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"What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely. From an acting point of view, that's how I approached the part." - Christopher Reeve
Superman, the comic strip character, first appeared in 1938. Over the next two decades, radio productions, movie serials, a 1951 feature and a famous TV series followed, meaning that Superman was always around in one form or another from the moment of his creation. By the time the mega-budget, A-level Hollywood feature arrived in 1978, such a movie might have seemed overdue, but the truth is that comic strip movies - which we now take for granted - were simply unheard-of in the 1970s.
But producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler were so confident in their production that they got Warner Bros to pony up a then-astronomical $55 million by the time all was said and done - a gamble that paid off handsomely when Superman (1978) became a worldwide hit, ratcheted three Oscar® nominations (editing, sound, score) and spawned a franchise of three sequels. Everything about Superman was big: the budget, the scope of the production, the casting, even the music and the end-titles which ran a then-record seven minutes. A sizable amount of footage for Superman II was shot at the same time as the first film. But before shooting was completed for the sequel, director Richard Donner was fired and replaced by Richard Lester, who reshot most of the original footage.
The appeal of Superman was its old-fashioned, action hero approach. Director Richard Donner recognized this immediately, saying at the time, "The minute you lose the truth or make fun of it or begin to parody it, you destroy the line of tension, the honesty." The first script draft Donner read "was like 400 pages. It was ridiculous. They had Superman flying down looking for Lex Luthor, but he stops Telly Savalas on the street, who says, 'Who loves ya baby.' It was just sickening. It had no approach, no sense of its own verisimilitude - its own life in the reality of what Krypton was, what Smallville was, what the transition to Metropolis was going to be." The director's biggest challenge was to convincingly making a man fly. "Everything in those days was done either with miniatures, green/blue screen, or rotoscope - it was the state of the art, but it was totally naive in comparison to what you can do today."
On a more subtle level, Donner "had to convince the audience that the man who was playing that role could fly. And I could not believe Redford or Newman in blue leotards and a red cape, flying." Established stars like Redford were the studios top choices for the role, but Donner convinced them to go with unknown 24-year-old Christopher Reeve, whose lack of star baggage would allow audiences to more easily believe him. To make up for Reeve's newcomer status, the rest of the cast featured prominent supporting players like Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Terence Stamp, and most famously, Marlon Brando as Superman's father Jor-El.
Brando was paid an unheard-of $3.7 million for only 12 days of work and 10 minutes of screen time. Donner later said, "Knowing how little time we had with Brando, I'd even been figuring out what it would cost us every time he went to the lavatory." By all accounts, Brando did not enjoy making this movie. He refused to memorize most of his lines in advance. In the scene where he puts infant Kal-El (Superman) into the escape pod, he was actually reading his lines from the diaper of the baby.
Reeve, on the other hand, took the movie seriously. He underwent six months of bodybuilding (supervised by David Prowse - the actor who played Darth Vader) to bulk up for the film. He also pondered his role on a philosophical level. "Truth and justice seemed relatively easy to understand," Reeve later wrote, "but what about 'the American way?' What does that mean? Is the American way different from the way of other countries that uphold democracy and human rights? After considerable thought and discussion with friends, I decided that because the character is a hero for the entire world, nationalism was not an issue. I thought about other aspects of the American way and the basic rights of pluralistic societies: equal opportunity, equal rights, tolerance, free speech, and fair play."
More tangibly, Reeve based his performance as the awkward Clark Kent on Cary Grant's character in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Reeve went on to portray Superman in three more films, and he acted in many more movies and plays, even directing occasionally. In 1995 he was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident. He declared that he would one day walk again, and he has since regained the use of part of his body and continues to progress on a miraculous level, becoming a symbol of hope and resilience to other people suffering from similar permanent injuries.
In his inspirational memoir Nothing is Impossible, Reeve wrote, "To say that I believed in Superman is quite an understatement. Of course I knew it was only a movie, but it seemed to me that the values embodied by Superman on the screen should be the values that prevail in the real world. I've seen first-hand how Superman actually transforms people's lives. I have seen children dying of brain tumors who wanted as their last request to be able to talk to me, and have gone to their graves with a peace brought on by knowing that their belief in this kind of character is intact. They're connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it."
For trivia hounds, there are some golden nuggets in the casting: As a tribute to Superman's Hollywood history, Lois Lane's parents in this film are played by Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill. Alyn played Superman in the 1940s serials, and Neill played Lois in the serials and in the 1950s TV show. Also, Jeff East, who plays young Clark Kent, is the real-life son of Glenn Ford, who here plays Clark Kent's father Jonathan Kent.
Producer: Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind, Pierre Spengler
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Robert Benton, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Mario Puzo (story)
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Film Editing: Stuart Baird, Michael Ellis
Art Direction: Ernest Archer, Philip Bennet, Bill Brodie, Stuart Craig, Norman Dorme, Leslie Dilley, Maurice Fowler, Tony Reading, Stan Jolley, Norman Reynolds, Gene Rudolf.
Music: John Williams
Cast: Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Superman), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White).
C-144m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold