William & Mary

'Hollywood Kryptonite' begets 'Hollywoodland'

“Hollywood Kryptonite,” a book co-written by Nancy Schoenberger of the College’s English department, has gained much attention for its adaptation as the second-highest grossing film in theaters today, “Hollywoodland.” The book, first published in 1996, is an examination of the mysterious events surrounding the death of George Reeves, the actor who portrayed Superman in the 1950s television series “The Adventures of Superman.”

Reeves was shot and killed on June 16, 1959, in Los Angeles. His death was labeled a suicide by investigators. However, Schoenberger and her husband, Sam Kashner, have researched the peculiar details of Reeves’ death, such as the way the autopsy was conducted and the lack of fingerprints on the gun. In addition, they say Reeves had been involved in an affair with Toni Mannix, wife of film studio executive Eddie Mannix, and they conclude that Mannix’s documented Mafia ties were called upon to kill Reeves.

Research for the book began while Schoenberger was a visiting professor at the College, and was sparked by her and Kashner’s shared interest in American culture of the 1950s. “My husband’s beat is old Hollywood. He covers a lot of old Hollywood subjects for Vanity Fair,” Schoenberger said. “We did a little preliminary research and found that although George Reeves’ death was officially a suicide, there were a lot of questions about the case. We both knew the show, and we thought it would be fun to write a true crime book.”

According to Schoenberger, the first stop on their search was the Super Museum in Metropolis, Ill., where Jim Hambrick, the owner and curator of the museum, had a copy of Reeves’ autopsy report.

“An L.A. police officer never believed that the verdict should have been suicide, so he kept the autopsy report, and years after he retired, he sent the report to the owner and curator of the Superman museum,” Schoenberger said. “So … we walked away with a copy of that report and that got us started.”

Schoenberger concluded from the evidence that the autopsy had been severely mishandled, and that glaring errors had been made. “With a gunshot wound, you check to see if there is powder on the skin, and that can tell you whether the gun was self-inflicted, if it was held up to his head or if it was shot from across the room in which case it couldn’t be suicide,” Schoenberger said. She added that the body was taken to a funeral home and washed before the autopsy, and the bullet hole in Reeves’ head was sewn up, so there was no way to tell the depth of the wound. As it turned out, the funeral home was owned by Eddie Mannix.

The film only considers some of this evidence, according to Schoenberger, leaving the cause of death up to the viewer. The film is not a direct adaptation of the book, although Focus Features did purchase the rights from the authors. Schoenberger and her husband are given program consultant credit.

“It’s very important that we get this right,” Schoenberger said. “We aren’t credited for the screenplay -- we didn’t write it. Our only bragging rights are that they bought the rights to the book.” The film does include findings from Schoenberger and Kashner’s book, including the possibility that Eddie Mannix may have murdered his first wife.

Ben Affleck stars as Reeves, while Diane Lane plays the role of Toni Mannix. Adrien Brody portrays the detective in charge of investigating the murder. Brody’s character, although loosely based on Milo Speriglio, the young detective who investigated Reeves’ death, is quite different than how he is portrayed by Schoenberger.

“He’s given a whole back story and that’s almost a completely fictionalized character,” Schoenberger said. “We were very impressed with it; it was a smart move to create a character the audience can sympathize with.”

Speriglio himself was one of the most important sources for the authors, especially since many of the other people involved are now dead. “[Speriglio] was a young man at the time. It was his first case and he worked for the Nick Harris detection agency,” Schoenberger said. Helen Bessolo, Reeves’ mother, had hired prominent lawyer Jerry Geisler to investigate the mystery, who in turn hired Harris. “His job was to dig up as much information as possible and convince the L.A.P.D. to re-open the case,” Schoenberger said.

However, according to Schoenberger, halfway through the investigation, Geisler resigned. “He went to Helen Bessolo and said ‘you need to drop this case -- you don’t want to know, but very bad people are involved and you don’t want to pursue it further,’” Schoenberger said. Speriglio was convinced that Eddie Mannix had Reeves killed, a conclusion the authors didn’t believe until they conducted further research.

The book was received very well upon its release. Schoenberger and her husband were featured on “Good Morning America” and several other television and radio programs. The Newark Star-Ledger ran a two-part series, inspired by their book, on Eddie Mannix and his mob connections in New Jersey, where he lived before moving to California. The authors were also featured and interviewed in USA Today.

The film is based on other research and sources in addition to “Hollywood Kryptonite.” While the film is more ambiguous, Schoenberger and Kashner’s book asserts that Reeves was in fact murdered. (For a full review of the movie, see “Hollywoodland”)

Schoenberger’s previous book, a biography of pianist Oscar Levant, is currently being optioned by Ben Stiller and Dreamworks Enterntainment. Her husband is enjoying similar success with his comic novel “Sinatraland,” which is being turned into a major motion picture, the screenplay of which will be written by the couple.

Source:  Alex Ely & Charlotte Hancock, The Flat Hat, September 15, 2006.