Hollywoodland (15)

You'll believe a has-been can fly
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The tagline for Hollywoodland reads, "Living in Hollywood can make you famous. Dying in Hollywood can make you a legend." But actor George Reeves wasn't quite what you'd call a legend. What he has become in the years since his death in 1959 is a prime exhibit in that body of movie lore that is part tittle-tattle, part conspiracy theory, of which the Bible is Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Reeves was a beefcake actor who mainly owed his renown to a small part in Gone With the Wind, until he was cast in 1952 as Superman in the long-running TV show. After that, he could never shake off the Man of Steel image (a part in From Here to Eternity had the punters rolling in the aisles, not at his performance, just at Clark Kent turning up in Hawaii).

Reeves was found dead at home, having shot himself - or had he? That's perhaps a less interesting question than this: why are Hollywood episodes of failure and desperation far more compelling than success stories? Why are the most engaging films about old Tinseltown those that portray losers, or legends in decline, like the decrepit Bela Lugosi seen in Tim Burton's paean to no-hopedom Ed Wood? Part of the answer lies no doubt in the success of the Hollywood Babylon books, which built a cult on the misery and abjection that often accompany success. There's nothing more bracing for us mortals than being reminded of the imperfections of the gods on screen - although it was possibly in Reeves's decade that they last looked at all convincingly godlike.

In Allen Coulter's speculative thriller, Reeves is played by Ben Affleck, who until recently was in danger of being remembered merely as a glitzier star's dull ex-consort. It might have seemed a malicious joke to have Affleck play a smooth, square-jawed loser, especially since he had his own stint as a superhero, in Daredevil, rather less successfully than Reeves. But Affleck embodies Reeves with subtlety and insight, finding warmth, pathos, resignation, even a touch of grandeur in the role. The performance scooped him the Best Actor award in Venice this year: he's earned the right to have Gigli laid to rest.

Written by Paul Bernbaum, Hollywoodland zigzags between Reeves's last years and the investigation of his death by down-at-heel LA detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). The more Simo learns about Reeves, the more convincing it seems that someone has killed him - but it's convincing because we know that Simo, and the film, are looking for a good story.

The film astutely counterpoints the hustling attempts of both men. Simo is a hard-nosed self-publicist, pitching his insights to the clustering newshounds. Reeves similarly works the media: he's first seen dining out, hoping to catch a director's eye - "Hello Billy Wilder, cast me please." Muscling in on a Rita Hayworth photo opportunity, he meets a self-possessed, elegantly vampy woman who instantly takes a liking to his pleasantly lacquered charm. She's Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM studio manager Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins); she sets Reeves up in a love nest, coaxes him into success, comforts him when it all goes wrong.

Was Reeves victim of a jealous husband, a disappointed mistress, a callous fiancée (a compellingly sour Robin Tunney), or just of career-decline depression? The film doesn't provide a definitive answer, but it tells us a lot about showbiz - the expected things about the burden of image, but also insights into the way that so many people make a living, or keep the rest of us sane, by telling but-for-the-grace-of-God stories about the calamities of others, as does Hollywoodland itself.

Gradually fading into full colour from a beige palette, director of photography Jonathan Freeman catches a mundane Fifties California of parched suburban gardens, dowdy apartments, functional studio offices. You understand why post-war America was so hungry for glamour, even if it was just a smiling actor in a strongman suit.

Affleck is not the only surprise here. Adrien Brody, that trembling greyhound of sensitivity, excels as Simo, nostrils nervously sniffing for a lead. Bob Hoskins has never been more subtly menacing, because Mannix's fury is an old man's fury. And Diane Lane is a revelation: her Toni has a bold, hard, laughing elegance, a frightening touch of Joan Crawford when jealousy sets in, and an acutely bitter self-awareness: watch her quietly welling hurt when her lover is for the first time surrounded by younger beauties crooning, "Hello George."

Affleck, in an intelligent, generous performance, seems to draw on a knowledge of his own limitations to portray a decent, competent man defined by limitations and failed ambitions. If Hollywoodland is a film about legends, it certainly makes you wonder why on earth we need them, and who on earth would ever want to be one.