Perhaps earthquakes plague Southern California not because of underground fault lines, but because of the outsized pressures America puts on Hollywood. Los Angeles' foundation virtually rests on impossible dreams, broken ambitions and seething resentments. The city builds up and tears down its idols so quickly, it's no wonder it lacks stability.
As a locus of sex, money and self-delusion, Hollywood quickly became a kind of historian of its self-hatred and as America's film noir capital. Nathanael West wrote the anti-showbiz classic The Day of the Locust in 1939, and Raymond Chandler sent gumshoe Philip Marlowe on knightly errands that same year. In 1950, Sunset Boulevard created the template for dark Tinseltown satires, a genre that continues through The Player (1992), Mulholland Drive (2001) and beyond.
Such films, and more literary versions of Hollywood Babylon-style exposés, provide intellectual justifications for the tabloid-driven impulse to claw at fame and glamour. Two movies, released within a week of each other, take aim at Los Angeles during the era of vintage suits, smokes and secrets. Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland reopens the 1959 suicide of George Reeves, famed for playing Superman on TV in the 1950s. Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia exhumes the notorious Jack-the-Ripper-style 1947 murder of starlet Elizabeth Short. Neither film will endure as a timeless example of the silver screen, but each draws a little blood in its epic treatment of back-lot gossip.
Hollywoodland comes linked to so many other current events, from water-cooler chat over movie stars' public images to the hype over the release of a big new Superman movie, that the film seems to bubble up from the culture's subconscious. Casting Ben Affleck as George Reeves only reinforces its modern-day connection. Not only does Affleck look the part of a B-movie 1950s matinee idol, his own reputation reinforces the film's themes. Reeves finds himself typecast as Superman at a time when comic-book characters were no better than juvenile jokes. Though Affleck played a costumed hero in Daredevil, he's been more a prisoner of his own celebrity. No matter how much Affleck personally identifies with Reeves, a cloud of wounded pride hangs appropriately over his performance.
The film starts with Reeves as an actor on the make, leaning into other people's photographs to make society pages and flirting with well-connected women such as sultry Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of a vicious studio mogul (Bob Hoskins). Reeves takes the Superman gig for the paycheck and discovers all of the problems and almost none of the benefits of celebrity. In the most tense scene, a boy with a real gun confronts him at a public appearance, hoping to see Reeves deflect bullets.
Hollywoodland cuts between the rise and fall of Reeves and the investigation by two-bit gumshoe Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) as to whether the actor shot himself or was murdered. We see Simo's theories about Reeves' death as murder and suicide, as well as allusions to public cover-ups. Though Hollywoodland draws parallels between Reeves and Simo as they flail at integrity, the story's true thematic twins are Reeves and Toni, each a fading figure of desire. Lane exudes more sizzle and star quality than the younger actresses in Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia combined, and captures Toni's painful awareness of her advancing age in a community that worships youth. Her looks fade as Reeves' star dims.
Mostly Simo's half of the film unfolds like second-hand Chinatown, one of the great L.A. noirs. Hollywoodland intriguingly argues that "Superman's suicide" was a milestone in American disillusionment, as Simo's ex-wife notes: "Every kid on the block's upset." Simo's son (Zach Mills) both mourns for the dead actor and acts out his frustrations at his parents' broken marriage. But Reeves was a shadow of the Man of Steel in nearly every possible way. Since the first episodes were filmed in black and white, even his original tights were a drab, almost colorless replica of the real thing.
You could find an epigraph to Hollywoodland in the introduction to James Ellroy's novel American Tabloid: "America was never innocent. ... You can't lose what you lacked at conception." With his stylish, brutal crime novels such as L.A. Confidential (later adapted into a 1997 film), Ellroy may be the most fearless writer of the City of Angels' most infernal corners. Ellroy's fascination comes hard-earned; in his memoir My Dark Places, he explores how his mother's unsolved murder in 1958 shaped his psyche.
In his 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, Ellroy took a fictional exploration of the shocking, unsolved murder of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, whom reporters posthumously nicknamed "The Black Dahlia" after the 1946 Veronica Lake vehicle The Blue Dahlia. An act of staggering brutality, the crime involved such mutilations as her face sliced from ear to ear.
Where Hollywoodland followed the victims of the showbiz food chain, Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia focuses more closely on the perpetrators -- the ones who obsess, and not the objects of their obsession. It finds antiheroes in two police detectives, soft-spoken Dwight "Bucky" Bleickart (Josh Hartnett) and brash Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). As part-time boxers and opponents in a match billed as "Mr. Ice vs. Mr. Fire," they're spiritual doubles with almost identical last names.
Both men grow consumed with the Dahlia mystery. Blanchard pores over crime-scene details while concealing his own corrupt decisions. Bleickart finds himself attracted to Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), a bi-curious socialite who knew -- and resembles -- the murdered woman. Mia Kirshner plays Elizabeth Short in black-and-white flashbacks, but looks so unlike Swank that the doubling theme gets little traction.
As a director, DePalma's preoccupations at times square with Ellroy's. Throughout his work, the author returns to the idea that killers and cops, perverse voyeurs and yellow journalists are all cut from the same cloth. "Who are these men who feed on others?" Bleickart wonders, not realizing his own ugly tendencies. DePalma's slick, bloody set pieces fit the violence of the work, such as the early boxing match or a long crane shot that captures the discovery of Short's body.
DePalma seldom makes the film's erotic scenes particularly sexy. A scene at a lesbian nightclub -- with scantily clad showgirls surrounding k.d. lang singing "Love For Sale" (really) -- looks so much like a VH1 music video that it fails to generate any transgressive thrills. Perhaps the film's most unnerving blend of sadism and sexuality comes when Bleickart glimpses Blanchard's girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) revealing both her lacy underthings and a scarred midriff.
For all of DePalma's fascination with classic movie style, The Black Dahlia looks like a phony period piece with shiny new cars, compared to Hollywoodland's lived-in, sun-bleached textures. The director needs a simple plot that won't get in his way, and gets tripped up in Ellroy's complicated construction that casts Elizabeth Short as a sacrifice in the name of Los Angeles' progress. Possibly Fiona Shaw's nutzoid performance as Madeline's mother is meant to pay homage to Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, but it sabotages The Black Dahlia's attempts at seriousness.
Perhaps the most telling moment of either film comes in screen tests. Bleickart repeatedly watches scenes of Short -- in torn, shabby stockings -- attempting to influence casting directors with queasy seductions and attempts to "act." Meanwhile, Simo watches a home movie of an aging Reeves tumbling in his yard as a tryout for a humiliating gig on the wrestling circuit.
The deaths of George Reeves and Elizabeth Short may be freak anomalies in the chronicles of Los Angeles, but the shots of them debasing themselves to begin or extend their careers is the kind of thing that happens everyday. Both Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia convey a certain masochistic honesty about the film industry, but they won't detract more people from flying out to Los Angeles to seek their fortunes. Hollywood will continue to allure aspiring talents, predators and bottom-feeders, all drawn like moths to the fame.