Going to the movies in Hollywood is always an adventure. Kendall, Leah, and I went to see “Superman Returns” yesterday on its opening day at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. After the film we heard singing coming from the famous forecourt. Leah ran out to see what it was and I followed her. Looking over at a large group of freshly scrubbed children belting Broadway showtunes, I suddenly felt somebody grabbing me at my waist. I turned my head to find Superman kneeling on the ground with his arms wrapped tightly around me. I recognized this Superman—he’d been at it for years in front of Grauman’s and looked a lot like Christopher Reeve. There is a whole village of costumed characters that hang out on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame and pose with the never-ending army of tourists (for a fee, natch). I was feeling sorry for these guys earlier in the day because it was blistering hot and some of their heavily padded costumes (especially the Incredible Hulk and Homer Simpson) looked sweltering.
Superman would not let go of me for dear life and was shouting, “Thank you for going to see my movie!” It took me a few seconds to realize that an ABC cameraman was catching all of the action. Leah looked on incredulously as I instinctively tried to release myself from the Man of Steel's superhuman grasp. “What was your favorite part of my movie?” he asked breathlessly. Poor guy. It’s been 20 years since the last Superman film and he was obviously reveling in the fact that he was finally getting more attention than his Spiderman cohort. “Um…when you saved the world from total destruction?” Dumb answer. I wish I had said “Eva Marie Saint!” Kendall and I were thrilled to see the luminous star playing Martha Kent, Superman’s adoptive earth mother. Eva Marie is a friend of Kendall’s family and it’s always a joy to see her, on screen or off. I think I already mentioned the time we ran into Saint at a play and Kendall grabbed her abruptly from behind and said “I’m stalking you!” Instead of calling the police, as I would’ve done, Eva Marie laughed and hugged Kendall warmly.
My Superman encounter probably lasted less than a minute but it was long enough for a crowd of spectators to gather around us watching me trying to shake off a 6’5” man in tights. The next thing I knew someone shoved a release form in my hand. Still dazed, I signed it dutifully without even reading it. The only thing that registered was “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” on the top of the sheet. Ah, so that was it. They were filming a bit for the late night show which shoots directly across the street from Grauman’s. The next thing I knew Superman was twirling a small Asian woman in his arms who was screaming in shock. Do you think Lois Lane, the Asian woman, and I could file a class-action suit against Superman for inappropriate groping? It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a sexual harassment suit!
Leah and I then continued watching the thirty or so costumed youngsters who were singing their guts out in front of the theatre. Apparently they were a Mormon singing group from Salt Lake City on a bus tour of the country. Leah was riveted and said she wished she were in a group like that. I was afraid if she started talking to these kids she’d end up moving to Utah and becoming a devoted convert to the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Wasn’t it enough that we had to pass the gauntlet of glassy-eyed Scientologists who own half of Hollywood Boulevard in order to get to Grauman’s?
When the Mormons finally finished their medley, we went to look for Kendall who had run for the hills as soon as she heard the lily-white children open their mouths. We’d only taken a few steps when Leah was accosted by none other than Lucy Ricardo, complete with bright red hair, Technicolor lips, and a 1950s polka dot dress. Chasing after Leah, Lucy screeched, “A redhead like me! Can I take a picture with you?” “Okay,” Leah said, a little startled to be hunted down by the Lucy clone who sounded exactly like her TV counterpart. Wishing I had my good digital camera (let’s face it, taking a camera is a prerequisite when visiting the freak show known as Hollywood), I whipped out my cell phone just in time to hear Lucy say, “You know, I pose for a fee.” Oy, what could I do? Lucy was already hugging my child, should I have pried Leah away to save a few bucks? I took the picture and fished out three crumpled dollar bills to shove into Lucy’s hand. Yeesh, at least Superman didn’t ask me to pay him for hugging me.
Have you noticed I’ve been avoiding talking about the film itself? I so wanted to love “Superman Returns.” I grew up watching the reruns of the "Superman" TV series starring George Reeves (who played one of the Tarleton Twins in “Gone with the Wind” and appeared in a famous “I Love Lucy” episode as Superman) and Noel Neill as Lois Lane. I was also a big fan of the Christopher Reeve films (well, at least the first two, who can remember those later sequels?) and thought Reeve’s Superman/Clark Kent had great chemistry with Margot Kidder. The first “Superman” came out the year I was going to school in Paris and I remember seeing it on the Champs d’Elysées with my mother who was visiting. It was a huge deal and there were gigantic cutouts of Superman extending over the grand Parisian boulevard. It was fun seeing former child star Jackie Cooper as newspaper editor Perry White and it was a thrill to see Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Jonathan and Martha Kent. The scenes on Krypton were deliciously campy and featured a gaggle of old-time movie stars chewing up the scenery. Besides Marlon Brando’s classic Jor-El, we saw an angelic Susannah York as Superman’s birth mother and a cast of dignified Krypton Elders that included Trevor Howard (a favorite of ours from “Brief Encounter”), Maria Schell, Terence Stamp, and Harry Andrews. In a delightful bit of casting, Noel Neill appeared briefly as young Lois Lane’s mother. And has there ever been a more perfect villain than Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor?
I don’t think I’ve seen the 1978 film since it first came out but parts of it have stayed with me all these years. And yet I’m already forgetting the film that I saw yesterday. It started off well. I was silently cheering the producers for making the first shot of the film a close-up of Noel Neill’s face. Yes, the actress who has been appearing in Superman films since 1948 plays an elderly lady who is being wooed by Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor so he can inherit her fortune. I loved seeing Neill honored in this way and providing some kind of continuity with the other films. I also loved the following scene that showed us Eva Marie Saint puttering around in her kitchen and then welcoming back her boy who had been gone for five years. Superman's return evokes his first appearance on the Kent farm when he was a baby and it sets up the film nicely.
So what went wrong with the rest of the movie? Some films I’ve seen lately are so contemptibly bad that I take delight in trying to talk people out of seeing them and I purposely give away important plot points. But I felt no contempt for this film, only disappointment. I’m sure many people will love this movie but my issues can be summed up in one sentence: the film has no emotional core. When will Hollywood get it? You can have the most beautiful sets in the world (as this film does), the most magnificent state-of-the-art special effects (Superman’s flying scenes are extraordinary as are his superhuman feats such as saving the Space Shuttle and setting down a damaged jumbo jet in the Metropolis baseball stadium in the middle of a big game), and you can have a cast of supremely talented newcomers and veterans, but you will never have a good movie unless you have a script that delves into the relationships between the characters in compelling and authentic ways.
The all-important relationship between Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane is a total snooze in this film. We are told that the two of them had it going on five years earlier but there’s no trace of that in the present. On the other hand, I loved that Lois had moved on and was now living with Perry White’s nephew (played by James Marsden who did a great job but how come he gets to be in both the “Superman” and the “X-Men” flicks? I object in the name of the 95% of SAG members who are unemployed) and is raising a son. I thought Kate Bosworth as Lois was better than I’ve seen her (keep the dark locks, Kate!) but there were too many missed opportunities to make me care that much about her character.
Brandon Routh is physically right for the role but plays it way too earnestly. Does anyone remember how funny Christopher Reeve was in the original “Superman?” Why do these franchises get so freaking serious the older they get? Director Bryan Singer comes close to pulling a Cecil B. DeMille—towards the end the film starts feeling like an old Bible epic. “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,” intones Routh with Charlton Heston-like pomp. Yawn. The few seconds in the film where we see Routh having a funny moment as Clark Kent give a taste of the talent and charisma this actor probably has but is not allowed to demonstrate in most of the film. Again, why oh why was the sexual tension between Clark Kent and Lois Lane completely dropped? It’s a fatal flaw.
Kevin Spacey seems like the perfect person to replace Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and he’s got the stuff to give his performance all the right moves. Then what was missing? While I’m grateful for the laughs he brings to the film, it felt like we’ve seen it all before. Kendall thought someone like Johnny Depp would have been a much more interesting Lex Luthor. I couldn’t agree more and I read that he was considered for the role. Better yet, why not bring back the best, Gene Hackman? Hugh Laurie was originally cast as Perry White but had to bow out because of the success of his TV show “House.” The usually great Frank Langella is wasted in the role that feels like it’s been eviscerated. It was fun to see Parker Posey in a big mainstream film for a change. She plays Luthor’s girlfriend Kitty but her character’s motivations are so confusing I’m guessing that a big chunk of her performance ended up on the cutting room floor. Posey’s Kitty evokes Margot Kidder—not so much Kidder’s four-film stint as Lois Lane but more the 1996 episode in which Kidder was found wandering around the San Fernando Valley in a state of extreme paranoia. I hear that Kidder is in great shape these days,and gives talks about her experience with mental illness. Why didn’t they offer her a small part in this film?
You know you’re in trouble when the most riveting actor in your movie died several years before production began. Marlon Brando’s 1978 performance as Superman’s papa, Jor-El, is woven into this film at several key moments and you want to see more. Another benefit of Brando’s posthumous involvement is seeing him reunited in the closing credits with his “On the Waterfront” co-star Eva Marie Saint. Both won Oscars for that film a whopping 52 years ago!
I desperately wanted to be moved by “Superman Returns” but it left me cold. Leah and I saw the animated “Cars” the day before and I unexpectedly cried during a few scenes in that film. And that was about talking hunks of metal! The only tears I experienced yesterday was when I read the film’s moving dedication to the late Christopher and Dana Reeve.
I never found out if my segment made it to "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" last night. But if I had to have an unsolicited gay encounter on Hollywood Boulevard, at least I can say it was with a bona fide superhero.