Monday, October 11, 2004

Christopher Reeve

I never met Christopher Reeve, although I knew people who had, and I came within a few hours of crossing paths with him, years before his riding accident. That was on Martha's Vineyard, where a friend was managing a residential resort (where, she said, the rich who owned homes would send their less prestigious guests to stay.) It had its own dining facilities and Reeve had dined there the evening before my visit. (He liked the chef's chocolate souffle, and he was sure right about that. I've never tasted anything like it.) So people were still talking about him, how friendly and genuine he had been.

I saw him in a play in New York once,accompanying another old friend who had worked with him on a movie. It was "The Fifth of July" and he was playing a paraplegic veteran. This was after the first few Superman movies and he was doing parts as far away from the Man of Steel as he could find, my friend said.

I also remember the premiere of "Superman" in New York City. It was the first of the big event special-effects movies. (It also started the trend of the endless credits, so now the gaffer's hair stylist's caterer gets named, even on films with six special effects houses.) It was the big deal of 1978, and the press premiere had two showings. I was in New York and got a ticket; on my way to the second showing I ran into Jon Landau (later Bruce Springsteen's manager, at some point film critic for Rolling Stone, and before that, a movie and music reviewer in Boston; that's where I'd known him, and where we'd seen a few films together.) He was with director Brian DePalma (who he introduced) and DePalma's squeeze, actress Nancy Allen (who he didn't.) So it was a prestige event as well as a popular movie.

That first Superman movie was the purest American myth the cinema had seen in a long time. A lot of the credit belongs to Christopher Reeve. One of the sillier conventions of the Superman story was that nobody could see that Superman looked exactly like Clark Kent without the glasses. Reeve made that a little more believable with his voice, his posture and mannerisms. He made Clark Kent and Superman seem like different people (even if they still looked a lot alike), and besides adding to the verisimilitude, this illuminated an important element of the myth. The "secret identity," the theme of the superhero inside the timid bumbler was basic to the myth and its power, linked in this case to the classic American story of the country boy in the big city.

For common to both Clark Kent and Superman was a purity, an innocent belief in simple values---honesty, equality, justice, helping others and using violence only as a last resort--- that tradition places at the heart of being American. In Superman, those values were brought from the country to the city, and in a way, from the 1930s origin of the Superman myth, to the contemporary city.

The 1930s story also symbolizes the immigrant's journey, which also was often from rural peasantry to the city, but even when it wasn't, involved being different, out of place in an alien environment. Yet the essence of Superman's power comes from a higher realm, symbolized by his Krypton origins (linking this myth to both the divine origin and the royal child abandoned and raised by peasants.)
This meaning of this origin is also reflected in Superman's most thrilling power---and the one everyone wanted to see if the movie could really pull off. The conflicted boy becomes (in Francois Truffaut's words, talking to me about the movie later that year) "the man who flies." It is our dreams' favorite transcendence.

In the first film as in several that followed, Superman is conflicted, his nature divided against itself, just as aspects of our natures are in continual conflict. Christopher Reeve played these conflicts, including a battle with the dark side of his super-herohood. He created one of the great American film characters, in a series of often witty and mostly entertaining films. (Richard Lester, director of the Beatles films, brought some of that wacky energy to the second and third Superman films.)

Between the second and third Superman movies, Reeve made his other memorable film, "Somewhere in Time," (1980) his most romantic movie, opposite the surpassingly lovely Jane Seymour. (They became close friends, and Seymour named her son after him.) He combined his love of theatre with his film career in the witty "Deathtrap" with Michael Caine. (1982)

His confident, nuanced character part in 1993's "Remains of the Day" seemed to signal a new turn in his film career, suggesting he wouldn't have to either accept the Superman-like roles or the opposite. His life changed soon after, when a fall from a horse in 1995 left him paralyzed. He continued to act and also to direct, but much of his public life was devoted to raising money and encouraging research to be applied to spinal chord injuries. He had been politically involved before; his self-produced Superman IV was called "A Quest for Peace." Now this medical research became his passion, and as testimonials today reiterate, he was perhaps an even greater inspiration in this role than as Superman.

Reeve insisted a cure was close, and he vowed he would walk again. Last Friday, Senator John Kerry mentioned him in the second debate, in connection with the stem-cell research issue. Reeve and Kerry were friends, and Kerry said that Reeve continued to exercise every day, to keep himself ready to take advantage of new therapies.

But as photographs show, time was catching up with him. Only 52, Reeve seemed to age 20 years in 24 months. Weakened and stricken by a sudden infection, he died Sunday.

One of the last phone calls Christopher Reeve made was to John Kerry on Saturday, to urge him to continue to keep the stem cell research issue at the forefront of his campaign for the presidency. As Kerry said today, we have the power to try harder to help others before their time runs out.

This applies most specifically to stem cell research, but it also applies to affordable health care. Christopher Reeve lived as long as he did, and as comfortably, because he was well-off and a celebrity, and had so many famous friends to help him. (Those friends, by the way, stuck by him even outside the limelight all these years.) But people without those resources suffer as much or more, from conditions that medical science can already cure or alleviate. Yet in this, the wealthiest nation in human history, we are among the last to recognize that medicine needn't be reserved for only the highest bidders.

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