I wouldn't belabor this obvious, accident-as-metaphor idea if I hadn't been aware of the actor's vulnerability the first time I watched him on-screen. Two years earlier, I'd seen Reeve in a pre-Broadway New Haven tryout of a stupefying drawing-room play called A Matter of Gravity. He played Katharine Hepburn's grandson (or possibly nephew), and came bounding on stage in a plaid shirt and jeans. Then the fat cleaning woman entered and executed a painfully fake pratfall, and Reeve began to weave from side to side, and Hepburn said, "Would you close the curtain, please?" There was a pause—we thought she was talking in character to the maid. Then Hepburn said, again, "Close the curtain, please" and this time the theater curtain descended. When it went up, Hepburn, alone, addressed the audience: "He had a bad reaction to some medication," she explained. "He thought he could go on, but it doesn't look like he can. The understudy will play the part." With that, the curtain dropped and, ten seconds later, rose as another young man—this one about six inches shorter but in a plaid shirt and jeans—came bounding on stage and the fat maid executed the same painfully fake pratfall. A matter of gravity, indeed.
So it was odd watching Reeve defy gravity in Superman with the memory of him listing on stage so fresh. He was lanky opposite Hepburn, but he'd muscled up in the intervening year for the Man of Steel, and there was a charming disjunction between the swollen chest and the smooth face with its sky-blue eyes and huge, lopsided, slightly embarrassed grin. With the success of Rocky, we were about to enter an age of musclebound heroes, but Reeve was their antithesis. He stood outside his own body, beaming at the feats he could perform without trying. (He said he was inspired by Cary Grant's effortless elegance—and by the poise that the ex-vaudevillian Grant maintained even in the midst of a slapstick routine.) Reeve's Clark Kent wasn't just a klutz act to fool Lois. It was a heightened interpretation of how Clark/Superman really saw himself in a world in which there was no one-to-one correspondence between an action and its supposedly equal and opposite reaction. Reeve's Superman was a triumph because it somehow embodied the precariousness of that 90-pound-weakling superhero daydream. Every step was a leap of joy.
Although he hit a comic and dramatic peak in Superman II (a vast improvement on the original, with more at stake emotionally) and was suitably moist in the sci-fi tearjerker Somewhere in Time (a real guilty pleasure), the disjunction that was so witty in his Superman looked hapless in most other roles. He wanted like hell to prove he was a real actor, and directors didn't protect him: The effort showed, and his body seemed like a blockish encumbrance. His histrionic contortions as a smitten priest in Monsignor were eye-rollingly awful, and he was unattractively wooden (opposite the glowing filament of Vanessa Redgrave) in The Bostonians. Morgan Freeman acted him off the screen in Street Smart. When the air went out of the Superman series, gravity took over and Reeve fell off the A-list like a stone.
But he was game, always game. In the late '80s and early '90s, I'd see him on the subway en route to the Public Theater, usually with his nose in a script. He put his celebrity to use by working for the Creative Coalition, an activist arts outfit where he was much beloved.
After the horse-riding spill that left him paralyzed, Reeve refused to leave the arena, once more putting his celebrity to use. It was hard to see the flicker of fear in his eyes before every machine-assisted breath, and read the horror in his face as his "instrument" (that's what they call it at Juilliard) atrophied. His RearWindow remake was painful, and I was relieved when he turned down the part of Lecter's vegetative archenemy (a child molester, among other things) in Hannibal. Now that he's gone, though, so quickly and unexpectedly, I'm sorry for my squeamishness. Reeve knew that, in Superman, he'd captured our imagination by making a comic ballet out of the distance between mind and body. He didn't choose his new role—it was forced on him. But it, too, was rooted in a mind-body disjunction, and the fact that he wanted to make something of it as an actor was a testament to his will and to something heroic in the compulsion to act. We'll never know if he could have brought it off, but damn it all that he didn't live another decade (or three) to try. The struggle to be super would have challenged us all. ... 3:26 p.m.
Last spring, I suggested to Slate's television critic Dana Stevens that she really exploit this here newfangled Internet medium and write a running TV column: not really a blog (no diaristic comings and goings) but something fast and casual, a lively catchall for shows that don't require 1,000 words and a lot of thumb-sucking. Well, her "Surfergirl" has been gangbusters, and now I feel, frankly, left out. Maybe it's time to try something similar on the movie front. If this column had been in place a few weeks ago, I might have taken a paragraph or two to explore the way my astonishment at the mise-en-scene (pardon my French) of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was superceded so quickly by languor and then complete disengagement. Only Angelina Jolie perked me up: As in her Lara Croft movies, she brought a Noel Coward buoyancy and bite to third-rate pulp material. I'd have said I was bored as hell by con-man movies but that Criminal was worth catching for John C. Reilly's bravura piggy-eyed self-satisfaction and for Gregory Jacobs' skill at staging Mamet-like power-struggles without Mamet's airlessness. And just to prove that I'm not always wrestling with my own ennui, I'd have said to go see Infernal Affairs now so that I could pick it apart in print in a week or so without spoiling any big surprises. There's so much to cover in reel time.