Film Reviews

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's an entire generation of middle-aged men who refuse to believe that the actor who played the original Superman could have killed himself!

Okay, so maybe they're not up in the sky. Mostly they're on the Internet, swapping conspiracy theories about who really killed George Reeves, the guy who played Superman in the hit '50s television series. And at comic book conventions, clucking their tongues and shaking their heads and whispering the names "Lenore Lemmon" and "Eddie Mannix." And just lately in local moviehouses by way of Superman fan and Phoenix-based screenwriter Paul Bernbaum's new film, Hollywoodland.

The mystery of who killed Superman has been a Hollywood conspiracy — albeit one of the lesser ones — for nearly half a century. Reeves was found dead in his Los Angeles home, killed by a single gunshot to the head in June of 1959. Police ruled the death a suicide, but shady dealings and wild clues led many people to believe Reeves had been murdered.

Bernbaum investigates those clues — the two additional bullet holes found in Reeves' bedroom floor; the odd placement of the gun; the fact that the police weren't called for at least a half-hour after the shooting — and presents the most popular theories about the actor's death: that he was shot by his fiancée, Lenore Lemmon, during a fight, or by longtime lover Toni Mannix, or by a thug hired by Toni's jealous husband, Loew's Theater VP Eddie Mannix. Bernbaum's is an entertaining whodunit wrapped in a Hollywood biopic by a writer who admits to being a huge Superman fan. (He recently purchased one of Reeves' original Man of Steel costumes at a Tinseltown auction.) It's also an homage to the generation of boys who worshiped Superman and can't imagine that Reeves himself wasn't as strong as kryptonite — that he was a fallible, complex guy who ran with lowlifes and owed his biggest breaks to his powerful, married girlfriend.

But don't mention that to Lou Koza. He's one of those boys, all grown up now, who's become something of a ringleader among baby boomers who want to rescue Reeves' image from Hollywood Babylon.

"People always want to talk about how fans don't want to believe George could have killed himself because we worship him," says Koza, who operates a Superman/Reeves Web site called The Adventures Continue ( "It isn't hero worship, although he was a great man. He deserves our adulation today because he had a cheerful disposition and he did charitable work. He visited sick kids in hospitals and everything."

The George Reeves of Hollywoodland, on the other hand, is a go-getter whose career owed as much to his affair with a powerful mogul's wife as it did his ability to look good in blue tights. Bernbaum shows us Reeves' darker side, but doesn't offer any definitive answers to the mystery of Reeves' death, although he's admitted in interviews that he thinks Reeves probably shot himself.

Koza thinks the bimbo did it. "It was Lenore," he insists. "She was a tough dame, and she was jealous of Toni and probably using George, too."

There's hardly a Superman Web site that doesn't devote ample space to the various theories about Reeves' death, but Koza is quick to point out that his site emphasizes the TV show and more wholesome aspects of Reeves' life. "There's no perverted images like some fanzines have," he cautions. "You know, some of them have fan art where they show Superman doing some sexual position with Vicky Vale. Ours is a very well-respected publication."

Bernbaum's script is judicious about the possibilities of Reeves' death, even casting Hollywood itself as a possible culprit. In one key sequence, a gumshoe flips through a file of old photographs and newspaper clippings about the deaths of MGM executive Paul Bern, 1940s movie star Carole Landis, and other suspicious Hollywood deaths. It's a sequence that's almost certainly lost on folks for whom the infamous photos of Bern and Landis aren't familiar as they quickly flash past, one that may be too subtle for the average moviegoer.

Then again, Koza doesn't think the average moviegoer cares about George Reeves in the first place. "Young people are the ones who go to movies," he says, "and they're not going to know who George is. They'd have to read up on this case to truly understand it, and let's face it! Young people don't read."

Koza plans to see the film, but doesn't have high hopes that it will change anyone's opinion that the actor was a depressed has-been who shot himself in the head. "It's too bad, because George deserves to be treated with dignity. After all, Superman didn't die, it was a real human being who suffered that tragic moment. Not some cartoon character that's gone on to inspire a generation of men."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela