Superman 1.39: Chasing Lois

Now, according to the opening credits, the lead characters of Superman: The Movie are Superman’s dad, then the villain, and then Superman, the villain’s sidekick, Superman’s boss, Superman’s foster father, the leader of the Science Council on Krypton, and Lois Lane, which in my opinion is burying… well, the lead.

Personally, I think that the main characters of a romantic comedy are the people who are involved in the romance and the comedy, but, you know, I’m old-fashioned that way.

We talked last week about the epic journey to find a guy who could play Superman, which took eighteen months and involved so many people that they ran out of actors and started doing screen tests with dentists.

The process for casting Lois didn’t take as long, because at a certain point you’re either making a movie or you’re not. The search started in late February, once Christopher Reeve was cast in the title role, and went until late April, when Margot Kidder got the part.

Now, the book The Making of Superman: The Movie begins this story with the following statement, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t follow the tradition:

Before long, there was a steady stream of stars flying both ways across the Atlantic, and screen tests were scheduled at Shepperton with very few hours allowed for jet lag. Barbra Streisand was considered and the idea immediately abandoned, since everyone agreed that she was wrong for the part — also, it was doubtful that someone of her superstar status would have submitted to the formality of the screen test Donner insisted upon.

I’m not sure why you need to know that Barbra Streisand came up momentarily in conversation and was then crossed off the list because it wasn’t a good idea, but The Making of seems to think it was important, and I suppose every story has to start somewhere.

In the screen tests, the prospective Loises performed two scenes with Chris: the balcony interview, ending with Superman’s invitation to fly, and the hotel room scene from Superman II, where Lois tricks Clark into admitting that he’s Superman. (As it turned out, when Michael Thau constructed The Richard Donner Cut of Superman II in 2006, he used Margot Kidder’s screen test to represent the original concept of the scene.)

The hotel room is actually kind of a tough scene to pull off, because a lot of it involves criticizing and/or making fun of Clark, which ultimately is not the point of the scene. If you haven’t seen the Donner Cut, the situation is that Lois and Clark are undercover in a crooked newlyweds’ hotel in Niagara Falls, and he’s come in just as she’s getting out of the shower and putting on makeup.

He’s frustrated, because he would like her to see him as a potential romantic partner, and she provides him with a full-body critique: he slouches all the time, his clothes are dull, his bow tie looks like a letter opener. He complains that he’s tired of being compared with Superman, saying, “maybe I just can’t stand the competition anymore.” She replies, “And just maybe you’ve been the competition, all along.”

He asks what she means, and she ticks off a number of questions: why did Superman suddenly turn up at Niagara Falls, why is he never around when Superman appears, and where did Clark go when Superman showed up today? He keeps on lying and distracting, until she pulls a stunt that makes him admit the truth.

It’s a perilous scene, because it’s possible for the actress to come off as mean — criticizing his looks and his posture, and then interrogating him as he stammers and lies. Superman1978.com has a clip of Susan Blakely’s screen test doing this part of the scene, and it seems like she’s angry at him.

“Well, Clark,” she says, “When Superman appeared, I looked over at that hot dog stand, and you weren’t there. As a matter of fact, you were nowhere to be seen.” She delivers the line like it’s an accusation, as if she’s his wife, suspecting that he’s sneaking off to have an affair.

One of the front-runners was Stockard Channing, who was about to become famous as Rizzo in the other big 1978 movie, Grease. You can see some of her screen test on YouTube, and she’s very funny, but she’s also very aware of how funny she is.

Clark says, “In spite of the unreality of all this, you know, posing as newlyweds for the sake of a newspaper story? Well, you know, in spite of myself, actually, I’m kind of starting to feel like one, in a way.”

“A newlywed?” she says, and then turns to look at him. “You?” And then she smirks.

It’s a great smirk, a very strong comedy smirk, but her performance makes the scene about her. He’s the straight man, and she gets the laughs. But at the end of the day, this scene is about getting him to admit that he’s a thunder god, and she doesn’t leave him any room to breathe.

Kidder says all of these lines playfully, and for the lines that could sound harsh — the bowtie that looks like a letter opener, “A newlywed? You?” — she says them a little absent-mindedly, as if they just slipped out.

For the interrogation part of the scene, she jumbles up the words a little bit, so it doesn’t sound like a rehearsed cross-examination. “And why is it always, when I’m with you, until Superman appears, and then you seem to disappear — very conveniently, it seems to me!” Clark says he went for hot dogs, and she responds, “Uh huh, and when Superman appeared, I looked over at that hot dog stand, and you were gone, you weren’t there! Nowhere!”

It’s a ridiculous situation, obviously, asking your co-worker if he turned into an archangel while he was standing on line for hot dogs, but she makes it sounds natural. And she wins, and she’s Lois.

Lesley Ann Warren was the other top choice, and if Margot hadn’t come along then she would have been Lois. From the little bit of the balcony scene that I’ve seen from her screen test, it seems like she’s overplaying it, smiling really broadly and getting very excited, basically broadcasting on all frequencies that this is a thrilling experience.

In Kidder’s test, again, she underplays this. She’s amazed, and somewhat awed, but she’s not jumping around. She just really likes this boy, and he’s offered to take her out for a drive.

So basically, if Barbra Streisand is going to be a snob about this, then forget her; Margot Kidder is the correct choice.

The thing that really appealed to Richard Donner was that she was clumsy. In a 2016 Hollywood Reporter interview, he explained, “I’d seen Margot Kidder in a TV series called Nichols. She was charming and very funny. When I met her in the casting office, she tripped coming in, and I just fell in love with her. It was perfect.”

Donner has talked a lot about Kidder’s endearing flaws; she’s beautiful and smart and funny, and she’s not perfect, and that’s an important part of his vision for Lois.

In the Making of book, Kidder said, “I think that most of what I bring to the role of Lois is myself. I’m manic and I’m overambitious and I’m often frantic and disorganized. I always think I’m being highly efficient when actually I’m not. And that seems to be a part of what Dick Donner wants. The calm side of me belongs in another movie.”

And here’s another Donner quote from 2016: “Let me tell you a funny thing about Margot. When we were shooting, her makeup man comes to me and says: ‘We have a little problem. Margot scratched her eye putting her contacts in.’ I said, ‘Do it without your contacts.’ That day she was wonderful, because she was wide-eyed, with no depth perception. She walked into a desk — and she was the girl I wanted her to be. She said, ‘But I can’t see!’ There was a law after that: Every morning people had to come to me and make sure she didn’t have her contacts in. It just made her wonderful.”

Donner highlights this “amazing-but-flawed” interpretation of Lois right away at the beginning of her first scene, when she asks Jimmy Olsen how to spell “bloodletting” and “massacre”. She’s writing hard-nosed front-page stories, but she’s bad at spelling, and everyone around her becomes her spell-checker. That clumsy, frantic quality makes her Lois very human, and it makes the audience feel protective towards her, and fall in love with her.

Superman is obviously an idealized figure, specifically constructed to be the best of everything that a man should be. Lois is not the female counterpart of that concept; she’s terrific, but not an unreachable ideal. Even in the early years, when she was haughty and dismissive of Clark, she wasn’t presented as actually being superior to his reporter persona.

Lois in the comics is a bundle of contradictions. She’s an ambitious reporter who fights hard to get a byline on every important story, but she becomes a dreamy romantic when Superman is around. She’s pretty but not stunning, she’s intelligent but can’t see through Clark’s disguise, she’s independent and headstrong but invariably gets into life-threatening trouble that requires Superman’s intervention to survive.

In the excerpt from The Great Superman Book that I quoted yesterday, Michael L. Fleisher observes all of these contradictions as they play out in the comics. He says that Lois loves Superman, but she would do anything to discover his secret identity and announce it to the world — so she must subconsciously despise him, and lash out in retribution for the many ways that his on-again/off-again attention has hurt her.

But it’s also possible to see those contradictions in a more empathetic way, which I think is what Donner is doing by hiring Kidder, and taking her contacts out. Lois contradicts herself and sometimes sabotages her own goals, because she’s human, and that’s a thing that humans do. We want a lot of things that we can’t have, we take the things that we do have for granted, and we act against our own interests, because we’re emotional and impulsive and sometimes short-sighted. We bump into desks all the time.

And, as Fleisher also points out in devastating detail, Lois brings out all of the contradictions and indecision in Superman’s psychology, as well. He wants her to fall in love with Clark Kent, but also goes to great lengths to make himself unattractive to her. He relishes the moments when he can dazzle her as Superman and earn her praise and adoration, but then he rejects her in ways that make her visibly unhappy.

Superman can run really fast and jump really high; he can fell mighty oak trees and call down fire from the heavens; he is the biggest and strongest and best at everything — but he can’t figure out how he feels, or what he wants. Lois exposes Superman’s only real flaw, the one that isn’t just a pretense that he uses to protect his secret identity. He has all of the powers that he could possibly wish for, except for his emotional life, which is a mess — because he loves and hates and worships and disparages and pines for the complex, flawed and fascinating woman that he can’t stop thinking about.

That’s the Lois that Donner wants to present in this movie, a character who is so deeply human that she can turn a superpowered extraterrestrial into a human, as well. I don’t think he could have made a better choice than Margot Kidder. He fell in love as soon as she tripped through the door, and so do we, and so does the secret king of the sky.

Tomorrow:
1.40: Everyone Looks Like Lois.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

14 thoughts on “Superman 1.39: Chasing Lois

  1. There certainly couldn’t have been a better Lois Lane than Margot Kidder. Though I think some of the others would have been equally good. Lesley Anne Warren, for example, was usually a very subtle actress, with a tendency to underplay her parts; if she overdid it in her screen test, it might have been an attempt to reassure Donner that she could go big.

    Stockard Channing is so rarely called on to step back and let someone else have the space it took to pull off a performance as tricky as the one Christopher Reeve has to give as Clark Kent, so it’s hard to imagine her as a good Lois. Still, she does have some outstanding supporting performances to her credit, so even though I can’t picture her doing it, I’m sure she would have been great.

    The idea of Barbra Streisand is just in the same category as the idea of Al Pacino as Superman- a symptom of the Salkinds wanting the biggest names in 1970s cinema and not caring a thing about the characters. Who knows, maybe if they’d been making a solo Lois Lane movie (in Metropolis, ending before Superman shows up,) Streisand could have made it a hit.

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  2. Lesley Anne Warren had previously played Lois in the TV special IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S SUPERMAN! Based on the short-lived Broadway Musical. Her big song has her imagining herself as a happy housewife, which definitely conflicts with the character’s independent nature.

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  3. Casting Margot Kidder as Lois, was, like Reed, one of those one-in-a-trillion chances that made the film perfect. Not flawless, but perfect. I can’t imagine the original Superman movies any way other than they are.

    One of my favorite scenes is when Lois–who smokes, drinks, and follows deadly men through town for copy–is flailing around the office with a juice squeezer, making OJ. When Clark asks her why she can’t just take Vitamin C, she rasps in that fantastic voice “Pills, bah! THIS,” waving an orange around, “THIS? is NATURAL.”

    It’s such a perfect human moment–she is everybody who’s tried a fad diet or superfood or copper infused socks.

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  4. Like everything else in the Universe, Stockard Channing can be connected back to Dark Shadows. Channing was Diana Davila’s understudy in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona.’

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    1. Funny you should bring that up. When I first saw Terry Crawford on DS she reminded me immediately of Margot Kidder. Part of it is the prominent chin, plus that “attractive-but-not-exactly-pretty” quality.

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  5. I read years ago, that Margot had gotten on the bad side of the Salkinds. I think it was for loudly advocating for Dick Donner when he was getting on the bad side of the Salkinds, (I see a trend forming) and to punish her, they relegated her credit in the film and posters to Alphabetical listing.

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    1. That’s something I nver actually noticed until today: everyone in the credits from Ned Beatty through Susannah York is credited in alphabetical order. That does explain a couple oddities, like how General Zod is credited *after* his mute henchman. Doesn’t explain why Ursa isn’t in the same grouping with the other Kryptonian rebels, though Sarah Douglas was much less well known at the time than Terance Stamp (already a familiar face in movies and stage, if not a big name) and Jack O’Halloran (who’d been a moderately successful heavyweight boxer).

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  6. Danny – I’ve been meaning to ask you this, and a Lois-focused post seems to be the right place. As I recall sometime in the 1970’s comics, I think, maybe in an alternate parallel universe or maybe as a dream sequence?, there was a short-lived attempt to have Lois have bionic limbs or other body parts, making her into her sort of superhero. (It also may have been attempt to cash in on the popularity of “The Six Million Dollar Man” and its spinoff, “The Bionic Woman.”) Has this been mentioned at all in any of your historical references?

    If Lois ever did her own stand-alone movie, it would be interesting to have a flawed Lois with bionic powers?

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  7. I came across a YouTube video called “Superman Screen Tests” last week. It included the ones mentioned along with Debra Raffin and the Holly Palance one Danny linked to in a previous post. It was interesting to see how different actresses approached the role. Stockard played her like 1930s Lois, a tough cookie. Lesley Anne was a flighty, nervous Lois. Susan was a bit like the attorney for the prosecution on cross-examination. Anne Archer or Holly Palance would probably have been ok, but Margot hit exactly the right notes. She was Lois with or without her contacts.

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  8. I remember Kidder in “Nichols.” She starred opposite James Garner and held her own, which is not easy.

    That series is worth a look. Nichols is a town in Arizona circa 1908, when the West is not so wild. It may even have influenced “Adventures of Brisco County.” Early postmodern.

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  9. Here’s why I love your writing, Danny: I’ve never been all that crazy about Margot Kidder as Lois. She feels too harsh and too unfriendly, and I don’t buy “Can You Read My Mind?” at all. She seems too cynical for all that.

    A big part of the reason I love Superman III is that Annette O’Toole is a million times more charming to me than Margot Kidder.

    AND YET this essay has me convinced that I must be wrong.

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  10. Best Lois who looks hot in a towel: Anne Archer. Scariest Lois Hairdon’t: Rizzo. Best Lesley Ann Warren Lois (Lesley Ann Warren). Best Lois who looks good in a Superman sweatshirt and Eats Clark Kents for breakfast – tho’ that’s arguably something divinely to be wished: By Clark *ahem* (Margot).

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