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Friday Behind The Curtain

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday Behind The Curtain

Showbiz biographies are normally a little out of our range here, and yet somehow this week I wound up with three of them to talk about.

I’ve been interested in the backstage how-it-was-done kind of book ever since high school, when I first read David Gerrold’s narrative of how he came to write The Trouble With Tribbles.

(This is a wonderful book, by the way, and one of the best texts out there for novice writers of all kinds, not just those interested in writing for television.)

Anyway, so I’ve always been into these behind-the-scenes memoir things, and occasionally one of them intersects with comics. This week three of them showed up at once– two movies and a book– and so I decided that clearly, it was a sign. This was destined to be the column subject this week.

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The first one to arrive was also the funniest.

I remember first reading about this project, a biopic of sorts produced by Dawn Wells (yeah, that Dawn Wells, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island) and thinking, “Well, it’s either going to be hilarious and brilliant, or a complete belly flop.” The idea, you see, is that it wouldn’t just be a dramatization of the making of the 1966 Batman TV show. There would be a fictional framing story of Adam West and Burt Ward stepping up as real-life crimefighters in order to find the crooks who’ve stolen the Batmobile from a museum.

Done right, it could be a Batman version of Galaxy Quest (which several of us maintain is actually the best Star Trek movie ever made.) Done badly, it could be even more embarrassing than the Challenge of the Superheroes Roast.

Well, the truth of the matter is that it fell somewhere in between. It wasn’t nearly as brilliant as Galaxy Quest, but it was cute and fun. The history of the show is familiar territory if you’re a fan, but it was still nice to see it played out on screen. Jack Brewer is just okay as the young Adam West, but Jason Marsden is amazing as the young Burt Ward. The flashbacks manage to cover most of the famous anecdotes from both Adam West’s PG-rated memoir, Back To The Batcave, and Burt Ward’s R-rated version, My Life In Tights.

The present-day missing-Batmobile story is the weakest stuff in the movie, but it’s mildly amusing and the actors are clearly having a great time– Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar are back for that, along with Adam West and Burt Ward. There are some funny cameos from other familiar faces besides Gorshin, Newmar, West and Ward, as well — notably Lyle Waggoner (who also was up for the part of Batman; check out the screen test here) and Lee Meriwether, who has a hilarious moment as a frowzy old diner waitress.

So on the whole, the movie was better than anyone had a right to expect, but not anything to wake the neighbors for. I guess I’d say this is mildly recommended if you liked the original show, but don’t spend a lot of money. I paid $2.99 for the DVD and that’s about right.

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The second was something we stumbled across on one of our weekend excursions to a local thrift store.

Still Me was Christopher Reeve’s 1998 autobiography recounting both his life as an actor and the changes to his life after the accident that rendered him a quadriplegic. I picked it up on a whim, mostly because it was a pristine hardcover first edition for $1.79 and I was having one of my occasional flirtations with being a bookscout.

But I wasn’t prepared for the book to be such fascinating reading. The story of the accident itself and the grueling rehabilitation Reeve had to go through just to breathe without a respirator for an hour or two at a time is harrowing stuff, and it keeps coming; no self-pity and no self-aggrandization, just the matter-of-fact recounting of the physical challenges Christopher Reeve faced simply to get up, get dressed, breathe, eat, use the bathroom. Every one of those ordinary acts suddenly became feats of complex engineering, requiring at least one and sometimes two and three therapists or family members to get him through them. Reading all that, and knowing the full story of everything he did to turn his misfortune to the greater good of anyone who suffered from spinal injuries, you can now count me among those who regard Reeve as a real-life superhero.

Seriously. I don’t think I’d have had the raw guts to go through what he did at all, let alone calculate how to turn it into a political tool to advance a cause, no matter how worthy that cause might be.

There’s also lots about his early acting career, how he met his wife Dana, and a fair amount of Superman stuff.

But honestly, the interesting parts of the book have nothing to do with theater work or Hollywood stardom; the good stuff is the story of Reeve’s slow rebuilding of his life into something worth living after the accident. It’s gripping and inspiring reading and I recommend it to anyone, Superman fans or not.

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The best of the three was also the most recent arrival.

I never bought into the idea of the “Superman curse,” not even after Christopher Reeve’s accident and Margot Kidder’s troubles. After all, Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher are doing fine, and so’s Jack Larson. Kirk Alyn lived to a ripe old age and seemed to enjoy life. Even John Haymes Newton sounds pretty chipper on the Superboy DVD set.

So as far as I’m concerned the Superman curse is a load of peanut butter. But I have always been interested in the mystery surrounding George Reeves’ untimely death, just because it was such a tantalizing mystery.

The weird delay in calling the police, the unexplained extra bullet holes found in the floor, the strange relationship Reeves had with married woman Toni Mannix… the story had all the elements of a classic noir thriller, I always thought.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one.

Hollywoodland is an interesting riff on the Reeves tragedy, telling the story of George Reeves’ troubled life in flashbacks alternating with a fictionalized account of Louis Simo, a private eye hired by Reeves’ mother to investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding the alleged suicide.

I did enjoy this. The cast is amazing, particularly Diane Lane as Toni Mannix and Adrian Brody as Louis Simo. Even Ben Affleck, not a favorite of mine, showed unexpected depth in this role, though I never quite bought him as George Reeves. (Look away from the screen, though, and just listen, and you’ll be amazed at how close the voice is. Apparently Affleck really slaved over it.)

It’s got great atmosphere, and the sheer craft involved in visually differentiating Simo’s dingy life as a cheap private detective from the glamorous Hollywood life of George Reeves is a joy to behold. There is so much right with this movie, and everyone clearly put their all into it.

Despite all of that, though, ultimately I think this will be a slight disappointment for most viewers.

The fun of doing this kind of historical speculation, see, is to come up with a solution. (That’s what drives all those Jack The Ripper films that studios keep making, from A Study In Terror to From Hell.) In an effort like Hollywoodland, where the filmmakers have clearly adopted the form of the noir private-eye mystery to recount their take on the tragedy of George Reeves, they’re setting the audience up for a solution that never comes. The movie has a beautiful narrative arc, the Reeves scenes are compelling and the way they’re intercut with the story of Simo, Hollywoodland is a masterpiece of building tension… but it never pays off. We’re left to wonder. I think the movie would have been a stronger piece if they’d committed to their fictional story completely and let Simo find some kind of solution.

Still, there’s a lot of good stuff here and the movie is definitely worth a look. The DVD has some nice extra features too, and even though there are scenes purporting to be from George Reeves’ real life that have clearly been disproven several times over the years (the old myths about Reeves getting laughed out of a test screening of From Here To Eternity, and the one about the kid wanting to shoot Superman with a real gun at a public appearance, are both presented as factual) I think you can give the filmmakers a litle leeway there, it works for the movie.

In fairness, I should add that we picked this DVD up for 99 cents, less than it would have cost to rent. So I’m perhaps being more charitable than someone who paid full price for it in the theatre. But we did enjoy it. My only caveat is that as a mystery, it’s a bit of a cheat; it takes a sharp left turn at the end towards being an art-house piece instead of a noir detective thriller, which may leave some of you feeling betrayed. But I’d still recommend it.

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Quick housekeeping note– just a reminder that Julie and I and some of the students are going to be roaming around the Seattle ComicCard Show Sunday afternoon, so say hello if you see us there.

And all the rest of you, I’ll see you next week.

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