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Margot Kidder: 1948-2018

I first saw Margot Kidder when “Superman” (1978) was run on two nights on network TV in the early 1980s. The first night ended with Kidder’s Lois Lane stuck on a helicopter that had crashed into the top of a building, which left her hanging precariously while holding on to a seatbelt. She screamed for help, and the movie stopped while the announcer said, “Tune in tomorrow.” I got very upset by this, and when my mother asked me why, I told her, “Lois Lane is going to die!” She reassured me, and the following evening I saw Superman (Christopher Reeve) save her, and then I saw him save her again at the end of the film.

And so for someone of my generation, the news that Margot Kidder herself has died at age 69 carries a special sting. Her Superman had died in 2004 after a horse-riding accident that left him physically incapacitated. Kidder herself had suffered from mental health issues that came to a crisis in the 1990s, but she got through them with humor and with her trademark spunk. She was a spiky brunette with a sexy low voice, but she had her goofy side. Her “Superman” director Richard Donner once said that Kidder was so physically maladroit that if she walked into an empty room with a small trashcan in it she would somehow find a way to get her foot caught in that trashcan.

Kidder was born in Canada, and her father was an explosives expert. She was a wild and bohemian young woman who took a house at the beach in the early 1970s with fellow actress Jennifer Salt, and this Kidder-Salt residence was the hub for many of the young American directors who would make their mark on the cinema of that time. One of these directors, Brian De Palma, cast Kidder as Siamese twins who had been separated in his horror film “Sisters” (1972). In that movie, Kidder has a very frightening quality of mental instability somehow aligned to a very healthy sexuality.  

She did two more notable horror movies, “Black Christmas” (1974) and “The Amityville Horror” (1979), but it was Lois Lane in the “Superman” movies that made her a star. When I went into journalism, I very much wanted my life to be like the life seen at the “Daily Planet” newspaper in those “Superman” movies. As a kid watching those movies over and over again with my sister, I loved Kidder’s edginess; maybe only in the 1970s could the heroine of a film like this be allowed to have so many flaws and quirks.

At the end of “Superman II,” Kidder played maybe her finest scene where she admits her own lack of character to Reeve’s Clark Kent. “I am selfish when it comes to you,” she says, her eyes tearing up and her very thin face drawn as if by illness. “And I’m jealous of the whole world.” Can you remember her low voice saying those lines? The emotion in that scene is very raw and very personal. It showed once again that Kidder was willing to put herself on the line, just as she had in “Sisters.”

Kidder had some control over her career for about ten years after the first two “Superman” movies, and she did some ambitious things, like filming the plays “Bus Stop” and “Pygmalion,” where she played Eliza Doolittle to Peter O’Toole’s Henry Higgins. She was the adored woman in a three-way love affair in Paul Mazursky’s “Willie & Phil” (1980), and she was at her very best as the freakish, outcast Rita in “Heartaches” (1981), a performance that earned a very admiring review from Pauline Kael. She played a Southern belle in the epic “Louisiana” (1984) for TV, where she was directed by one of her husbands, Philippe de Broca.

After that? Well, there was lots of work, and lots of personal trouble in the 1990s. Kidder kept going and going, and she was open about admitting that she would accept just about any offer of acting work in this new century. Kidder collaborated with Charles Burnett on the little-seen “The Annihilation of Fish” (1999), but most of her later credits were not worthy beyond the paycheck they afforded her. Kidder was a very outspoken political activist to the end, and she found ways to live as rich a life as possible and not take what was left of her acting career too seriously.

I was very wounded when I heard that Kidder had died because I never got the chance to tell her how much I loved her in “Superman” and how much her performances in the first two movies meant to me as a child. She had such chemistry with the very square Reeve because she was such a feisty, un-appeasable presence. Kidder posed for cheesecake photos when she was young, but it seemed clear that she had other things on her very active mind.

Kidder led a turbulent life. But think of her in that blue dress interviewing Superman on the terrace of her apartment in the first “Superman” movie, and the way she looks at Reeve, as if she can’t believe in his purity, and then watch the way she begins to melt and accept that she has met the ideal man, with the catch that she can never settle down with him.

Kidder’s own tumultuous spirit seems to finally settle down a little in this scene, and the effect is very touching because she’s smart enough to know all the trouble she’s in for with this superhero but game enough to enjoy the ride with him, even the rough patches. In that way, Kidder’s Lois Lane is close to the spirit of the troublemaking woman who played her so memorably. 

Dan Callahan

Dan Callahan is the author of "Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" and "Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave." He has written for "New York Magazine," "Film Comment," "Sight and Sound," "Time Out New York," "The L Magazine," and many other publications. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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