Closeup/Films

No fear of flying

Superman was there when Margot Kidder needed him

Marci McDonald June 26 1978
Closeup/Films

No fear of flying

Superman was there when Margot Kidder needed him

Marci McDonald June 26 1978

No fear of flying

Superman was there when Margot Kidder needed him

Closeup/Films

Marci McDonald

It is, after all, a typical contemporary plot line. The story of a heroine in search of her freedom, a feckless free spirit who fell in and out of love with unfettered abandon, who leaped in and out of her career with reckless aplomb, and finally took to jumping off mountainsides, seeking the ultimate updraft. But like many modern heroines, she had a run-in with gravity and a prince who turned not into a frog, buta variety of barnyard beast. Now, as Margot Kidder picks herself up and dusts herself off, she reflects that it might not make a bad film script, although she is much too busy at the moment to write it. For more than a year, she has been back pursuing her career and her freedom in mid-air—this time with the aid of a 100-foot crane.

After a talent hunt described as “reminiscent of the great quest for Scarlett O’Hara,” Kidder finds herself swaddled in blue chiffon and suspended from steel wires as Lois Lane, Clark Kent’s mild-

mannered Daily Planet sidekick, in a $33million, two-picture production of Superman, surrounded by the most ostentatious secrecy that the combined publicity machinery of two continents can devise,.

In New York, reporters were summoned to location shooting with cryptic telephone instructions and street-comer rendezvous, f---X---

Now in London, where the final interiors are still being filmed more than 12 months later, no visiting journalists are allowed on the set. “Margot is flying,” explains the publicist, hinting at the unsuspected feats taking place on Sound Stage Two, where Lois Lane is currently being transported around the world in 90 seconds in the man of steel’s arms. Kidder alights briefly in a dressing room between flights, chewing bubblegum and dispelling illusions.

“They don’t want anybody to see the wires,” she chortles. “I said to them, ‘What do you mean, you don’t want anybody to see the wires? You don’t think they’re going to believe we flap our arms, do you?’ ”

At 29, Kidder’s face is still frankly ingenuous. The years of near-miss stardom have failed to imbue her with the slightest

reverence for press-agentry. “Flying is getting so boring,” she groans. “I mean, most of the time we just stand there, bending at the waist in the wind machines, while they throw birds past our heads.”

Sometimes the birds crash. Sometimes the actors do, hopelessly entangled in unruly flight wires. One simple manoeuvre necessitated 68 takes as Christopher Reeve, the square-jawed 25-year-old chosen to leap tall buildings in a single bound, couldn’t quite negotiate takeoff from an apartment balcony. On another occasion, the entire production almost ground to a halt when it was discovered that the wind machines blew Superman’s cape and forehead curl out of sync. Four months and $8 million over budget, the “biggest production ever planned,” has turned out to be

bigger than anybody ever bargained for.

“Oh, I suppose I should feel grateful,” Kidder says. “I mean, there I was a year ago with no career and here I am in this alltime monumental picture. But sometimes I feel a lot of my work could be done by an imbecile or a plastic robot. The only comment the producers have made about my acting ability so far is that my hands are

ugly and I should wear false fingernails. Maybe you shouldn’t write that.” She pauses for a minute. “Oh, go ahead—write it.”

Discretion has never been Margot Kidder’s strong point. A casual look at her press clippings would reveal that she has confided at random on the subject of her libertarian lifestyle, occasionally over the telephone. Three years ago, in Playboy's glossy pages, she bared not only her admirable flesh, but her adolescent fantasies, only pausing to castigate herself for not daring further candor. “If I’d been brave enough, I might have let Doug Kirkland take pictures of me just before I got my period, when my stomach was all bloated,” she wrote in the accompanying text.

She wastes no time in arriving at the nub of her current musings. “You know, I used to think I was so liberated,” she says. “But I spent too much time being obsessed by men, falling in and out of love with them. I was never not in love.” Now it seems that love has been laid aside like yesterday’s fashions. In an anteroom, a child’s white crib and stuffed menagerie are installed in a makeshift nursery. Snapshots of their proprietor, a tousled two-year-old named Maggie, grin down from every wall. “This child has brought me so many things,” marvels her mother. “I had no idea of the strength and solidity and constancy of that kind of relationship. It’s like being in love 24 hours a day.”

Now the actress who used to race off camera to her latest fling hurries to embrace the considerations of toilet training and mashed vegetables. Gone are the allnight discoing and drunks. Electric shocks have jolted her out of a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit; a routine tequila intake has been abandoned in favor of sparkling apple juice and she has sworn off valium and cocaine. The lady who once boasted that she had run through $100,000 without noticing now worries about saving her salary to buy a house in a good neighborhood with trees and schools.

“It’s so much more interesting to go home and play with Maggie than go take drugs and drink and go to a party,” she says. “And you’re talking to the original party-girl. I mean, I was a real rowdy. I had mood swings that would knock entire cities over. But with a child you can’t be depressed and suicidal. Certain neuroses are just not allowed. It always sounds suspicious when somebody says they’re happy, but in the last four or five months I’ve been so much happier.”

Margot Kidder came late to a raised consciousness. The awkward script of a 12year-old diarist set the tone early: Dear Diary, I really want to be a popular actres [sic]... I am boy crazy. By 17 she had already dropped out of a University of British Columbia theatre arts course and taken to the road with the touring cast of Oliver! for a glimpse of the unexpurgated life. Her first CBC role won her raves. She went on to snare the lead in a Norman Campbell TV

extravaganza and a Maclean's story. Expatriate director Norman Jewison saw her freckled sensuality at a newsstand and imported her to Hollywood to play a budding prostitute with Melina Mercouri and Hume Cronyn in Gaily, Gaily, which in turn led to a starring role opposite Gene Wilder in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx. By 21, Margot Kidder had already been hailed as the hottest sweet young thing to hit Hollywood, had dated Tinsel Town’s most eligible bachelor-ofthe-year, Elliott Gould, and retired—a self-esteemed flop.

Along the way, there had been men in great numbers—among them, director Brian De Palma, actor Michael Sarrazin and TV director Gary Weis. As Kidder confessed to Playboy, “Fidelity is a problem for me.”

But, crushed by what she considered failure in her first two pictures, she cashed out of Hollywood in favor of New York acting lessons, then packed up her career and retired to a peach farm in the Okanagan Valley to commune with Nature and Art. When life as a Zen nun on a B.C. mountaintop turned out to be not entirely suitable, she descended to Vancouver, signed on as an apprentice editor with Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud and floated free, frequently across entire continents. She landed a TV series as James Garner’s barmaid girl-friend in Nichols, was Robert Redford’s girl-friend in The Great Waldo Pepper, and Stacy Reach’s partner in Gravy Train. The Hollywood she had once hated turned into the place she fondly called home. She took up hang-gliding and starred in an ABC documentary, leaping off cliffsides from California to Wyoming. Nothing seemed beyond the freedom of Margot Kidder. Toa generation of women wrestling with diaper pails and the need to create a meaningful existence, her life may have seemed like some lodestar afloat in an unreal universe.

At one point, she was among a handful of women chosen by the American Film Institute to make a personal film. The plot, inspired by her own diaries, proved oddly prophetic—the cameras panning in on a girl with a freewheeling love life and a wailful of men’s photos, like notches, over her bed. When she meets Mr. Right, she takes down the photos, until at last Mr. Right proves all wrong and one by one they are pinned up again. The 40-minute short received enthusiastic notices and there was talk of Margot Kidder going on to make another. “I had everything handed to me,” she says. “It was right within my grasp. So what do I do? Like most women, I run off with a man.”

The white Jaguar slips through London’s nightstreets. Beyond the glass, postcard clichés in time-burnished stone are gleaming through a brisk drizzle, but in the back seat Margot Kidder yawns, oblivious. This is a sentimental journey she can no longer afford. The last time she came to England, three years before, she had been

in a state of advanced amorous excitation; his name was Tom McGuane, a ruggedly good-looking 32-year-old American novelist who had already been hailed as “the Hemingway of the ’70s.” When they met, he had just seized angry directorial control over the filming of his novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade. In walked Margot Kidder, a living testament to hang-gliding—all bruises, bandages and the vocabulary of a surfer. “He was so beautiful, so brilliant— and besides I fell madly in love with him.”

Within a year, the female lead was living with the writer-director on his Raw Deal Ranch outside Livingstone, Montana, while next door on the adjoining acreage his former wife had just moved in with the film’s co-star, Peter Fonda. The saga of Kidder and McGuane was never a simple one, unrolling as it did across two continents and more than a few obstacles, but in the end it was clinched by a third party. “I’d wanted a kid for years,” she says, “but I was told by this gynecologist in Toronto—a man, naturally—that I could never have babies. Then Tom came along and said, ‘Of course, you can have a child.’ ” Undaunted by unmarried motherhood, she retreated to Malibu to study tomes on natural childbirth and wait out the blessed event, exultant and alone. Then, seven months pregnant, she “chickened out,” as she deems it, and moved back to the ranch.

Initially, it was a case of bliss under the big sky. There were quarter horses to learn to ride; neighbors such as actor Warren Oates and novelist Richard Brautigan to talk the night away. She revelled in the rapt sensuality of childbirth. Nine months after the birth of Margaret Kidder McGuane, she married the baby’s father.

A magazine article on McGuane at the time depicted their rustic Eden, the young patriarch presiding over his assembled women and children with a typewriter and a whittling knife, his old and new wives chatting as amiably as childhood playmates, Margot tossing the new baby over one shoulder as she fried up a venison steak. “All very pastoral,” she quips now. “No mention of cocaine.”

But along with certain unnatural substances, there was another intrusion in paradise. “Here we were, the romance of the century,” she says. “Then we moved in together and neither of us could boil water for coffee. I loved to go off riding and hunting,” she says, “and he expected me to cook dinner. I’d throw ashtrays and yell, ‘Why don’t you cook dinner?’ I fell very deeply in lové with a man who felt women should cook and clean and take a second place, not only in the marriage but in life. And I watched myself go from a relatively cool and cocky person to an absolute wreck who thought she couldn’t do a thing.”

She threw herself into training quarter horses by day, but by night balked at the threatened bridle herself. “I wept all the time, I complained, I couldn’t eat. By the end, I was down to 105 pounds and swal-

lowing valium by the bottle.”

When word of the frantic search for Lois Lane finally filtered through to the Raw Deal Ranch, she leapt at the chance. She flew to London on a Friday for the screen test like some refugee from a John Wayne backlot—blue jeans, cowboy boots and ten-gallon hat. On Monday morning, Lois Lane beamed demurely into the lens. “I didn’t even have time to read the script,” she says. “But this picture has really been therapy.”

It was also the last straw. She left Montana a married lady. Three weeks later, she received notice that she’d been divorced.

The car pulls up before a Georgian townhouse in Chelsea. Kidder bounds out the door, up the steps and throws her arms around a small bundle of advanced blonde wisdom in an All-American sweat shirt— Maggie Kidder McGuane. In the rented Victorian living room, where a friend has lit a fire and candles, they romp in the glow. They are galloping ranch-style over the Persian carpets when Maggie stubs a

toe. Her mother bends to soothe the tragedy. “We’ll phone Daddy and tell him about it,” she croons, gathering sobs into her lap. “Daddy will kiss it over the telephone. Daddy will make it better, won’t he?”

In the lobby of the Grosvenor House Hotel, England lives on as a setpiece by Noel Coward. At the grand piano, a solemn figure in white tie and tails serves up Some Enchanted Evening, while tuxedoed waiters bow and swirl in the tidy ritual of five o’clock tea. “I’m sure there must be lords and ladies here,” whispers Margot Kidder, settling into an armchair to stare, apparently unaware that whoever they are, they are staring right back at this creature in thigh-high doeskin boots, her hair still dripping from 30 laps at the health club pool next door.

“As soon as this picture is finished, I’m sure I’ll never work again,” she says. “But then I’m always sure I’ll never work again. I’m just riddled with insecurities. I cover very well, but it’s a bravura performance

the whole time. I had a pretty good act going with men—sweet and vulnerable. I always had to have a man in love with me— or men. But as soon as a relationship gets very intimate, the other person gets a big surprise. Suddenly they find that instead of a smart-alec lady there is this little thing

who cowers around saying she’s not good enough. I mean, we never had much money. My father lives in a trailer now that I would refuse if they gave it to me as a dressing room. I still think sometimes, ‘Hey, what am 1 doing here with all these brilliant people—I’m just a dropout from a mining town in Northern Quebec.’ ”

In the course of bottoming-out, though, she confesses to acquiring some new perspectives. She is learning to cherish her rediscovered family, has just begun to delight in female friendships and is gradu-

ally renegotiating the sexual battlefield. “I’m friends with men now. It’s not as sexy—in fact, the sex is no hell—but it’s such a relief. I just don’t want to try to be what anybody wants me to be anymore.”

The question remains what Margot Kidder herself wants to be. “I’d just like to find something in life where I can use my brains—and it’s not acting. I feel I’ve got more to offer than standing on a spot being powdered.” She toys with the lure of journalism—“but then I suppose you get edited.” She talks of finishing a screenplay—“but then some dumb director comes along and messes up your work.” The boundaries loom. She wonders aloud about making a film with Canadian Film Development Corp. grants—based on her own experience, perhaps.

It is, after all, an experience like so many others these days; the roles are all so nebulously written. There is no right and no wrong—simply different viewpoints. Heroes are easily confused with villains and even supermen and princes turn out to have feet of common flesh.

A man approaches the tea table now and joins us. He pretends to read a newspaper as we talk, but she senses his impatience. She cuts the conversation short, jumps up from the table, oblivious of bills to be paid or packages left behind and bids a hasty goodbye. Her arm hooked in his, she strides off in search of her freedom. The piano plays an old-fashioned tune.^