40 years ago today, Superman was the Number One Movie in America for the fifth week in a row.
There is the general history of ”Superman” the cultural phenomenon, and you don’t need me to tell you about how Superman is and has been one of the most iconic and influential fictional figures of the last century. This piece is very specifically about one particular incarnation of the Superman phenomenon, my personal favorite: Superman, the 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, and Marlon Brando. Brando may be Stanley Kowalski, Terry Malloy or Vito Corleone first to a lot of people, but to me, he will always be “Jor-El”. It remains the only superhero film I have ever seen (unless you count Annie in 1982).
The film was something of a turning point in the Superman phenomenon. Every iteration of him since then has taken at least some cues from Reeve’s version, and some didn’t take enough cues. I also think that this movie, for all its flaws, has an indelible place not just in superhero/comic book film history, but in the history of American Cinema. It also has the best Lois Lane and the Lex Luther ever.
Reeve’s Superman has just this tiny bit of a smirk about him, just enough to let us know he is aware of the inherent humor of the whole situation. It makes the character human and relatable in a way that other actors have failed to achieve.
There is also the great John Williams classic score. Even people who have never seen the film seem to know the musical theme. And since I know you want to listen to it again now, here it is:
Superman (technically titled Superman: The Movie was directed by Richard Donner, produced by Warner Bros., based on the DC Comics characters. It features supporting work from Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Jackie Cooper, Trevor Howard, Terence Stamp, Ned Beatty and perfectly delicious turn by Valerie Perrine.
Superman was ambitious. It had been nearly 25 years since Superman had been on the big screen, and then in the form of a few low-budget serials, and technology and society had changed dramatically since the 1950s. The film depicts Superman’s origin story, including his infancy as ”Kal-El of Krypton” and his youthful years in the American rural town of Smallville. Disguised as reporter Clark Kent, he adopts a mild-mannered disposition in Metropolis and develops a romance with Lois Lane, while battling the villainous Lex Luthor.
Several directors and screenwriters (Mario Puzo, Robert Benton), are associated with the project before Donner was hired to direct. Tom Mankiewicz rewrote the script and was given a “creative consultant” credit. Both Superman and Superman II were to be filmed simultaneously, with principal photography taking nearly a year. Tensions arose between Donner and the studio, and a decision was made to stop filming the sequel, of which 75 percent had already been completed, and just finish the first film.
It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point, with a budget of $55 million. Superman opened to critical acclaim and financial success, earning $300 million during its original run. Reviewers praised Reeve’s performance. Groundbreaking in its use of special effects and storytelling, the film really started our own era of superhero film franchises.
It was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing, and winning a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects.
Donner and the producers felt Reeve was too young and too skinny for the role, but the Julliard-trained actor won them over with his screentest. Reeve went on a grueling bodybuilding program for months. He went from 170 pounds to 215 before filming began.
Brando refused to memorize his lines in advance. Early in his career, he said that memorizing lines took away from the actor’s performance:
If you don’t know what the words are but you have a general idea of what they are, then you look at the cue card and it gives you the feeling to the viewer, hopefully, that the person is really searching for what he is going to say—that he doesn’t know what to say.
He had cue cards hidden on the set. In the scene where he puts baby Kal-El into an escape pod, he was reading his lines from the baby’s diaper.
Donner commissioned songwriter Leslie Bricusse to compose the song Can You Read My Mind? for the scene where Superman takes Lois Lane flying. It was sung by Maureen McGovern. But Kidder insisted to Donner that she could sing it. So, they took her in the studio, and she sang it against the rough cut of the film. Donner:
It was an actor singing a song instead of a great singer. So I said, ‘How about doing like you’re talking to yourself?’ She did, and it was the best of all three, and that’s what’s in the movie. Plus, it came from her heart.
Can You Read My Mind? sung by McGovern was released as a single and it became Top Ten hit that year.
When he took the role of Clark Kent’s adoptive father, Glenn Ford was decades into a career as both a leading and supporting actor. He left this world in 2006 at 90-years-old.
Jackie Cooper was eight-years-old when he received his only Oscar nomination. It was for his role in Skippy (1931). He played Perry White, the iconic newspaperman, in all four Christopher Reeve Superman films. He won two directing Emmy Awards and directed three episodes of the Superboy (1988–1992) television series. His final credits rolled in 2011, gone at 88.
Ned Beatty appeared in more than 160 films and has been nominated for an Academy Award, two Emmy Awards, an MTV Movie Award for Best Villain and a Golden Globe Award. He is still with us, but he retired from showbiz.
One of the best things about Superman is Kidder’s bright, quick-talking Lois Lane. Her manic delivery and lusty swooning over Superman served as the perfect foil to Clark Kent’s awkward bumbling. In the scene where Superman takes Lois Lane flying for the first time, Kidder’s work makes the film truly special. She appeared in the Superman-themed series Smallville (2001-2011).
Kidder was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in the late 1990s after having been found living on the streets. She also had a series of very public relationships with husbands and boyfriends, including Superman III co-star Richard Pryor and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau‘s father Pierre Trudeau. She was in a car crash which left her destitute and partially paralyzed. Kidder was an outspoken political, environmental and anti-war activist until the end of her life. She was taken by an alcohol and drug overdose last spring at 69-years-old.
Hackman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in 1989 for Mississippi Burning (1989) won Best Supporting Actor for Unforgiven (1993) and won a Golden Globe for The Royal Tenenbaums (2002). His last film was the comedy Welcome To Mooseport (2004) Hackman turned 89-years-old two weeks ago. He claims to be retired.
Perrine is also retired. For her role in the 1974 film Lenny (1974), she won a BAFTA Award, Cannes Film Festival Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award. For her work in the wonderfully demented Can’t Stop The Music (1980), playing the love interest of Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, she won a Razzie Award for Worst Actress. She lives in Texas and suffers from Parkinson’s.
Thaxter was an established star of the Golden Age long before being cast as Clark Kent’s mother. After Superman, she only worked on two more projects: an episode of American Playhouse and Murder She Wrote. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2004 and died at home in 2012 at 92.
Stamp plays baddie General Zod in Superman, thrillingly delivering the classic line: ”Kneel before Zod!”, repeating the role and the line in Superman II. Stamp played Supreme Chancellor Valorum in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), a transgender woman in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994), and in a meta moment, plays Zod’s arch-nemesis Jor-El in Smallville. He continues to work at 80-years-old, soon to appear in Murder Mystery with Jennifer Aniston and Luke Evans on Netflix this spring.
In his final years, Brando spent much of his time resting and hanging out with Michael Jackson at the Neverland Ranch. He died in 2004.
Not the first choice, Reeve was an unknown when he was cast as Clark Kent/Superman. In 1995, Reeve was left quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition. He used a wheelchair and needed a portable ventilator to breathe for the rest of his life. He lobbied on behalf of people with spinal cord injuries and for human embryonic stem cell research, founding the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
Even then, Reeve continued to act, starring in a television adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window (1998), receiving a SAG Award and Golden Globe nomination. Reeve’s memoir Still Me (1998) spent eleven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and Reeve won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. He played in the Superman world once more, as Dr. Swann in Smallville.
Reeve was taken by cardiac arrest in 2004. He was just 52-years-old. For me, he is the only Superman.
Photos via YouTube Screen-shots, “Superman”, 1978, Warner Bros.