In 1993 action hero fans were puzzled when clips from Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet appeared in an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle called Last Action Hero. Those in the know, of course, realized that the clips provided ironic commentary on the film’s title and Schwarzenegger’s reputation. For Shakespeare’s play revolves around the fact that Hamlet is anything but an action hero. Unable to revenge his father’s most foul and bloody murder, Hamlet instead takes on an antic disposition, acting an artificial role rather than acting as an authentic hero. This pun on “acting”— playing a part versus taking real life action—informs Last Action Hero as it does Hamlet. But it also informs a more recent (and much better) film about an action hero.
Hollywoodland, released last year, is about Superman—or rather, it is about the man who acted the role of Superman on television from 1952 to 1958: George Reeves (played endearingly by Ben Affleck). Though allusions to Hamlet appear nowhere in the 2006 film, I would argue that Hollywoodland captures the essence of Carl Sandburg’s evocative poem “They All Want to Play Hamlet.” For, according to Sandburg, actors want to play Hamlet not only because Hamlet is the actor’s actor but also because he is “in the saddest play the inkfish, Shakespeare, ever wrote,” and “all actors are sad.”
While Hamlet contemplates suicide several times in Shakespeare’s play, George Reeves appears to take the name of action and actually do it. In Hollywoodland’s opening scene, the first statement we hear about the Superman star comes from a cop inspecting his sad death: “the fiancée said he was depressed; she told his pals he’d do it.” As the film develops we discover that, like Hamlet, George suffered from knowledge that his mother betrayed his father. In George’s case his mother told him a lie—that his father shot himself—when in actuality he ran away with another woman. George, then, like other sad people, chooses to become an actor. As Sandburg puts it,
They all want to play Hamlet.
They have not exactly seen their fathers killed
Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill...
[But] this is something that calls and calls to their blood.
In order to fulfill the call in his blood, George puts on an antic disposition, acting like an actor. The first time in the film that we see him alive—in a flashback to 1951—he is an unknown, acting like he can afford drinks at a glamorous Hollywood party. When Rita Hayworth enters the room, he finagles his way into one of the many bulb-popping photographs taken of the star, standing right next to her seated figure. After a beautiful woman comments on how he “just made it into the picture,” George maintains an act: “Was someone taking a picture? I hadn’t noticed.” This woman, Toni Mannix, becomes enchanted as George reprises for her his bit part in Gone with the Wind (1939), striking histrionic poses that she guesses as portraying “noble, stoic” and “heroic.”
Eight years George’s senior, Toni is like the star in Gone with the Wind—Vivien Leigh. However, Diane Lane’s marvelous Toni is more like the Vivien Leigh of A Streetcar Named Desire, a film that debuted in 1951, the same year in which the scene that we are watching is set. Reminding us of the aging Blanche DuBois seeking to charm a younger man, Toni is as histrionic in her responses to George as he is in his various poses. And this is key to the theme of Hollywoodland. It is not just professional actors who pretend to be what they are not. In the land of Hollywood, they all are playing Hamlet. And they all seem sad.
This, then, is not your generic biopic. Though Hollywoodland sticks quite closely to biographical facts—including the unsolved mystery of George Reeves’s death—the film is actually about, well, Hollywoodland: a place where people in all walks of life put on acts to get what they want. In fact, long before we ever see Ben Affleck’s portrayal of George Reeves, we are introduced to Adrien Brody’s Louis Simo, a down-and-out private investigator who tells lies in order to uncover information. Louis’s surname, pronounced Seem-o, is an invention of the filmmakers, as though to signal the setting of the film: a place where nothing is as it seems. We are reminded of Hamlet’s first speech, in which he distinguishes playing a part from authentic sorrow over his father’s death:
Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good
Nor customary suits of solemn black, . . .
That can denote me truly. These indeed
For they are actions that a man might
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of
woe. (I.2.76–78, 83–86)
Hollywoodland, then, is about stripping away trappings and suits to get at that which passes show. Significantly, when we first encounter Simo, he is being hired to do surveillance on a woman who works in a Hollywood costume warehouse: a place of trappings and suits of disguise. Her suspicious husband, convinced that his wife is just putting on a show of faithfulness, wants Simo to get underneath her disguise. Later, Simo will find her literally underneath disguises, sprawled on the floor of the costume warehouse where she has been shot to death by her husband, reminding us of Reeves, who may also have been shot to death by a jealous lover.
The costume warehouse additionally alludes to Reeves’s repeated disparagement of his own Superman costume. Feeling trapped in a suit that brings him woe, Reeves worries about being typecast in his inky cloak. (As the film indicates, Superman’s costume was black and gray in the early years of the black and white series.) When Reeves gets a part in From Here to Eternity (1953), he must suffer the indignity of having his role drastically reduced when preview audiences snigger at the actor they identify as the hero of “ten-year-old boys and shut-ins.” He ends up on the cutting room floor, like the murdered costume worker, whose final resting place is identified by a huge sign proclaiming “Cutting Room” immediately before we see her body prone on the wooden floor.
Rather than as a serious actor, Reeves is repeatedly identified with little boys. The wealthy Toni Mannix, who becomes his lover, several times calls him “my boy,” giving him a gold watch inscribed with the words “Mad about the Boy.” She is with George when a group of ten-year-olds excitedly point to him inside a restaurant. We recognize the boys as Cub Scouts due to their familiar uniforms—blue shirts and slacks with red neck kerchiefs—the exact same colors as Superman’s costume. Significantly, immediately before we see the blue and red cub scouts, Reeves’s agent tells him that he will soon be filmed in color, to which Reeves sarcastically responds, “Wow, I’ll get to wear the blue and red.”
We are not surprised, then, later to see Reeves having just heard that Superman has been cancelled, at his barbecue grill gleefully burning his blue and red costume. This reminds us of an incident earlier in the film, during one of Simo’s sullen trips to visit his morose ten-year old son, Evan. Simo’s estranged wife reports that Evan burned his Superman outfit when he heard that the action hero had shot himself. To make the connection between Superman and ten-year-old sensibilities even more explicit, the film next gives us a graphic match cut: the camera cuts from a shot of the distraught Evan leaning to his left with his left hand in a pocket to a shot of Reeves in the same place on the screen, standing in the exact same position, while he performs as Clark Kent.
The scene with his costume-burning son occurs not long after Simo hears that Reeves’s mother wants to hire a private investigator. Believing her son incapable of suicide, she plans to challenge what seems to be a police cover-up. To get the case the broke Simo pretends to be what he is not: a well-respected investigator who agrees with the mother’s assessment that the suicide-ruling is merely the trappings and suits of woe. Simo’s pretending is so good it even has those of us in the audience convinced. Repeatedly offering the press evidence that Reeves was murdered, Simo shocks us late in the film when he tells his secretary, “This murder bullshit I’ve been slinging; I think it might be true.” He comes to this conclusion after he is beaten up in his apartment, and, true to the mystery of Reeves’s death, it never becomes quite clear who pummels him. Obviously, someone hired thugs to prevent Simo from uncovering the truth. But who? Toni Mannix who killed George because he left her for a younger woman? Toni’s husband who had George murdered when he broke Toni’s heart? Police who worry that Simo will expose their cover-up? A fiancée who accidentally shot George in a drunken spat?
The film then switches back and forth between Simo investigating Reeves’s death and flashbacks of Reeves’s life—in order to reinforce parallels between their two kinds of acting: that engendered by lowlife investigation and that endangered by high-life celebrity. Both men are aided in their acting by women they bed: Simo sleeps with a wannabe actress who does secretarial and investigative work for him, while Reeves becomes the boy-toy of Toni, a former actress, who buys him a house and gets him auditions. The parallel becomes explicit when the film cuts from a kiss between Toni and George—who has just discovered that she is a married woman, cheating on a husband who heads MGM studios—to a kiss between Simo and his secretary, who indicates that the husband of a cheating wife is in their office. Significantly, along with the kiss, Simo exuberantly proclaims to his secretary, “I’ve got a fiancée; I’ve got a mistress.” These words apply to his discovery that Reeves had both a mistress and a fiancée, but Simo’s grammar also makes him sound like George, who could say the same thing.
Another parallel occurs when Simo displays a newspaper headline to Reeves’s mother: “Mother Investigates ‘Superman’ Suicide.” He comments to the older woman, “See how I got us in the paper?!... But it requires a financial commitment from you.” Similarly, Reeves worked to get himself in the paper at the start of his career, a move that landed him the financial commitment of the “older woman” Toni Mannix (who appears in the newspaper photo along with Rita Hayworth). Based on these financial commitments, both men rise in stature as they manipulate others to their advantage, and both men take a dramatic fall as they start to confuse reality with their well-acted fictions. This brings us back to Shakespeare, who has generated thousands of classroom discussions about whether Hamlet actually became mad or was merely pretending madness. As Kurt Vonnegut famously put it, “Be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be.”
Vonnegut’s words seem especially appropriate to Reeves, who subtly starts appropriating elements from the Superman persona he detests. This comes as a marked contrast to his initial work for the television show. Dressed as Clark Kent for an early taping, the rambunctious Reeves asks, “Lois, would you like to see the real man of steel?” and then drops his pants to moon the camera. At this early stage we see, quite literally, the real flesh under the costume. However, the first time we see him after the disappointment with From Here to Eternity, George is dressed in a bright red suit jacket: the exact same color as the Superman cape. Later, after he tells Toni he is going out on his own to write and direct, we note that, for the first time in the film, he has on black-framed glasses—exactly like those he wore as the fictional Clark Kent. It is as though he believes he can be a man of steel on his own, no longer in need of Toni’s money or connections. His plans, however, have as little substance as the aspiring actress he meets while wearing the glasses. A sexy but smut-mouthed shrew named Leonore Lemon, the young actress contributes to George’s fall as much as the much older Toni contributed to his rise. Significantly, Reeve’s final fall—onto a bed from a bullet to the head—occurs while he is naked, both Superman and Clark Kent artifices stripped away.
George’s rise and fall are symbolically anticipated during a filming of the Superman show. We see his arms rise—as though in victory—as he waits for sound-stage wires to lift him into the air. Just as he reaches the heights of artificial flying, something breaks, and he lands flat on his face. The film uses this image to make a connection with Louis Simo’s rise and fall. Feeling on top of his form after manipulating the press at Reeves’s funeral, Simo raises his arms in victory upon successfully spitting into his apartment pool. A minute later in his apartment, he is punched in the gut by an intruder and falls flat on his face.
At this point our attention is drawn to an important motif. We hear the sound of Simo’s keys tinkling immediately before he is assaulted. Then after his brutal beating, the camera focuses on the keys lying on the floor next to his bloody face. And just in case we didn’t notice them, we are given another shot of his head and shoulders, at a different angle, the keys once again dominating the mise-en-scene. The attentive viewer will then remember that the last time the film drew attention to Simo’s keys was immediately after the high-wired Superman fell flat on his face. The film had cut from a limping Reeves exiting the sound stage to Simo entering his girlfriend’s apartment complex—while tossing his keys.
The keys next appear when Simo, reduced to drunkenness after learning about his client’s murderous rampage in the costume warehouse, stumbles into his son’s schoolyard. Barely able to stand, he tries to convince the frightened boy to come with him rather than wait for his mother, stating in slurred speech “Evan, Evan. Nobody has magic powers. You gotta be tough.... My father never taught me that.” After mentioning his inadequate father, Simo drops his keys, which he clumsily retrieves. When Evan runs away, Simo drops the keys again, plopping down on the schoolyard merry-go-round. Finally, his estranged wife walks over to him, picks up the keys, and places them in his shirt pocket.
This obvious motif necessitates analysis. What does the film imply about the keys with which one might unlock “that within which passes show”? One thing it communicates has biblical resonance: money, which drives the shows of Hollywood, is not the key to happiness, as illustrated by the numerous sad players who put on acts both for the screen and behind it.
Throughout the film, people manipulate and deceive others for money. Leonore Lemon seduces George because “he’s gotta be loaded.” The director of public relations for Eddie Mannix pays off—if not “offs”—anyone who might adversely affect the studio’s finances. As he explains to Simo, “When it comes to publicity, whether it’s true or false doesn’t really matter. If it hurts the studio, stopping one person from buying a ticket, I have to stop it. That’s my job.” Others justify their deception with the same rationalization: it’s their job. A former partner explains to Simo that he betrayed him because “it’s how the mortgage gets paid.” A cop who participated in the cover-up of Reeve’s death excuses himself with, “I got a wife and kids, car payments.”
Simo is just like them, telling the costume warehouse wife who catches him in the act of surveillance, “I do it for the money.” But it’s quite clear that neither he nor his paying customers are happy. The lowest point of Simo’s fall, then, comes not when he gets beaten up but when he discovers that his desire for money resulted in a woman’s murder. By putting on an act of investigative competence he was “stringing along” a suspicious husband “for $50 a day” until the man, out of frustration, killed his own wife.
Simo can pull himself out of his key-dropping bender only when he decides to act with integrity rather than put on an act. After George’s mother gets bought off by the studio and drops the case, Simo refuses her money and pursues the truth for the sake of truth itself. In the process of seeking the keys to Reeves’s death—motivated by truth rather than money—he begins to retrieve the keys to his own life.
Simo considers several scenarios that might explain the death of Superman, all of which are acted out for us as projections of his imagination, but he never uncovers the truth. Instead what he uncovers is that which passes show: loving others more than oneself. Twice in the film he is challenged about his tendency to look only at surfaces, in words so similar that we are called to take note. His lover sadly tells him, “You don’t know what I could do; you don’t know a thing about me,” while Eddie Mannix, who genuinely loves Toni, growls, “You don’t know me; you don’t know what I think, what I do.”
Such words also apply to Simo’s limited knowledge of George Reeves. Toward the end of the film, however, Simo is given a clue to Reeves’s sad fate. An agent lends him a home movie of Reeves trying, and failing, to master moves as a wrestler for a possible audition. The silent black and white footage captures an aging has-been desperate for money, a lost action hero with a “heart that’s breaking, breaking” (to use the words of Sandburg).
Simo then watches another home movie on the same projector. This one, however, is in color, capturing a joyful scene with his son Evan. In the flickering clip we see Simo raise his arms above his head—as he did right before he was knocked to his apartment floor, just as Superman did right before he fell to the stage floor. In the home movie, however, Evan raises his arms in imitation of his father, and Simo picks him up to help him fly through the air—like Superman. Rather than an artificial stage device, Evan is held up by authentic human connection.
Next, a low-angle shot in the home movie shows Evan’s head moving in front of the sun, reminding us of the framing film’s first image after the discovery of Reeve’s dead body: a low-angle shot of a bow-tied man whose head moves in front of the sun. This is our first view of the murderous husband who hires Simo to spy on the costume warehouse. In Simo’s home movie, however, there are no costumes—not even for Evan as he pretends to fly. Instead what we see is that which passes show: the son as sun, lighting up a father’s life.
After watching this home movie, Simo journeys—in more ways than one—to reconnect with his son. As he closes his car door in front of Evan’s house, Hollywoodland closes with a tight shot through the framed car-window, focusing our attention not on a “heart that’s breaking, breaking,” but on keys being tossed in Simo’s expectant hand.
Crystal Downing is Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.