SUPER DEBUT

“Superman Kills Self” screamed newspaper headlines the day after actor George Reeves was found dead of a single gunshot wound in his Benedict Canyon home in June, 1959, and those three words form the basis of new Hollywood noir film, “Hollywoodland.” Aside from shock of the mysterious death of the iconic Hollywood star, the headline also proved what the actor had long suffered – he was known more as the iconic comic book hero come to life than under his own name.

“Hollywoodland” is the feature film debut of director Allen Coulter, although Coulter is a veteran of the much-decorated TV series “The Sopranos” and “Sex in the City.” It’s shot from a script by fellow first-timer Paul Bernbaum, who frames the Reeves murder mystery and character arc with a parallel story of the washed-up private investigator who takes on the case hired by Reeves’ disbelieving mother. The investigator, played by Adrien Brody, then imagines three scenarios for the death as he learns more about Reeves’s life.

While there a few missteps along the way – the film doesn’t delve deep enough into Reeves’s life – the movie is a rare achievement that both entertains and leaves viewers pondering questions of their own. Coulter coaxed terrific performances from Diane Lane as Reeves’ older mistress who supports him financially; Bob Hoskins, as an MGM honcho who also happens to be the mistress’s husband; Mr. Brody; and most surprisingly Ben Affleck, as Reeves, a man whose ambitions were never satisfied. Despite becoming a hero to millions of children, Reeves never broke the typecast and succeeded as an adult actor, and his death at 45 surprised the world.

Coulter discussed the film following a preview screening for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Cinema Society. (Responses culled from Roger Durling’s Q&A and a private interview.)

Q. Why did you choose this film for your debut?

A. It’s about a great era when Hollywood was changing from a studio-driven system to the ascendancy of television. Bridging the forties and fifties was a fascinating era. Everything was changing, even the attire, way of dressing, behavior – the shift from a quieter world when Reeves was a star to the more cacophonous world when he died. It’s also an enduring Hollywood mystery that I really knew nothing about. I had no idea there was a controversy. Not only was it ironic that Superman – the invulnerable man – had killed himself, but there was the pathos that underplayed the story, his ambitions, that caught me by surprise.

Was there something you related to in the story?

I am in the business but I’m not a Hollywood guy. But all of us have things that we thought we should have done, times in our lives when we’re feeling frustrated that we’re not recognized for the work that we’ve done, or haven’t been given the opportunity to do work that matters. I understand that – I spent years struggling to become a director who could work on things I thought I was capable of. Eventually that changed for me, but it never did for George Reeves. So I do understand. Every human being feels that sense that they may have more to offer.

Ben Affleck’s career has suffered in ways that might be compared to Reeves. Did you discuss that with him? And did you have any qualms about hiring him in the first place?

No, I didn’t. Ben did an amazing amount of research for the role, and he seemed to have a deep understanding of what George had been through, and a deep devotion to the character….I never ask actors what the source of their emotional life is for a role….We only discussed the character and his particular poignant frustrations, the fact that he seemed to be missing the very good things that were happening to him. It’s not uncommon to focus on what you’re missing and not what you have. But to be the hero to forty million kids is not exactly a horrible fate.

I noticed you didn’t use a great deal of footage from the TV series; the famous logo was missing and I read somewhere that the title was changed from “Truth, Justice and the American Way” because of copyright issues. Were there rights problems?

Yes, we were only granted a very minimal amount – the costume itself, and we were allowed to recreate the title sequence. But we had to recreate it completely, every single frame from the gunshot to the locomotive wheels to the crowd pointing in the air – as well as the score and voiceover.

And yet your film is coming out just a couple of months after “Superman Returns.”

It’s pure coincidence. Our trajectory was so uncertain, the project took so long that it was the farthest thing from anybody’s mind. It wasn’t even on the map. They kept getting delayed too. So we were both stunned the way it turned out, proximity-wise. I’m sure it probably helps us, though.

Wordplay

Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had us worried for a while. It looked like the video-classroom documentary about global warming was going to usurp the record for playing in a local theatre for the most weeks in a row. But just one week shy of tying the score, “Truth” drifted off into the ozone on August 24. Which left “Thank You For Smoking,” directed by Montecito-raised newcomer Jason Reitman, as the undisputed champion so far in 2006. His sardonic movie – which premiered here as the film festival’s closing night film, thus taking nearly 2,000 potential ticket buyers out of the picture – played for an incredible 12 straight weeks (nearly three months!). That puts the running a full fortnight longer than the third place entry, “A Prairie Home Companion,” and three times as long as his dad Ivan’s latest effort, “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” which got dumped less than a month after its late July opening. Meanwhile, blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean II” sunk after seven weeks, the same duration that “Superman Returns” rode more powerfully than a locomotive, before derailing. Current contender “The Devil Wears Prada,” which had logged eight weeks as of our publication date, seems to be falling out of fashion. “Little Miss Sunshine” is the latest film with even a ray of hope of displacing “Smoking;” four weeks in and it’s garnering the same sort of ground-swelling word-of-mouth support that gave Jason Reitman the tiara.