The release of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, put me in mind of my encounters with Christopher Reeve, the best of the Supermen and the star of what remains the most successful of the attempts to bring Superman to the screen.
The new movie has been released to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of pop culture’s original superhero, created by (writer) Jerry Siegel and (artist and Canadian) Joe Shuster. Man of Steel is such a loud, bombastic bore, so much a reproduction of all the other big, noisy CGI-heavy superhero movies flooding theaters at this time of the year, it threatens to drown out memories of the freshness and originality of the 1978 Superman: The Movie.
Up to that point, comic book heroes were relegated to the bargain basement of movie making–a low-budget Superman serial in 1948 and 1950, and then the iconic (but very cheaply done) black and white TV series starring George Reeves from 1952 to 1958.
Directed by Richard Donner, Superman: The Movie delighted everyone by combining a comic book sensibility with a knowing humor, a lovingly executed romanticism, and what at the time were eye-popping, state-of-the-art special effects–you really believed, as the movie’s tag line promised, that a man could fly.
The best thing the movie had going for it was Chris Reeve. Born to wealth, he attended private schools, graduated from Cornell University, and had made only one other film before being chosen to play the role that had been turned down by just about every major star including Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, and Nicolas Cage. Reeve brought the size (he was six feet, four inches tall), good looks (blazing blue eyes), and a certain sense of bemused innocence that was perfect for Superman.
I didn’t meet him until the second movie in the series was released a couple of years later. Our first encounter took place at, of all places, Niagara Falls, where part of the story of Superman II was set.
In person, Reeve was much lankier than the pumped-up version of himself he employed for his Superman role, a quiet, intense and remote young man, with a rather patrician air about him that betrayed his background, friendly enough, but with, alas, not a whole lot to say for himself.
I say alas because although I’m not quite sure how I managed it, I ended up interviewing him more times than I care to remember, increasingly desperate as each interview approached to come up with the questions to which he invariably provided bland, uninteresting answers.
Unfortunately for Reeve, his blandness was not restricted to interviews–it also ended up on the screen. While his somewhat wooden demeanor worked well for him in the Superman films, it didn’t help him at all in other parts.
Without a blue suit and a red cape, he appeared uncomfortable onscreen and somehow detached from the words he was reciting–and he often sounded as though he was doing little more than reciting in films like Somewhere In Time (which somehow works despite Reeve and has become a minor classic), Deathtrap, and, most notoriously, a disaster titled Monsignor.
The Monsignor premiere, hosted by 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, was held in a mid-town Manhattan theater. A large press contingent was brought in to see the movie and interview the stars. Reeve was playing Father John Flaherty, a conniving Roman Catholic priest who falls in love with Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold.
Reeve came in and sat a few rows behind me. Presently, the lights went down, the audience quieted, and the movie started. Except the audience was not quiet for long. Almost from the moment Reeve appeared and opened his mouth, people started laughing. When Bujold showed up as solemn, humorless Clara, the young nun, the audience laughed even louder.
Soon everyone was howling throughout what was supposed to be an intense drama of a young priest blinded by ambition after World War Two. I longed to look back and see how Reeve was handling the audience’s reaction, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Among reporters who attended the screening, it was widely predicted Reeve would never show up the next day for interviews. How could he, having been practically laughed out of the theater the night before?
But to his credit, Reeve did talk to reporters, toughing out the questions about the previous evening’s gales of unintentional laughter. You could not help but admire his nerve, even as you shook your head recalling the blank-faced ineptitude of his performance.
The last time I talked to him he was starring in Superman III, featuring comedian Richard Pryor, who wisely decided not to show up for interviews. By then the series had gone off the rails–Entertainment Weekly calls it the worst superhero movie ever made– and Reeve told me there would not be any more tights and capes for him.
But then, since none of his non-Superman roles brought either critical or box office success, he ended up doing a fourth movie, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, by far the worst of the bunch, and a box office bomb–the movie Entertainment Weekly can’t possibly have seen if the magazine thinks Superman III is bad.
That was pretty much it for Reeve’s movie career. Ironically–and tragically–his real stardom would come in 1995 when he became paralyzed from the neck down after he was tossed from the horse he was riding at an equestrian event.
His subsequent fight for life, the courage he displayed, got him the kind of People magazine-cover-story attention he never had as an actor. He died in 2004 at the age of only fifty-two after suffering a heart attack. When he left, I tried to think about how great he was in that first Superman movie. I tried not to think about all those dull interviews.
The new Superman, British actor Henry Cavill, isn’t a patch on Chris Reeve, lacking the charm and the twinkle in his blue eyes that Reeve managed to bring to the role. Superman, along with just about everyone else in Man of Steel, barely cracks a smile amid the interminable confusion and carnage.
You believe a movie has been created inside a computer, but you never for a moment believe a man can fly.
Come home Christopher Reeve, all is forgiven–even Monsignor.