The 2006 movie Hollywoodland tells the story of George Reeves, who played Superman on television, in the context of his tragic death. The film features one of Ben Affleck’s most nuanced performances, and a largely forgettable role for the usually excellent Adrien Brody. The story is compelling not because of what it says about Reeves but because it unpacks the toll heroism takes on our heroes. More importantly, it’s got me thinking about what makes a real hero.
Reeves took the Superman role grudgingly. He needed to work, and because he couldn’t land another role, he donned tights and muscle padding to be the Man of Steel for hundreds of thousands of kids. And he was. Though Reeves didn’t take it seriously, kids and adults were riveted by the show, and Reeves soon realized that for his fans, he was Superman. He did his best to give them a good show, even making public appearances as Superman. As he changed his public behavior (and buried his private self) to suit his image, he probably didn’t expect the confrontation between man and myth that was coming .
As the film tells it, a boy approaches Superman at one of his appearances, a Superman in the old West show (seriously, the Fifties were weird). Holding a gun, the boy asks “Superman” if he can shoot his hero. Reeves realizes the gun is loaded, and calmly says, “Why would you want to do that?” “To see the bullets bounce off,” is the pint-sized cowpoke’s reply. Reeves defuses the situation by saying the bullets might hurt innocent bystanders, but he never forgot what it meant. The encounter demonstrates the tenuous border between reality and fantasy, particularly where “heroes” (and even celebrities) are concerned.
Hollywoodland is about the pain we feel when we discover that our heroes are vulnerable. When Reeves took his own life, kids got a startling wake-up call. How could Superman eat his gun? After all, he was perpetually happy on TV, a positively perfect paragon of virtue. Hollywoodland portrays kids responding with equal parts anger and depression. In our day of media saturation and cynicism, it’s difficult to imagine a movie star’s death affecting us so deeply. Fast-forward to the early Nineties, and you’ll quickly realize that not much changed in forty years. The deaths of icons like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur bear an eerie resemblance to the Reeves episode.
Sadly, little has changed ten years later. We’re still fascinated–read obsessed–with the plastic people we watch onscreen. As recently as today, as the recent media frenzy over the death of Anna Nicole Smith shows, we can see that you don’t have to be a real hero to hog the gossip IV that is cable and Internet news. The has-been starlet is still making headlines because blood tests have revealed the nine-drug cocktail that shut down her body.
For real heroes, though, weakness is not something we like to consider. We want our heroes to be superhuman, though our expectation of superpowers varies depending on the hero. And the pressure to be superhuman creates an untenable situation for some, and a hard fall from fame and grace. All too easily, the desire to be great exceeds our need to be good. Performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, the endless doping scandals in professional cycling, the excessive lifestyles of television evangelists–all demonstrate the main pitfall of the public hero: pride.
I sense that tension between virtue and victory in myself, too, an obsession with admiration and praise. Both arise, I think, from my God-given longing to be known. I tend to ignore, however, that being known by God far excels any fame I might find on earth. But I’m afraid. The path to the kind of knowing I yearn for lies through the dark forest of self-disclosure and self-denial.
I know that my best chance for making the journey alive lies in finding an experienced guide. Thankfully, I know one. Jesus led his disciples down the path. On the road to Jerusalem, where Jesus knew he would face suffering and death, James and John approached their teacher with a request. They asked for the seats of honor next to their hero. “Give us fame,” they asked. “Give us glory.”
After explaining what they would suffer on their path to “glory,” he called all the disciples together and taught them an important lesson about the kingdom of heaven. “Rulers of the Gentiles lord it over their subjects, but it is not this way among you. If you want greatness, you must learn to serve.”
Being a hero in the world we live in looks a lot like the rulers’ way. “Grab what you can; get fame and money and power. Then you’ll be have success and glory.” Jesus says real glory means laying down your life–your ambition and desires, even yourself–and living for Someone Else. Put another way, for U2 fans, “If you want to kiss the sky, you better learn how to kneel.”