continuing fondness for the show, which included buying one of his original TV costumes at auction, I kept thinking that there had to be something special about the guy - and there was.
"I'd been playing around with writing a screenplay about him for years; Reeves' life was colorful, compelling, and ultimately tragic. But I also wanted to dramatize the unease he felt at being Superman against the incredible impact that being Superman had on his fans. Here was an actor who wanted to be a star, and became a giant one, bigger than he ever could have imagined - but only to kids. Yet, even living with that disappointment, and the resentment of knowing that being Superman blocked any chance he had at what he considered a legitimate career, he always recognized the place he held in the hearts of millions of children. He never let them down; to them, he was Superman, and, to me, that made him a true hero."
Hollywoodland producer Glenn Williamson comments, "What Paul did that was so original was to build the script around the detective, Louis Simo. This allowed him to be very authentic with George Reeves' story. So you're brought in by the famous mystery - and held by a multilayered and very human character story."
Williamson began working to bring the script to the screen in the fall of 2001. He says, "I knew right away that these were roles any actors would love to play, and here was a script about a compelling universal theme; we all fixate on what we don't have, and don't see what we do have.
"From an historical standpoint, the death of George Reeves was a loss of innocence for a whole generation. It had an impact on millions of people. When you look at the headlines that ran after he died, just about every one said 'Superman Dies' or 'Superman on Television Dies' or some such - and not 'George Reeves Died.' Here was an actor, playing an invincible character, whose own mortality was cut short. We wanted to show who the person was, which in turn informs another man's increasing awareness of who he is."
Director Allen Coulter read the script a year later, and found it to be "smart and incredibly well-written, a tale of two men who want to be someone other than who they are. I also thought it was a unique take on a great period - from the heyday of the movies through the impact of early television - that hadn't really been explored in a serious story. The minute I finished reading it, I called my agent." Not long after, Coulter committed to make his feature film directorial debut on the project.
Reflecting on the strength of the story and the characters, he notes, "The stories reverberate in each other, and both storylines are enriched as a result. Both of these men are too caught up in a Hollywood dream to appreciate what they have and what is authentic in their lives. They're each less of a star in their respective fields than they want to be. They believe that such success will legitimize their very being in the eyes of the world - and, therefore, in their own eyes. It is Simo's journey of discovering George's story that finally grants him a new perspective on his own life.
"For Simo, at the beginning it's just a gig, a money job. As the film progresses, Simo becomes more and more engrossed in Reeves' life - and gives a damn about the man. He also realizes, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"
Having worked on Hollywoodland for several years, the director and producer developed an abiding respect and compassion for the late actor. Coulter remarks, "Reeves, in my opinion, suffered from feeling that he never got to fulfill all of his possibilities as an actor. He was very troubled by the perception of him, not as a serious actor, but 'just this guy who played Superman.' We hope we have brought his story to light and point people towards the proper place he occupies in Hollywood history.
"We all have a plan for our lives - until life changes it. Reeves' plan was altered by World War II. He had such a fortuitous beginning - what with Gone with the Wind as his first movie - but when he came back from serving his country, he could not really get his career going again in the Hollywood system. Being in his early 30s, he was already perceived as 'a little old' for Hollywood. He became huge in another medium, but it didn't mean much to him - and he certainly wasn't making millions of dollars like the actors who play superheroes in movies today."
Coulter marvels, "Millions of children thought of this man - who was childless in real life - as a father figure who was strong and all-knowing. The little wink that he added to the character spoke to children; they thought he was winking at them. At their ages, they couldn't necessarily make the separation between the actor and the character."
Williamson adds, "Reeves, as a creative talent, wanted to do different things. Ironically, the phenomenal success of the program made that impossible. Reeves was the key element of something that was very significant for a whole generation, yet it wasn't enough for him in his personal life. If you take the time to watch the shows, you'll see that they're entertaining but they also had messages of tolerance and good values like justice and honor."
In seeking to honor George Reeves' legacy, the filmmakers knew that casting the actor who could best convey the different personal and professional sides of Reeves was crucial. "Ben Affleck's respect for George Reeves as a human being is huge," states Coulter. "He got heavily involved in researching Reeves from the beginning, and became deeply engaged in playing him and paying tribute."
Affleck reveals, "For me, there was a much larger responsibility even than that of playing a real person. This is a man who, in his life, would not get credit for being his own person. I found that he had been in a car crash once, and kind of fainted. The newspapers then said, 'Superman Faints at Sight of Own Blood.' People were very flip and snide about him. It was demeaning, and he deserved better.
"The contrast intrigued me; he was very frustrated and sad, but people thought, 'Well he should be so happy.' He took the job to earn a living, and to keep working. He became one of first actors to experience the real frustration of typecasting. Everyone who watched Superman felt a sense of ownership of, and familiarity with, him that I think made him uncomfortable and self-conscious. People expected him to actually be Superman. To me, Hollywoodland says something about how we as a culture venerate and then devour our cultural icons."
"I've worked with Ben before, and I hadn't seen him as happily focused on his work as I did on Hollywoodland," says Williamson. "There were a lot of actors who wanted to play Reeves, but I knew Ben would identify with the role and be perfect for it."
"Ben understood certain things about George Reeves; there are a number of traits they share," adds Coulter. "From everything we heard or read, Reeves was a very likable and charming man. Ben is, too - and he knows a thing or two about being vulnerable as an actor in Hollywood."
Reflecting on what he ascertained about Reeves from his research, Affleck notes, "He was known as 'Honest George,' and he spent a lot of time trying to make other people feel better - partly to shore himself up. He was generous and, by all accounts, lent out far more money than he probably had; he was garrulous and funny, and could play the guitar and speak several languages. He was a man, in the era's sense of the word.
"George wasn't perfect; he was too ambitious and impatient, and maybe too interested in what was on the surface. But I believe he lived his life with a tremendous amount of character."
THE BIG PICTURE
"I think the most interesting characters are the ones who tell us something about our own struggles," says Adrien Brody, who stars in Hollywoodland as Louis Simo. "As an actor, I look to be touched by my character and the scenario. I also look for roles that I haven't had the opportunity to play before. This script had all that, and more; it was very fluid.
"In Hollywoodland, Simo has a reached a place in his life where a lot of people find themselves; they want the end results, but probably haven't taken the necessary steps to get there. Simo is a bit childish in his relations with other people, and he has to grow up. He tries to look good, but he's acting. He eventually has to stop his hustle and start focusing on what's important. It was a great journey to explore."
Allen Coulter elaborates, "There's a sequence in a diner where a former associate calls Simo out on trying to look like Ralph Meeker, an actor well-known then for playing detectives in movies. Simo is striving to be a thoroughly modern detective, and he is also playing the role of a detective, often as opposed to simply being one, as if cameras were rolling on him.
"The part of Simo required an actor who could be sexy and charming - with an air of intensity and danger. Adrien is the exceptional actor we needed."
Glenn Williamson adds, "Adrien brings such nuance and complexity to every single scene he plays. He's terrific as Simo."
Brody comments, "Initially, Simo's just going after the case to make waves and get to another level in his field. Then, through the investigation, Simo starts to see the sadness within George Reeves."
The investigation into Reeves' death, as dramatized in Hollywoodland, explores more than one theory. "There's a lot of speculation as to what - or who - caused his demise," remarks Brody. "Was it foul play, or was it suicide? Allen and I discussed this, and we deliberately chose to keep it pretty vague for me as an actor - because my character doesn't know, and is trying to find out."
"Reeves' death has always been controversial," says Paul Bernbaum. "There have always been three particular theories; (1) he committed suicide, (2) he was shot either on purpose or accidentally by Leonore Lemmon, and (3) he was murdered on orders from Eddie Mannix. In writing the script, I wanted to dramatize each of them - and give them each enough credibility so that when audiences leave the theater, they are split three ways as to what actually happened that night."
Coulter comments, "We play off all three, and have tried to give everyone and everything in the respective theories a full measure of dramatization."
Williamson says, "We all talked - and with the cast - about how we want people to walk out of this movie and debate what they think happened."
Some of these debates among the cast and filmmakers would get cut short. As Brody notes, "Either way, what happened was tragic."
Even more emphatic is the film's leading lady Diane Lane, who reflects, "These were terrible discussions to have; it's all just so sad. I really did identify with Toni's feelings - the sense of loss."
Lane had long been formulating her take on the part of Reeves' longtime lover. "Diane had been a fan of the project over the years, tracking the script's progress," remembers Williamson.
What the actress didn't realize was that the script had already been tracking her. Bernbaum explains, "I wrote the part with Diane in mind, so it all turned out perfectly!"
Coulter notes, "In several of her movies, Diane has played women who are driven by emotions beyond their control. In Hollywoodland, you could say that's true of Toni too, but this woman is much tougher and gutsier. Diane herself has shown a tougher quality in some of her other movies, and with this role she finally has an opportunity to explore it much more. She's such a strong actress."
Lane says, "The relationship between Toni and George was so interesting to me. She had a lot of confidence for a woman in that time; she was a great dame - not necessarily a good girl, but someone with a lot of surprising colors. Ben and I both read books on George which addressed how Toni fit into his life, and spoke with Jack Larson [Reeves' fellow actor on the TV series]. He adored both of them, and their relationship.
"Toni was a vibrant woman, and she was older than George; she held the purse strings and wasn't afraid to use them. They had a sexy, fun, robust relationship that was very adult. It could have been a superficial one, but it wasn't; it grew into something a lot more, and they had an understanding. She was grateful to have him in her life."
Ben Affleck offers, "At the time Toni came along in George's life, she represented something that he wanted - a fresh start, and to feel younger and more alive. In some ways, she used the fact that she gave him money - paid his expenses with her husband's money - to control him. Although I believe they really loved each other, ultimately she came to represent something to him that made him unhappy. But once she was out of his life, his life went sideways."
Assessing the end of the affair, Lane states, "Like any relationship, theirs had the potential of running its course if people don't evolve - and Toni didn't really want George to evolve into something else; she wanted him to stay as she knew him. She loved him, and I don't think she ever got over him."
In finally getting to play the role she'd been tracking for years, Lane "wasn't about to cheat Toni by not portraying her as authentically as I could. I'm an actor, not a historian, but I felt a responsibility to her. I also had a great time playing older than myself; it was liberating! I didn't have to worry about looking young. That's such a bore, and so limiting - although it was nice to be well-lit; Toni would have demanded that..."
Affleck comments, "Diane is easily one of the best, if not the best, actresses I've ever worked with. She's extraordinary, and she's really kind and a pro. Half the time, I was thinking, 'Looking back, I'm going to be so proud of this movie just to have worked alongside somebody who turned in such a performance.' The way she played our scenes was so honest and real."
Lane had previously appeared with her Hollywoodland on-screen husband, Bob Hoskins, two decades prior in The Cotton Club. She marvels, "We had this instant camaraderie just from having gone through that experience together - it really bonded us! It was fabulous being in a movie again with Bob; he's so sweet."
Hoskins reports, "When I found out that Diane was doing Hollywoodland, I thought, 'Cool.' She was already an extraordinary actress back then, when she was a teenager. She also had - and still has - this incredible ability to fall asleep at the drop of a pin. She can just walk into her trailer and do it - amazing...It was a lovely thrill to be working with her again, and on this beautiful script."
As an actor who has portrayed several real-life personae on-screen over the years, Hoskins states, "The only responsibility I have is to never pass judgment on a character. I did read about Eddie Mannix, but I didn't want to do too much research and get set in one way; I wanted Allen to be able to get what he wanted out of me.
"Mannix was a complicated guy. He was a powerful man, the second-in-command at MGM. But Eddie was also very ill, and I think the lust had gone out of their marriage early on, so that it became more like a brother and sister relationship."
Lane muses, "Certainly, Toni and Eddie were aware of each other's affairs. They'd reached a mature conclusion to want each other to be happy, but at the same time not sacrifice the arrangement and the mutual benefits of their marriage."
Hoskins notes, "He was so tough - yet he could be tender with her. He realized that if he was going to keep her as his wife, she had to have her own sex life. It was basically, 'You can sleep with my wife, but if you make her cry, you're dead.' It was an extraordinary time, because the studios actually owned the people. They told them how to live their lives."
Brody remarks, "We all remember the glamour of Hollywood - and we're re-creating an incredible and fascinating period in our movie - but there were all these darker undercurrents."
Coulter adds, "Ours is a darker version of the period than one normally sees. I read an enormous amount in researching Hollywoodland, and I realized that part of the patina of glamour was fostered by the studios, to create a world of fantasy that everybody could look up to. We're peeling that back to show people who had personal dramas; their nice clothes didn't protect them."
THE HOLLYWOODS OF HOLLYWOODLAND BEHIND THE SCENES ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS