Sunday, September 10, 2006

"Hollywoodland"-- Magic!

It is one of the great ironies of modern American life that Superman died twice under tragic circumstances, showing that the man of steel, was somewhat less than that. I am of course referring to the sad story of George Reeves, and the equally sad story of Christopher Reeve, one who played Superman on TV in the 50s setting the standard and model for all subsequent portrayals, and one who portrayed him effectively and affectively on film much more recently. The former I grew up with as a child, and latter I watched as an adult. This is a story that I care about.

Focus Features is known for taking some risks and giving new directors, new writers, new actors a chance, but the film "Hollywoodland" is hardly a calculated risk with the cast it has-- Oscar winning Adrien Brody, a radiant Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Ben Affleck and numerous others. I take back everything I said in the past about Affleck's acting abilities. This movie, in which he plays George Reeves, shows that he can really act--- who knew? But Brody is the real star of this movie as he plays the detective hired by George Reeves mother to find out the truth about what happened to him. The problem is-- this detective does not know when to quit, and it lands him in dangerous waters. The seamy underbelly of Hollywood is exposed, and it is not a pretty picture.

The movie is goregeously filmed as a period piece, and its soundtrack is superbly brooding and jazzy in tone, complete with a Coltrane number to really set the mood. Brody has never looked so trouble and brooding, and Lane is just as beautiful as a brunette as she was in her Italian adventure in Tuscany and much earlier as a blond in 'Lonesome Dove'. Bob Hoskins as studio mogul Eddie Mannix is perfectly cast as the cynical, money-grubbing powerful type of head of a studio. Of course this movie is a murder mystery-- did Reeves, as the police report said, commit suicide (as his father had before him)? Was he killed by Mannix because he was the lover of Mannix's wife? Did Mrs. Mannix kill him because he got engaged to another woman? It was then, and is still now, a mystery.

George Reeves was an Illni who went west, and began his acting career with some promise-- he had a boy's part in "Gone with the Wind". Eventually he did some B films like Sir Gallahad because he was indeed tall and handsome. But when a low budget filmmaker of TV shows cast him in Superman, he was an almost overnight sensation. Ah the sweet smell of success. But unfortunately such notoriety comes at a price, and the price in Hollywood was that one becomes so identified with a particular role that one can never do something much different than that role-- the public won't accept it. Such was the story of Reeves. He got a part in "From Here to Eternity" opposite Burt Lancaster, but in the screenings all the people could talk about was --'What is Superman doing playing an ordinary Joe?'

Reeves aspired to be a serious actor, but he was never really much given the chance, and frankly it does not appear that he had the sort of talent that is exhibited in this very compelling drama. The movie raises some interesting and powerful questions and here is one of them-- Suppose you have a dream of doing something, but then you discover you are not good enough to actually do it well? Of course there are plenty of people, full of hubris who think they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, when in fact they can't. They are self-deceived. What if you can appear to be Superman in an image is everything culture, but you aren't as advertised? What if you're really just Clark Kent? Then there are those who think that 'the man has been holding them down' and they could have been a contender but just were never given a chance. This of course happens at times as well.

But what of the person who is honest with herself or himself? What happens when you have a reality check, look yourself in the mirror, and discover you are not all you'd hoped you would be, because you simply haven't been blessed with the talent to do what you so badly would like to do? One might almost say-- blessed are those who know their limitations. And yet this blessing can also be a curse, because while you may be right that you can't do A, this doesn't not mean you can't do anything well. Maybe you've just missed your calling in life. This movie raises these sorts of profound introspective questions, and for this alone it would be worth watching. This movie is bound to get some Oscar nominations, and it certainly does not portray Hollywood in any sort of favorable light. It appears to be a cutthroat place which chews up naive but ambitious people.

But how in the end should Christians view the matter of self-assessment and talent? Is there another dimension to things that this film entirely misses? My answer to this is yes. By the grace of God people can change. By the grace of God they can become bigger, better persons than they were before. By the grace of God they can be given new gifts, spiritual and personal gifts. They can learn to hone some hidden talents or develop a new one as well.

And there is something about trusting and having confidence in God that helps one both know one's limits and yet have confidence that many things are possible in Christ. Confidence in Christ never leads to cockiness, because one knows 'from whence one's help has come'. Yes, there is another dimension to life this movie entirely misses-- that by God's grace we can even become Christ-like, and that in the end is far more than being like Superman. It has been said-- We become what we admire. So whom do we admire? I hope it is not Superman. I hope it is the real superman--- the Son of Man.

P.S. There is a difference between being His fan or admirer from afar, and being His disciple.


Phil said...

"There is a difference between being His fan or admirer from afar, and being His disciple."

Unfortunately, many people who call themselves Christians (including me at times) do not understand this truth.

David Johnson said...

"There is a difference between being His fan or admirer from afar, and being his disciple."

Unfortunately, many people who call themselves Christians (too often including me) seem to be neither his admirers not his disciples.

ClydeG said...


This sounds like a good movie. I'm curious though did you ever write a review for the "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." If so, I would like to read what you thought of it.

Clyde G

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Clyde:

Nope never heard of that movie.


ClydeG said...

Hey Ben,

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada came out a few months ago and is currently available on DVD. It got terrific reviews from secular critics and the guy from Christianity Today gave it four stars. It is directed by and stars Tommy Lee Jones. I know you are busy, but if you ever get a chance you might want to check it out.

I must caution you and the readers of your blog that it is rated R for sexuality, language and violence.

Clyde G

Andy Rowell said...

I am sorry to put this here as it doesn't have to do with this post. The ETS program just came out on Friday. I see that you are presenting at SBL. I just thought you would be interested.

Conferences This Fall: ETS, SBL, NAPCE, Catalyst, Drive, and YS


Andy Rowell
Taylor University
Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations