We look at famous actors as role models, tending to see their personal lives as soap opera, as projection, as aspiration. But the story of Christopher Reeve is different. His life became a parable. It began with the fact that he was Superman — and I don’t just mean that he played Superman. For millions, he fused with that role in a special way. After nearly five decades of comic-book movies, Reeve’s Man of Steel — the chiseled handsome-hawk profile, the fleet muscularity, the helmet of black hair with its forehead curl just so, the true-blue nobility of his eyes — made him the only actor I’ve ever seen play a superhero who truly seemed like a pop god who’d just stepped out of the comic books. He was so perfect that he could have been drawn by Roy Lichtenstein.
It was, in part, because Reeve’s Superman was so indelible, so Hollywood mythological, that what happened to him on May 27, 1995, felt so singular in its devastation. As everyone knows, Reeve was thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition and landed on his neck, which resulted in his being paralyzed from the shoulders down. It in no way insults Reeve’s — or anyone else’s — disability to say that there was a cosmic haunting tragic irony to the fact that this had happened to Superman. (I think the whole world felt and reacted that way.)
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“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” is a moving, wrenching, compellingly well-made documentary about Reeve’s life that inevitably ends up centering on his accident and its aftermath. (He died in 2004.) In the movie, we hear Reeve speak with intimate candor about how he felt when he first became conscious after the accident, and the days and weeks after that, and how he experienced it as a surreal nightmare that he could only gradually wake up from. “It dawned on me,” he says, “that I had ruined my life and everyone else’s.” What happened to Reeve was so horrific that it seemed — to him, and probably to a lot of us — like he was living out his own version of the Book of Job. The accident was a supreme test of faith, and as “Super/Man” shows us, it was, in the end, about the restoration of his faith, and the enlargement of it.
We go into “Super/Man” knowing the outlines of Reeve’s story (or more than that, for anyone who read his 1998 autobiography “Still Me”). But God is in the details, and the documentary fills in his life with an absorbing richness. We learn what a troubled person he was, growing up in a broken home that made him feel lost as he shuttled between two families and contended with a stern, unloving father who hated popular culture (he was a poet, novelist, and literary scholar), and who Reeve could never please. We see Reeve’s days at Juilliard starting in 1973, where he trained as a stage actor and became pals with Robin Williams. “Superman” was shot (simultaneously with “Superman II”) in 1977 and ’78, and Jeff Daniels tells a great story about how he was backstage with several actors, including Reeve and William Hurt, as they were getting ready for an Off Broadway performance when Reeve casually mentioned that he was going to be flying off to London to audition for a movie. When he told them that the film was “Superman,” Hurt said, “Don’t go! Don’t go! Don’t go! You’re going to sell out!”
Many actors were considered as possibilities to don the blue tights and red cape (Arnold Schwarzenegger coveted the role, and so did Neil Diamond), but Reeve flew over on a Sunday, auditioned on Monday, and knew that he’d landed the part by the time he flew back on Tuesday. Another juicy (if in this case terrible) story: When Reeve’s father learned that he’d been cast in “Superman,” he wanted to toast Christopher with champagne — but only because he thought his son was going to be starring in the George Bernard Shaw play “Man and Superman.” A lot of people thought “Superman” was going to be a bad joke of a movie (sorry, but I still think the Lex Luthor parts are), and possibly a flop. What even the wildest optimists could not have predicted was that Christopher Reeve would be nothing less than great in it. His bumbling, glasses-nudging Clark Kent was an exquisite screwball-comedy creation, and his Superman zipped through the skies with sublime aerodynamic sexiness.
“Super/Man,” drawing on archival footage, all of it superbly edited by Otto Burnham, gives us a fascinating inside glimpse of how the movie was made (when Reeve asked Gene Hackman if he wanted to rehearse, Hackman gave him a look of utter befuddlement), and of what it was like for Reeve after it opened. People thought he was a rock-star deity. He was charming on the talk shows, and he did a variety of movies, but almost none of them connected. He wasn’t a bad actor, yet he was strangely limited by his living-statue looks. (I always liked him in “Deathtrap,” where his fast-talking glibness played off the physique.) The film charts his 10-year relationship with Gae Exton, a British modeling executive with whom he had two children, though they never married. It was Reeve who ended the relationship, in some way repeating the pattern of his parents. Yet he met the singer and actress Dana Morosini less than six months later, and the depth of love in their marriage is the most moving element in the film.
More weird cosmic karma: Reeve portrayed a disabled cop in the HBO crime thriller “Above Suspicion,” which premiered just six days before his accident. The film shows us that Reeve was a relentless sportsman, always pursuing action: sailing, skiing, racing, riding, and flying (he was a skilled pilot who crossed the Atlantic twice). The accident was a true fluke, and we see the footage of it. The horse wasn’t running very fast, but just before it was supposed to jump over a steeplechase fence, it tensed up and stopped, and Reeve was thrown. As one of his adult sons describes it in the movie, if he had landed on his neck an inch higher, he would have been dead; if he’d landed an inch lower, he would have walked away with barely a bruise.
But it was Reeve’s fate to spend the rest of his life using a wheelchair and respirator. There’s an incredible drama to the story of how he recovered from the cataclysm, learning to breathe and talk and, more than that, rehabilitating his life fore. Early on, as he was starting to come out of his torpor, Dana looked at him in bed and said, “You’re still you, and I love you.” Anyone in the audience who can hear that without tearing up has got more steel in them than the Man of Steel. Reeve was still himself, yet the film also charts his extraordinary transformation, as he became an activist for the diasabled, helping to establish crucial funding that has revolutionized the treatment of those who cannot walk. In doing so, he came off his superhero pedestal to become a true human hero. As Reeve tells it, what expanded was his empathy, his ability to get out of himself.
Robin Williams, who we see in a lot of footage, was instrumental in helping Reeve build back his well-being. The two were such brothers that near the end of the film, Glenn Close, one of the friends of Reeve who is interviewed (along with Whoopi Goldberg and Susan Sarandon), says that she fully believes Williams would be alive today if Reeve hadn’t died. The interviews with Reeve’s children, Matthew, Alexandra, and William, are revealing and touching, and the warm valor shown by Dana (who died in 2006) proves a wonder to behold. We see, with aching honesty, how challenging their existence became (just getting Reeve to the 1996 Oscars was a logistical feat), yet at every step her love gave him the strength to transcend. If the Christopher Reeve story is a parable, one that’s told by “Super/Man” as powerfully as it could be told, it’s one that begins with the thought “There but for the grace of God go I” and ends with “It’s a wonderful life.”
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