Movie Reviews - 1970s postsThursday April 27, 2017
Movie Review: The Great Waldo Pepper (1974)
Patricia made a face the other night when I suggested watching Robert Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper,” but it turned out she’d never seen it. I had. Three times? Five? More? Never in the theater, just on TV or cable, but probably not in 25 years. Most of the story was still in my head but I was curious how it had aged. Or how I had.
“Waldo” is lesser Redford from his glory period. He was the biggest movie star in the world, and from’73 to ’76 he starred in the following:
- “The Way We Were”
- “The Sting”
- “The Great Gatsby”
- “The Great Waldo Pepper”
- “Three Days of the Condor”
- “All the President’s Men”
Only “Gatsby” sucked. Redford was all wrong to play a man hopelessly in love; that’s not his character. He’s the one women are hopelessly in love with. Think Barbra in “The Way We Were,” Mary Tyler Moore weekly stuttering his name, and the prison guard’s wife in William Goldman’s book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” who tells her husband she would gladly “get down on her hands and knees and crawl just for the chance to fuck him one time.” Again: She tells her husband this. So, yeah, not Gatsby.
Which raises a question: What was the essence of the Redford character during his heyday? Into his late ’30s, he was still playing the ingénue, still being shown the ropes by the like of Paul Newman and Jason Robards. And Barbra. His character has promise and his character often fails. That happened to be the essence of America at the time—how we viewed ourselves. “The Way We Were” actually makes the comparison explicit: “In a way he was like the country he lived in: everything came to easily to him.” And then it didn’t. That’s the point of the ’70s. When everything stopped being easy.
Pepper vs. Kessler
“Waldo Pepper” begins in the late 1920s, and while life isn’t exactly easy for the title character, it is freewheelin’. He’s a young blonde-haired hunk of man barnstorming around Nebraska, and selling simple folk on the thrills of aerial adventure. For some reason the movie posits him as a kind of charlatan, a bullshit artist. He’s supposed to come off a bit like Redford’s grifter in “The Sting,” but when you think about it he is actually selling something worthwhile: a chance to see the world from the sky. In the 1920s, that’s the stuff of gods.
The bullshit comes when he tells the local yokels about his dogfights during the Great War against German ace Ernst Kessler (cf., Ernest Udet): how he and four other guys had him in their sites but Kessler shot them all down, all except Pepper, whom he fought to a standstill until Pepper’s guns jammed. Kessler saw this, saw his opponent was helpless, but he didn’t take advantage. There was honor in the skies. He pulled up alongside him, saluted, and continued back to Germany. A great story. A true story. But not Pepper’s story. He didn’t make it into battle; he was still training recruits at the time. When he’s caught in the lie by his rival Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson, surprisingly good), his lament is: “It should’ve been me.”
That’s the tragedy of his life when we first meet him: He thinks he’s one of the best but never got the chance to prove it. The tragedy of the rest of the movie is that that life, the life we first see him living, disappears. He becomes increasingly saddled—first with a partner (Axel), then a flying circus (Doc Dihoefer’s), then federal regulations (in the person of former pal New (Geoffrey Lewis)). But the real problem is other people’s ennui. Planes become everyday, so the crowds disappear, so the stunts have to become bigger and more dangerous to draw them back. The tension is between the crowds, who demand blood, and the feds, who demand safety, with our heroes caught in the middle.
The crowd gets what it wants. Axel’s movie-loving girlfriend, Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon), is pulled into wing-walking to add sex to the stunt; but despite her visions of grandeur, of becoming the “It Girl” of the skies, she freezes on the wing. Despite Herculean efforts to save her, she falls. (Patricia was legitimately, vocally shocked by this; she forgot what ’70s movies were like.) More gruesomely, Pepper’s pal, Ezra Stiles (Edward Hermann), finally finishes the plane that might be the first to perform an outside loop, but at this point, because of the Mary Beth tragedy, Waldo is grounded by the feds, so Ezra tries it himself. He’s not pilot enough to pull it off, and on the third try crashes. Trapped by the plane, the yokels gather around, some with cigarettes, and the leaking gas is ignited. Ezra is burned alive while everyone watches. This traumatized me as a kid, not least because I didn’t get it. Why did everyone just stand there? My father tried to explaining it to me, but, to be honest, as an adult now, 54, I think it’s part of the movie’s bullshit. It was the era’s extreme anti-populist message, and it feels false to me. And I’m a cynic.
Eventually, Waldo follows Axel to Hollywood, becomes a stunt man, then finally meets the great man, Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin), on the set of a “Wings”-like aviation epic about Kessler’s dogfights. They talk, lament the passing of better days, then go off-script in the skies so they can dogfight without the guns in one final moment of freedom. They essentially kill themselves in the skies. It’s a dumb ending. It makes Thelma and Louise seem like they were really thinking it through.
A regular August Wilson
You know what I kept thinking watching this? Charles M. Schultz. He grew up in the Midwest (St. Paul, Minn.) in the 1920s. He could’ve been that kid getting gasoline for Waldo’s plane. He certainly bought into the romance of it all, then updated it in the 1960s with Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel, which is where I picked it up. Everything I learned about the Great War I learned from Snoopy.
Was it Redford specifically, or the popular cinema at this time, that kept looking backwards, ceaselessly, toward the past? From ’73 to ’85, his only movies with contemporary settings were the two political thrillers above and “Electric Horseman” 1979. Otherwise he’s a regular August Wilson:
- 1910s: “Out of Africa”
- 1920s: “The Great Gatsby”; “The Great Waldo Pepper”
- 1930s: “The Sting”; “The Natural”
- 1940s: “A Bridge Too Far”
- 1940s-50s: “The Way We Were”
- 1960s: “Brubaker”
A man out of time.
“Waldo” isn’t bad. Redford’s gorgeous, Bo Swenson is remarkably good, so is Sarandon. Writer-director George Roy Hill, a real aviation buff, gets the details right. It’s fun for an evening—Patricia liked it—but it doesn’t quite resonate. Like the bi-planes it’s filming, it just kind of drifts away.
Movie Review: The Towering Inferno (1974)
People often talk about the worst best picture Oscar winners of all time—I’m often one of them—but rarely do we get a discussion of the worst No. 1 box office movies of the year. The former indicts the Academy, the latter all of us. It’s so much more fun pointing fingers.
But if we were going to have such a discussion, the list would surely include the following:
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
- Spider-Man 3 (2007)
- The Grinch (2000)
- Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
And this one.
On some level, this one feels more unforgiveable, since the No. 1 movies surrounding it chronologically are still regarded as, you know, pretty fucking good: “The Godfather” in 1972, “Exorcist” in ’73, “Jaws” in ’75. We still watch those, own those, discuss those. “The Towering Inferno”? Part of that Irwin-Allen-produced, All-Star Cast, disaster flick era, with “Airport” (No. 2 in 1970) “The Poseidon Adventure” (No. 2 in 1972), “Earthquake” (No. 4 in 1974), and “The Swarm” (died at the box office). And you say it was No. 1 in 1974?* Whaddaya know.
(* Box Office Mojo now lists “Blazing Saddles” as the No. 1 movie of 1974, but that’s only because the money it earned during a 2013 re-release. For decades, “Inferno” was No. 1.)
As a teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t see any of these disaster flicks. Maybe I caught bits when they showed up on “edited-for-television” TV, but I don’t think I sat through any of them. Particularly “Towering Inferno.” Planes and upside-down boats were one thing, but fire? The Fire Safety Program in 5th grade made me terrified enough. “Inferno” was the last thing I wanted to see.
Forty years later, though, I was curious. Just how bad was it?
When an “All-Star Cast” meant something
Pretty bad. It’s a soap opera. It’s like what “Love Boat” would become: different people come on board with their own little micro-dramas, then disaster strikes. Here it’s fire, there Gavin MacLeod.
As All-Star casts go, this one is pretty tight. The key is to mix old-timers and up-and-comers with current stars. Every decade after the silents is represented:
- 1930s: Fred Astaire, loose and athletic at 75.
- 1940s: Jennifer Jones, looking shellacked by plastic surgery; it’s her last film.
- 1950s: William Holden as the movie’s developer-villain, but apparently the nicest guy on the set.
- 1960s: Our headliners: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway.
- 1970s: dishy newbie Susan Blakely and everyone’s favorite football player O.J. Simpson.
We also get TV stars of the ’60s (Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and Richard Chamberlain), along with one from the ’70s: Bobby Brady himself, Mike Lookinland, acting in scenes with Newman and Dunaway. OK, “acting.”
The micro-dramas: Newman is the architect of “the world’s tallest building” in L.A., but he’s ready to go off in the desert, or some such, disappointing the developer, Holden, as well as his paramour, Dunaway, who’s just been offered a managing editor gig that she can’t turn down. Except almost immediately after some afternoon delight with Faye, Newman has to track down wires in the building that are short-circuiting because his specs weren’t followed. The culprits? Holden, cutting corners, and Holden’s ne’er-do-well son-in-law, Richard Chamberlain, who’s married to Susan Blakely.
Meanwhile, Astaire plays a con artist with a heart of gold who is trying to bilk Jennifer Jones out of her money; Robert Wagner is some exec who’s sleeping with his secretary, Susan Flanner. A deaf woman with two kids and a cat also live in the building.
The kids are saved by Newman, the woman and the cat by O.J., our football hero. Wagner and Flannery are the first to die, post-coital. There’s almost a sadism to these scenes, a lingering over their pain and deaths. The lesson is clear: Don’t sleep with your secretary, kids, even in the ’70s when that shit was totally cool.
The one who doesn’t have a micro-drama attached to him? Who isn’t part of the soap? Steve McQueen, playing the fire chief. He’s also the best thing in the movie. By far. He’s the man doing his job and looking after his men. He’s no-nonsense. It’s shocking how good he is. Even Newman comes off as a cardboard figure in comparison.
Who lives who dies who tells your story
The story goes like you expect it to. There’s a party on the top floor, the developer ignores the warnings until it’s too late. Eventually a breeches buoy is strung between buildings to rescue the women. A scenic elevator gets caught in the flames and dangles by a cable. Plenty of flaming people fall from the building.
Mostly you wonder who will live and who will die. Chamberlain will buy it, of course, as well as the other villains: the developer, the politician (Vaughn), and Jennifer Jones (too old?). The only death that made me upset was when Gregory Sierra, playing Carlos the bartender, is killed off it at the 11th hour. I actually screamed “Noooooo!” out loud. Chano, we hardly knew ye.
The dialogue is awful, the romantic dialogue worse (Newman: “I'm not a cheeseburger”/ Dunaway: “No, you're way better: all protein, no bread.”). The day is saved when the water tanks on top are blown and smother the fire for 50 floors. It works so well, it makes you wonder why they didn’t do it before everyone started dying.
Throughout, the lesson is a ’70s one: Watch out for greedy bastards. But at the very end, back on the ground, McQueen the fireman blames Newman the architect, who seems to accept responsibility:
McQueen: One of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.
Newman: [pause] Okay, I’m asking.
Wait, so Newman designed the building poorly? Then why did we all cheer when Richard Chamberlain bought it? The further in we get, the less he sounds like an architect. Back on the ground, he dismisses the record-breaking monument he designed like a typical '70s cynic:
I don't know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.
He thought that was bullshit? He had no idea what was in store.
Captain America (1979): The Slideshow Review
Was there a worse time to make a Captain America movie than January 1979? Jimmy Carter's malaise speech was six months away, the Iranian hostage crisis 10 months away. Patriotism was at a low ebb and superheroes were something geeky kids like me read. So how to do make a story out of Captain America?
At least there were more muscle-bound actors like Reb Brown populating Hollywood. The question remained: Could he act?
Or draw? This is what Steve Rogers does here. He's an ex-Marine, sure, but he's through with that shit, man. Now he wants to roam the highways and biways of the land on a never-ending mission. Sorry, wrong '70s superhero. He just wants to be. Dig? He just wants to find himself.
That's what he tells Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman, the best thing in the TV movie). Mills is basically Cap's Oscar Goldman: the bland, benevolent government man who guides the protege along. He also injects him with the super serum (FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain) that Steve's father invented from his own adrenal gland. That's why only Steve can use it. Everyone else dies of cell rejection.
Here, Steve is told all about FLAG and rejects the idea.
Here, he realizes he's been injected with it anyway.
Here he's just realizing ... something. Like maybe he should've taken acting lessons.
But the suit is delivered.
Along with the clear plastic shield ... which is also the windshield to his bike ... which he keeps in his Chevy van. And that's all right with me.
But they really should've rethought the helmet.
I get it. They were trying to tap into the popularity of Evel Knievel.
But the helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo.
Yes, we get some OK shots for the period.
But they must have shot their wad on these stunts. Because the grand finale?
Reviving an asphyxiated oil baron with a neutron bomb tied to his pacemaker.
If he dies, all of Arizona, and most of LA, will die with him. Will it work?
It works! But little else in 1979's “Captain America” does. Full review here.
TV Movie Review: Captain America (1979)
Was there a worse time to make a “Captain America” movie? This thing first aired January 19, 1979, six months before Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, when patriotism was for squares and scoundrels and superheroes were wish-fulfillment fantasy for skinny geeks. Or so people thought. “Superman: The Movie,” released a month earlier, already proved both ideas wrong, or at least irrelevant in the marketplace, but “Captain America” tread lightly around both subjects. We don’t see Cap as Cap much. And as for patriotism? Well ...
The original Steve Rogers was a 4F volunteer who knowingly signed up for a dangerous experiment because he wanted to serve his country. This Steve Rogers is a muscle-bound, peace-loving dude with a van. He’s a former Marine who wants to coast up and down the west coast, drawing what he sees.
This is his early philosophy, as he turns down the offer to become a superhero. He says it in the bland, lifeless monotone of a non-actor:
It’s been yes-sir no-sir for as long as I can remember. Three military schools and the Marine Corps. That’s been about it. I think I’ve paid my dues ... Now I just want to get out on the road, look at the faces of Americans. Maybe get some down on canvas. I don’t want to report in or check out. I don’t want to look forward to weekends. I want every day to be the same. I just want to kick back, find out who I am.
Is there a greater late ’70s ethos than that? A van, bad art, and “finding yourself.”
The American ideal
It’s easy to see what they were going for. The great superhero of 1970s television was the Six Million Dollar Man, the great daredevil of 1970s television was Evel Knievel, and Marvel had already launched both “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” TV franchises. Mix them all together and you get this. Get the good Captain to do motorcycle jumps like Evel, have him jump high and crush things like Steve Austin, and make the superpower all about tapping into human potential.
Bill Bixby’s “The Incredible Hulk” did that. In moments of stress, people could lift cars and things? That’s what fascinated David Banner. Here it’s similar. “Science has known for a long time that man, in all of his endeavors—mental, physical—uses, very rarely, more than one-third of his capacity,” says Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), this show’s combination Oscar Goldman/Dr. Rudy Wells, as he tries to get Steve to become Cap.
It seems Steve’s father, back in the ’40s, had developed “the ultimate steroid,” synthesized from his own adrenal gland, that unleashed the human potential. He called it FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain. (I know.) The serum still works ... but it kills its host. Cell rejection. But Steve is his father’s son. Same cells and shit. Maybe it’ll work with him?
Except that’s when he gives the above thanks-but-no-thanks speech and splits. Superstrength is great but ... he needs to paint, bro. Even though he looks like he’s spent his entire life in a gym.
Fate intervenes. He finds one of his father’s friends, Jeff Hayden (Dan Barton), dead. Then Steve himself is run off the road. He’s about to die. So Dr. Mills arranges for him to be injected with FLAG. To save him ... and create the show.
Guess what? Steve isn’t grateful. He’s angry—if you can sense anger behind Reb Brown’s acting. So he splits again. But he’s followed again—this time into a meat locker, where, between the slabs of beef, he takes the bad guys out. And he kinda digs it. And he spends a day at the beach with Mills’ assistant, Dr. Wendy Day (Heather Menzies), then walks along the beach just rapping with Dr. Mills about Steve’s father. How he went after the corrupt ones, “the bosses, the organizers, the ones in really high places,” and how they, snidely, gave him a nickname: Captain America. We get this:
Steve: The American ideal. A little tough to find these days, isn’t it?
Mills: Not if you know where to look.
Steve: Right on.
The bad guy in all of this is another job creator, an oilman named Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest), who is building his own neutron bomb so he can rob the Phoenix gold repository of billions. Captain America, with a motorcycle helmet for a helmet, stops him by swinging onto the truck that contains Brackett and the neutron bomb and twisting an exhaust pipe so Brackett is asphyxiated. When two henchman investigate, he knocks them out by ... wait for it .... pushing the door open really, really fast.
And thus a superhero is born. The art world’s loss is the world’s gain.
The hills are alive with something
It’s not completely, horribly awful. I like the human potential idea. And the cell-rejection answers why there are no other Captain Americas. Plus a few of the stunts aren’t bad.
But it’s shot on a thin dime with a thinner imagination and one of the worst leads I’ve seen. Reb Brown displays a range of emotion from A to A-. He’s supposed to be a nice doofus in the beginning and a superhero by the end, but in the middle he shows his cards by being a bit of an asshole. “C’mon, little man,” he says to one helpless guy after he sneaks into the Andreas Oil Co. His mighty shield is clear plastic and doubles as his motorcycle windshield. His helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo. I get it: They’re trying to get away from the superhero costume—as most superhero movies have since (“X-Men, “Heroes,”)—but they don’t do it in a smart way. Worse, the whole thing is filmed in that awful, washed-out, late ’70s style.
Did they hire Menzies, another “Sound of Music” alum, because it worked so well with Nicholas Hammond in “Spider-Man”? Because it didn’t. And doesn’t. To be fair, Menzies is given a thankless role. She’s supposed to be the head of some top-secret government research lab but seems mere assistant to Mills. Is she also Steve’s girlfriend? They share a kiss on the beach; then she’s forgotten. So ’70s.
But at least Steve Rogers finds himself. Right on.
Movie Review: Superman: The Movie (1978)
I was 15 years old when I first saw “Superman: The Movie” and in some sense I still see it through the eyes of a 15-year-old. Most movies don’t do this to me. Most movies age poorly. I look at them 20 or 30 years later and blanch. But the pace of “Superman” is my pace. Its sense-of-wonder is my sense-of-wonder. Its balance of Biblical myth (Krypton), American myth (Smallville), comic relief (Lex Luthor) and heroic myth (Superman) seems exactly right to me. Give me the helicopter rescue backed by John Williams’ score and I turn to putty. I turn 15 again.
Yes, parts of the movie are dated. The Artctic icebergs look like styrofoam, the threatened California homes look like models, Jeff East’s wig looks like a wig. And so much is left unanswered. Why do Kryptonians, such an advanced civilization, cling to family crests and trial without counsel? Is Jor-El a prosecutor, a scientist, or both? Is there any furniture on Krypton? And when exactly does Clark fall for Lois? Immediately? By and by? The love is just assumed. Suddenly he’s sitting at his desk, staring.
There are chronological issues. We’re told Krypton exploded in 1948 when Kal-El was a baby, and at 18 Clark went north, where Jor-El taught him for 12 years. Which brings us to the present date: 1978. But that means Clark was in high school between 1964 and 1966. (In “Superman III,” we find out he was the Class of ’65.) So why are the kids listening to Bill Haley and the Comets, who last charted in 1956? Is Smallville really that backward?
Don’t even get me started on “Can you read my mind?”
Doesn’t matter. There’s something like pure joy in this movie. It’s the joy of doing what everyone thought couldn’t be done: make a superhero movie as an epic; make us believe, as the tagline said, that a man could fly.
It’s ballsy the way it begins. I’m not talking about the curtains opening, and the homage to June 1938 and Action Comics No. 1. That’s charming but a blip in screentime.
No, I’m talking Gen. Zod. For a movie that’s nearly two and a half hours long, and doesn’t show us a glimpse of its title character until nearly 50 minutes in, and doesn’t reveal this character to the world until nearly 70 minutes in, the filmmakers, including director Richard Donner, have the balls to begin with a sequence that has no real relevance until the sequel: the trial (such as it is), and judgment (“Guilty! Guil-tee! Guil-tay!”), and incarceration into the Phantom Zone, of the criminals Zod, Ursa and Non (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran). It’s a scene that affects nothing for the rest of our film. They could just as easily have begun with the Kryptonian Council not heeding Jor-El’s warnings about Krypton’s imminent destruction, then threatening him if he tells anyone his theories. To which Jor-El says, “Neither I, nor my wife, will leave the planet Krypton.” I always imagine Kryptonian Elder #2 countering with, “What about your son?” Jor-El: “Uhhh....”
The Christ metaphor is obvious and intended. The baby is delivered via a star-like spacecraft to a childless couple, Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford). His middle years are lost in the wilderness. “They only lack the light to show the way,” Jor-El says. “For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you: my only son.” Was the metaphor supposed to continue in “Superman II”? Is that what giving up his powers was supposed to be? Death and resurrection? If so, someone forgot to tell Richard Lester.
Back in the day, Brando got shit for playing Jor-El: too much money ($3 million for 11 days work), ridiculous hair, a role beneath his majesty. But he’s good. It’s a ludicrous role, wrapped in tin-foil suits and surrounded by special effects, and filmed in a rush to accommodate his schedule, but it still works. Besides, with both his signing and his performance he set the correct tone: Superman is serious business.
At the same time, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty are impeccable comic relief. (“Are we going to Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?”) Valerie Perrine is funny, too, and so lucious she should be rated “R” just for standing there. She’s also Superman’s first kiss, isn’t she? Who before her? Lana Lang? Too busy being dragged to parties by that doofus Brad. Lois? Too busy, period. Superman doesn’t even kiss Lois in this movie. Well, when she’s alive anyway. Spoiler alert.
Lois is funny. They searched everywhere for their Lois, went through some great possibilities—Deborah Raffin, Susan Blakely, Lesley Ann Warren—but Kidder has it all. Her Lois is silly, driven, in love. She’s a great career women. She’s also accident-prone. Superman saves her from death three times here: 1) he stops the mugger’s bullet; 2) he catches her in mid-air after she falls from the helicopter; 3) and he turns back time after she is buried alive in a California earthquake.One wonders how she managed before he came along.
Lois Lane: driven, silly, in love.
Superman from day one
But the movie flies or doesn’t on the title character’s back. Director Richard Donner’s catchword during production was “verisimilitude,” which begins and ends with Christopher Reeve. Signing Mario Puzo to write the first draft of the screenplay, then signing Marlon Brando to play Jor-El, were important points in getting the project off the ground; but it’s Reeve who matters. He’s the greatest superhero casting ever. He’s not only comic-book handsome, he’s an actor. He makes the worst secret identity ever—I’ll put on these glasses and no one will tell—believable. Imagine the disaster if one of the stars the project pushed for (Robert Redford, James Caan, Al Pacino), or one of the stars that pushed for the project (Sylvester Stallone), had gotten the role. Now, of course, everyone says they wanted an unknown. Producer Ilya Salkind blames DC Comics for pushing for a famous face, but casting director Lynn Stalmaster says Ilya and father Alexander kept putting Reeve’s portfolio on the bottom of the pile.
Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Reeve finally got his screen test:
He hopped off the balcony and said, “Good evening, Miss Lane.” And [cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth looked over at me and went [makes impressed face]. Because the tone was just right. He went through the test and we just knew we had him.
Donner: “He was Superman from day one.”
Reeve plays him straight. He plays him as the straight man in his own movie. He’s a boy scout in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way,” he says, to which Lois Lane laughs in his face. “You're gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!” she says. He has a response to that, too. “I’m sure you don’t mean that, Lois.” Then he adds, “Lois, I never lie.” He is, as Miss Teschmacher says later in the film, too good to be true.
Superman: too good to be true.
Leaping over the ’60s in a single bound
His persona was actually viewed as one of the film’s biggest stumbling blocks. Here’s Christopher Reeve in the 1980 TV special, “The Making of Superman: The Movie”:
Making people believe that a man could fly wasn’t really the hardest part of making the film. I mean, we all know Superman can leap over tall buildings, but the question is: Could he leap over the generation gap into those early Siegel and Schuster days? We wanted to know if a man from the innocent ’30s could survive in the post-Watergate ’70s.
How do they do this? Follow the chronology. Clark was compelled north at 18 to create the Fortress of Solitude, where he spent 12 years listening to Jor-El drone on about the mysteries of the universe. What does this mean? It means he leapt over the ‘60s in a single bound. He missed LBJ and the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate. He missed the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the tragedies of My Lai and and Kent State, the mass murders of Richard Speck and Charles Manson. He missed the White Album. I’m sure Jor-El had a current-events class going (“My son … I believe ‘The walrus was Paul’ is misdirection on the part of Mr. Lennon”); but it’s one thing to study it and another thing to live through it. In the end, Superman is a product of both the planet Krypton and 1950s Smallville and he takes both with him to 1970s Metropolis, where crime is rampant, everyone moves fast, and no one says “Swell.” But rather than the city turning him cynical—he’s impervious in more ways than one—he helps the city turn innocent. He flies by and pulls the cynical masses in his wake. The tagline of the movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but for both Metropolis citizens and moviegoers around the world you could remove the last four words. Superman made us believe.
Yet the question keeps nagging: how does he remain so innocent? Surely he knows what’s going on in the world. Surely he can detect pulse-rates lying and hear crimes—public and private—being committed. Yet he remains who he is. He maintains his belief in the goodness of humanity who only lack the light to show them the way. Of course he’s got Pa Kent and his wisdom, and Jor-El and his wisdom, and maybe he doesn’t push beyond that. Or maybe he knows how dangerous it is to push beyond that. “Lois, I never lie.” Because if he did, where would he stop? If he gave in to one temptation, how many might he succumb to?
By the way: I never lie? Isn’t that what Clark Kent is—a lie? There’s nothing true about the persona. Quentin Tarantino has famously suggested that Clark Kent is Superman’s comment upon humanity—that he sees us as weak, cowardly and equivocating—but Christopher Reeve beat him to that analysis by 30 years. Back in 1978, Reeve told The New York Times: “I see Clark as a deliberate put-on by Superman. Clark’s a tongue-in-cheek impression of who we are.” But shouldn’t a secret identity be about fitting in? About blending into the background? Clark does not. He’s all aw-shucks and gee-whiz. He’s a young man wearing a fedora without irony in the 1970s. (Alert George W.S. Trow.) In his own way, Clark is as isolated as Superman.
“I never lie, Lois.” Right.
Kryptonian in its advancement
Five names share screenplay credit: Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”), David Newman (“Bonnie and Clyde”), Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”), Leslie Newman (this) and Tom Mankiewicz (“Live and Let Die”). They give us so many good lines:
- “Why? You ask why? Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?”
- “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”
- “Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.”
Apparently William Goldman, one of the biggest screenwriters of the day, turned down the gig. He told the Salkinds he didn’t see how it could be done. I don’t blame him. What was the greatest superhero adaptation before “Superman: The Movie”? The “Captain Marvel” serial from 1941? Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons from the same year? The Adam West “Batman” of the 1960s?
“Superman” wiped them all away. It was years ahead of its time. It was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn’t think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.