Thursday, April 4, 2013

Superman: The Movie (Dovemead Films, Film Export A.G., International Film Production, Warner Bros., 1978)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I saw yesterday at the downtown library was the 1978 Superman: The Movie, a ground-breaking film in that it was the first movie based on a comic-book superhero that not only made money but was a blockbuster hit, the sixth highest-grossing film Warner Bros. had released to that time, and its success has shaped much of the movie industry ever since. It’s a film that has entered the ranks of legend because of its bizarre production process; it was the brainchild of scapegrace producer Alexander Salkind — a business buccaneer whose activities seemed to produce as many lawsuits as movies — and his son and business partner Ilya. Somehow the Salkinds had acquired the movie rights to the Superman character from DC Comics, and they mounted an intense production process, platooning in various teams of writers — including Mario Puzo (who got credit for the original story even though almost nothing he wrote ever got into the final film — but after the success of the films based on his novel The Godfather Puzo’s name was big box office) and the team of Robert Benton and David Newman, who’d written Bonnie and Clyde — along with an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz and Leslie Newman, David’s wife, who got called in because director Richard Donner (who got the job after the original director, Guy Hamilton, withdrew when the shoot was moved from Italy to England and Hamilton, a British tax exile, had to give it up because he could only spend 30 days per year in the U.K. before being subject to British taxes) thought he needed a woman to write credibly for the Lois Lane character.

The original plan was to shoot enough footage not only for the Superman movie but its sequel, Superman II, but that got screwed up when the Salkinds decided to fire director Donner from the second film and hired Richard Lester (whose most famous credits were the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! — not exactly the credentials one expects for a superhero movie), who reshot about two-thirds of Donner’s footage for the sequel. Just about everybody involved with the production ended up suing Alexander Salkind — even Ilya filed a suit against his old man — including Donner and Marlon Brando, who earned $3.7 million plus points for 10 days’ of work as Jor-El, Superman’s natural father, who presumably perishes after the opening sequence in which the planet Krypton, Superman’s ancestral home, is destroyed when its sun goes nova or something and Jor-El and his wife Lara (Susannah York) send their baby boy Kal-El on a miniature spaceship to Earth, where he’s going to grow up to be You Know Who. (I recently joked in these pages that a real trivia buff is someone who knows all three of Superman’s names, including his original one from Krypton.) The Salkinds cut a distribution deal with Warner Bros. and approached a lot of well-known action stars for the role of the Man of Steel, including Clint Eastwood (too old) and Sylvester Stallone (were they kidding?) as well as Jon Voight (who would have been an interesting but also a rather loopy choice) before they finally settled on a little-known 26-year-old actor named Christopher Reeve, continuing the casting tradition of previous live-action Superman projects of using a relatively fresh-faced performer who didn’t have a lot of associations with other parts to live down. Part of the writing problem with this film is that, like a lot of big action blockbusters since, the basic concept and the packaging were the main attractions and the movie’s actual plot was really an afterthought — one doesn’t get the impression through a lot of these films that there was a story at the heart of them that the filmmakers were just burning to tell. The 1978 Superman was the film whose blazing success launched a hundred superhero movies — the cycle is still going on and, with two of the biggest studios in Hollywood literally being invested in comic-book characters (later Warners bought D.C. Comics to gain the film rights to all their characters, and more recently Disney has done the same with Marvel), it shows no sign of stopping any time soon. But seen today it’s really not a very good movie: it’s perfectly acceptable popcorn entertainment but it lacks the richness and sheer perversity of the 1989 Tim Burton Batman (which if pressed I’d name as my all-time favorite comic-book superhero film).

The 1978 Superman is clearly a transitional work, stuck in time between the outright camp of the 1960’s Batman TV series (and the disappointing feature film made from it) and the more “serious” approach to superhero legends we’ve seen since, and the movie seems weirdly unbalanced, comically campy at times and earnestly serious at others. Part of the problem is Christopher Reeve; he’s drop-dead gorgeous as Superman (he worked out and added about 25 pounds of muscle to his frame for the role), he’s utterly convincing when he takes to the air — apparently Reeve could really fly, not of course under his own power, but he’d had enough experience with aircraft that he could pitch, roll and yaw in front of the blue screen (they were still using blue instead of green screens for special effects then — and that meant having to use a lighter shade of blue for Superman’s costume than the one in the comics because the original one washed out in front of the blue screen) and make the movements credible. But as hot and muscular as he is as the superhero, he’s way too nerdy as Clark Kent — and frankly, I like my Supermen more butch, more along the lines of Kirk Alyn and George Reeves. (Supposedly Reeve based the Clark Kent part of his characterization on Cary Grant’s performance in the screwball classic Bringing Up Baby — but he wasn’t a talented enough comedian to pull that off, and as good as she is as Lois Lane, Margot Kidder was hardly in Katharine Hepburn’s league either.) Where the 1978 Superman scores is in its special effects: though made 35 years ago, pre-CGI, the effects work compares favorably to anything being filmed today. The tagline for the film was, “You’ll really believe that a man can fly!” — and you do. The film was dedicated to the memory of the great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who died shortly after it was finished — and I suspect Unsworth, who’d worked as a camera operator for Jack Cardiff on Michael Powell’s masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death and 22 years later had been the director of photography on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (to my mind the finest film made during the second half of the 20th century), was hired largely because he’d done such a good job simulating weightlessness on 2001 that he’d be able to use the same techniques to simulate aircraft-less human flight.

It’s the human aspects of Superman that let the side down, particularly the lack of a really intimidating super-villain. They hired Gene Hackman to play Lex Luthor (reuniting him with the writers of his star-making film, Bonnie and Clyde) but Hackman threw the filmmakers a curveball by refusing to have his head shaved to resemble the famously bald Luthor of the comics. Instead he insisted on keeping his real hair, and the filmmakers had it sculpted in a series of deliberately awful “do”’s to give the illusion that Luthor was wearing a series of ill-fitting wigs. What’s more, they gave Luthor only two henchpeople, both of them played as comic relief: Otis (Ned Beatty) and his sort-of girlfriend, Eve Teschmacher (played by Valerie Perrine in the mold of the character of Adelaide from Guys and Dolls) — and made them such idiotic klutzes that when Luthor complains that the greatest criminal mastermind in history has been stuck with such lame assistants, it’s hard not to feel for him. The filmmakers would have been better off casting Brando as Luthor (and having him play it like he did Kurtz in Apocalypse Now) and Hackman as Jor-El, though Brando isn’t half-bad — and I say that as a decided non-fan of Manic Marlon. For once he doesn’t mumble; he uses much the same voice as Jor-El he used as Mark Antony in the 1953 MGM Julius Caesar and he manages to capture the orotund solemnity the writing committee clearly meant the character to have — even though it gets risible when he keeps popping up even after he’s supposedly died in the apocalypse that consumes Krypton, appearing as a spectral presence and giving his son unneeded advice. (Ironically, Brando went on playing this role even after he died; his unused footage for the Superman II sequel got incorporated into the recent “reboot,” Superman Returns.) Were we supposed to believe this was all in Superman’s head, or did Jor-El beam himself into the Phantom Zone just before Krypton exploded so he could survive and stay in contact with his son telepathically? Superman is also an odd action movie in which the women out-act the men; Margot Kidder continues in the Noel Neill tradition of spunky Lois Lanes — when she takes on the mugger who’s trying to steal her purse and beats him even without super-assistance from the hapless Clark Kent, it’s nice to see we have a Lois for the feminist era (and Neill herself makes a welcome cameo appearance as the mother of a pre-pubescent Lois in an early scene) — and even though her character is a walking cliché, Valerie Perrine manages to bring real pathos to the dipshit she’s playing.

The 1978 Superman is a mess as a movie and yet it’s nice to see Christopher Reeve trim and fit — even though there’s an overlay of unintended pathos from Reeve’s later real-life fate that gives the film in general, and his performance in particular, a weirdly sad aspect its makers didn’t intend and couldn’t have anticipated (much the way there was a deep sadness in Fred Astaire’s last appearance on an awards show in 1985, a few months before his death, in which a man famous for his dancer’s ability and grace could now barely walk to the podium, let alone dance). There are enough elements in this film that do work — the long, romantic flight on which Superman takes Lois Lane is a marvelously lyrical set-piece that communicates the gentler emotions that have been pretty much excluded from superhero films since, and I’ve always loved the in-joke when Clark Kent is looking for a place to change into super-drag and sees one of those hooded pay phones that by 1978 had taken the place of the fully enclosed phone booths he used in the comics (the one scene in this film I remembered from the only other time I saw it, a badly cut TV version I watched on a black-and-white set on its first TV airings after the theatrical release) — that the 1978 Superman is still worth watching for reasons other than its historical importance establishing the comic-book movie as an audience attraction for all ages. But one wishes it could have been a better film and one that really rose to the potential of the Superman mythos.