It’s been eight years since Christopher Reeve passed away; in many ways it feels longer. The news of his passing was one of those moments that elicited a visceral emotional response, not just from me but from across the world, not only because he was loved as Superman, but also because of his response to the showjumping accident that left him paralysed.
I don’t like using the word ‘definitive’ in relation to acting – it shuts down the possibility of an equally great interpretation of a role – but Superman was a part Reeve was born to play. Part of that is sheer physical presence – he looked like Superman – but for me, the real magic in his performance is in his sincerity. Let’s face it, the seventies Superman movies can be a little campy in places, but while Gene Hackman is dancing over the top, Reeve is playing it completely straight.
See, Superman can be a difficult character to portray. I love the guy, but there’s a fine line between leadership and patriarchy, between nobility and humourlessness. Reeve achieves this – yes, his Superman is strong and decent and heroic, but there’s also a touch of innocence there, and naivety. The great thing about Reeve’s Superman is that those things become strengths; when Lois asks why he’s here, Superman just responds “I’m here to help”. And he means it. God bless him, he means it. That willingness to take something that’s potentially corny and instead turn it into the moral heart of the movie is the key to Reeve’s greatness in the role.
Or is it? Because he also pulls a fantastic trick in making Clark and Superman genuinely seem to be two different people. The glasses thing is a much-mocked element of the mythos (although for my money, they work as a symbolic thing rather than anything physical), but Reeve made it work. If you want a successful Superman adaptation, you need to get the ‘Clark’ aspects of the character right, rather than focus on the powerful alien stuff, and this is where Reeve really makes the character his own. It’s not really about the cape and the trunks, it’s about the character. Forget that and you’re doomed. Remember it and you get scenes that people talk about for decades to come. Heck, I’m not actually a huge fan of the Reeve movies as movies, but Reeve himself is amazing in them and I’ll always make time to watch him catch the helicopter. It’s an amazing Superman moment.
Thank you, Mr. Reeve.