Do not human beings have a hard service on earth,
and are not their days like the days of a labourer?
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like labourers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me.
When I lie down I say, “When shall I rise?”
But the night is long,
and I am full of tossing until dawn.
Superman might have been “faster than a speeding bullet” and able to withstand unscathed their impact, but George Reeves, the actor who reluctantly played him could not. Thus on the night of July 16, 1959 he died under mysterious conditions of a bullet to the head while his fiancée and friends partied in the living room below his bedroom. As this excellent film, directed by Allen Coulter and written by Paul Bernbaum, shows so well, the impact on the children of America was enormous. The headlines across the country read, not “George Reeves is Dead,” but “Superman Kills Himself,” or words to that effect. However, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), Reeves mother, refusing to accept the coroner’s verdict of “indicated suicide,” comes to Hollywood to find out the truth. This leads to the other subject of the film, a man also acting a role, though not in the movies— Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a seedy detective so down on his luck that he operates out of a third class motel room (he tells clients that he will be moving to better quarters).
The film flips back and forth between two Hollywoods as we follow the doings of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) in the Forties and early Fifties, and those of Louis Simo at the end of one and the beginning of another decade. We see how Reeves’ first screen role, a bit part in Gone With the Wind, fed his ambition to become a major star, and yet circumstances (his career was interrupted by service in the armed services during WW 2), and how as he is continually ignored by casting agents, he meets and becomes involved with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM studio manager Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). The latter’s unconventional marriage is open for each to engage in discrete affairs, so Toni is free to carry on with George, even buying him a house. However, their relationship does not bring him a role in any of MGM’s films, he now being considered too old for leading parts (he was approaching forty). He does not want to accept the role of Superman in the proposed low budget TV series, television being regarded by Hollywood as demeaning to its actors, but his realistic manager advises him to “cash the check,” small as it is compared to that of a movie star.
The other actor is the fictional detective Louis Simo, who imagines himself as one of the movie detectives, such as Mike Hammer. There is a telling scene in a diner when his fellow detectives call him on his pretensions, “Nobody told him the world didn’t need two Ralph Meekers,” one observes, referring to the actor who played Mike Hammer in the darkest and most vicious of the Spillane-inspired films. Simo is divorced from his wife but keeps in touch with his young son, who is a devotee of Superman. As the detective pokes about Hollywood, the film switches back and forth between his life and that of Reeves. We see scenarios of the possible cause of the actor’s death, from that of the accepted suicide to that of murder—by a jealous lover or, more sinisterly, in connection with the Mannixes. The latter sounds plausible in that Mannix had been a gangster back east and apparently kept up his mob connections.
While never trying to solve the mystery, which is still a topic of debate, the film gives us a good portrait of a man who achieved fame in a certain circle, among kiddy fans of Superman, but never received the parts in respectable films that he believed he was capable of. He did obtain a small part in From Here to Eternity, but according to the film, the preview audience snickered so much when they recognized Reeves, that most of his footage wound up on the cutting room floor (a debatable claim, some have said). Thus his growing success in television—it is considered a step up when the producers decide to film the series in color—becomes ever more bitter, with his peers regarding him as just a kiddies’ actor. The film also is good at showing the growing importance of television and its ability to confuse a child’s mind as to what (or whom) is real and what is fantasy. The real tragedy, I believe, occurs long before George Reeves’ death, during those long years of thwarted ambition leading up to the night of July 16, 1959. Reeves might not have suffered the physical anguish of Job, but he certainly could have understood the feelings behind the biblical patriarch’s cry of anguish.