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Don't call him a movie star

Ben Affleck's turn as fallen hero George `Superman' Reeves might allow him to be seen as simply an actor, not a punch line.

September 03, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

HE is a man who should have been a big movie star but wasn't, whose romantic choices worked against his career, whose good nature often seemed at odds with his deep ambition, and whose decision to don a cape and tights brought him momentary success but in the end left him wondering where it had all gone so wrong.

Ben Affleck's portrayal of George Reeves in Focus Features' upcoming "Hollywoodland" already has many rushing for the thesaurus in search of synonyms for "comeback." Reeves, the original TV Superman, committed suicide at age 45 after it became clear that the role had not only been the zenith of his career but also its curse. So identified was Reeves with the Man of Steel that he could not find meaningful work after the series ended.

"Hollywoodland" is an original script that examines the possibility that Reeves' suicide was actually murder. Following Louis Simo, a private detective played by Adrien Brody who has been hired by Reeves' mother, the story lifts various familiar rocks exposing the creepy crawlies -- Was it the monomaniacal studio head? The exec's spurned wife? The grasping gold-digger? -- that so often lurk in the damp shadows of noir paradise.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Ben Affleck: In today's Sunday Calendar story about Ben Affleck, the director of the movie "Bounce" is misidentified as Alan Roos. His name is Don Roos.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 10, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Bounce" director: In an article last Sunday about actor Ben Affleck, the director of the movie "Bounce" was misidentified as Alan Roos. His name is Don Roos.

But in the end, the real bogeyman of "Hollywoodland" is failure -- his career nailed to Superman's shadow, his long-term affair with the wife of the studio executive soured, creating a powerful enemy, Reeves faced an inevitable future as a Tinseltown has-been.

Though Affleck's career and, one hopes, mental health have never sunk as low as Reeves', there is a certain poignancy in the role choice and the performance. The actor's own salad days -- the Butch and Sundance partnership with Matt Damon, the 1998 Oscar win, the magazine covers, the breathless universal interest in what he would do next, whom he would date next -- have been over for quite some time.

Films like "Gigli" and "Jersey Girl" turned the cover boy into a punch line, while his overly publicized engagement with Jennifer Lopez came to an end that shamed even the most devoted supermarket newsstand junkies.

"Why Matt and not Ben?" became something of a Hollywood parlor game. Damon too has had failures, but he has created a career that balances performance ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") and franchise ("The Bourne Identity," "Ocean's Eleven"). At the box office, Affleck's could not even break even; although none of his last five films tanked as badly as "Gigli," none made money. Meanwhile, and perhaps more importantly, the media became increasingly unforgiving.

"There has always been a disconnect between the guy the press was talking about and the guy I knew," says Alan Roos, who directed Affleck in the romantic drama "Bounce," which also did not fare well despite the presence of then-newly Oscar-anointed Gwyneth Paltrow. "He came out of nowhere, the press wanted to build him up and then tear him down."

Or as longtime director and friend Kevin Smith recently said in the wake of the Tom Cruise-Sumner Redstone slap-down: "I'm sure Tom Cruise can now appreciate how bad Ben Affleck had it for two years."

Smith also believes that Affleck's acting reputation has suffered unfairly in recent years.

"The weird and unfair thing is that people will say, 'Is he turning it around?' " says Smith of the Reeves role, "when there was nothing to turn around. In a fair world, he would have been given props for 'Surviving Christmas,' in which he played completely against type, but that came in the middle of the whole Benifer explosion."

All of which may explain why Affleck has been keeping a relatively low profile these days, refusing to acknowledge the "comeback" buzz and declining interview requests before "Hollywoodland" lands in theaters Friday.

"Certainly Ben has experienced profoundly the nature of public life," says "Hollywoodland" producer Glenn Williamson. "How the perception can be one thing and you know the reality is another, and that, I'm sure, affected his performance."

*

'In a great place'

IN Reeves, Affleck had the opportunity to capture the many tensions, internal and external, of stardom. Playing it big and utterly straight, he adopts the theatrical elocution of the time and veneers his square-jawed face with an expression of studied, carefree charm that barely conceals his character's growing frustration and bewilderment.

His Reeves may be naturally handsome, but the ease he affects as he attempts to break into the fascinating and fascist studio system of Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s is as calculated as his wince-worthy attempt to be photographed standing beside Rita Hayworth. His laugh is large but always a bit forced, his rejoinders smooth and clever but just a half-beat too late.

"With Reeves there is a sense of 'I am not being seen as I really am,' " says director Allen Coulter. "And Ben certainly had the ability to channel that."

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