This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 6, 1996
Kidder's Tragic Fall
In the media, the lives of Hollywood stars are most readily exploited as fables, as tales of fairy-tale triumph or tragic fall. Last week's news of Margot Kidder's strange misfortune was shocking, sad and bewildering. And as the story took on a life of its own, the media discovered that it had all the lurid elements of a Hollywood melodrama. "Lois Lane has crashed in California," blared a typical tabloid news report after police discovered the Canadian actress cowering in a stranger's suburban Los Angeles backyard - dazed, dishevelled and confused.
Kidder, 47, who sailed to stardom opposite Christopher Reeve in four Superman movies, had gone missing three days earlier at Los Angeles International Airport. When she turned up 40 km from there, on a tree-lined street in the suburb of Glendale, she appeared "frightened and paranoid," according to police spokesman Sgt. Rick Young. She claimed that she had been assaulted and was being followed, he stated. She was dirty and bruised. She had crudely hacked off her hair, apparently to escape detection. And early reports said that her front teeth had been knocked out - but she was just not wearing her dental plate, which, as one Toronto friend noted, is not all that unusual.
As Kidder underwent psychiatric examination in a Los Angeles-area hospital, family members made plans to be by her side. They declined any comment. And doctors would not disclose her condition, admonishing police for giving out her identity to the media. By week's end, she had been moved to a private clinic in an undisclosed location.
Later, members of a TV news crew from Knoxville, Tenn., who had bumped into her at the Los Angeles airport just before her disappearance, said she told them that one of her three ex-husbands had hired someone to kill her. The crew said she did not specify which of the three - Montana novelist Thomas McGuane, Hollywood actor John Heard, or French director Philippe de Broca - she was referring to. (Her two-year marriage to McGuane, which ended in 1977, produced Kidder's only child, Maggie.) Police have concluded that there is no evidence to support Kidder's claims of abuse, noting that she twice refused to meet with their investigators.
Meanwhile, several strangers who encountered Kidder in Glendale without realizing who she was reported that they had helped her. "She said her name was Elizabeth and she was really paranoid about not having anyone know where she was," recalled one of them, a 28-year-old car salesman named Robert Giannini, who said he paid $45 for her to stay at a Glendale motel after unsuccessfully trying to place her in a homeless shelter. Giannini said she told him that she had been "walking for three days from L.A.," fleeing thugs who had beaten her up, and that she was sleeping in bushes.
The sad and bizarre plight of Margot Kidder has generated a convenient mythology. A faded star, desperate and vulnerable, is suddenly thrust into the unflattering glare of the public spotlight. Lois Lane is in dire distress, and Superman is unable to swoop to her rescue. Christopher Reeve, paralyzed from last year's riding accident, issued a statement of support: "My heart goes out to her. If there is anything I can do, I will. She is a dear friend who has always been there for me and I would do anything to help her."
Kidder's current woes follow a long trail of distress, beginning with a car accident in 1990 that left her handicapped for a year and bankrupted her with medical bills. It happened in Vancouver, while she was driving on the set of Nancy Drew and Daughter, a TV series. Kidder suffered spinal damage and later sued the Canadian producer, Nelvana, for $1 million in damages and never collected. By launching the suit she became ineligible for Canadian workers' compensation. Says her friend, Toronto screenwriter John Frizzell: "It was one of those unbelievable Catch 22 scenarios, where you really feel she was grossly exploited."
Kidder's troubles fuelled talk of a Superman Curse. Her Superman III co-star and close friend Richard Pryor, who once set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, now has multiple sclerosis. George Reeves, who played the Man of Steel in the 1950s TV series, died of a gunshot wound to the head. Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman, never made another movie.
But her woes may be symptomatic of a more widespread, and less mysterious, curse. Like so many actresses of a certain age, Kidder has had to fight Hollywood's tendency to put an expiry date on female talent. Also, her leftish politics and frank, outspoken behavior have not always endeared her to the industry. Theatre producer Robert Franz told the New York Post that Kidder phoned him last Thursday (two days after police found her) from a private hospital and complained that Hollywood considered her an aging has-been. "Hollywood has a system that, when you reach a certain age, you're dumped - they spit you out," Kidder reportedly told Franz. "I need rest - and I need work."
When Kidder disappeared from the airport, she was due to board a flight to Phoenix, Ariz., to participate in an acting workshop. Her personal manager, John Blake, says she has worked "pretty steadily" over the past few years, mostly guest-starring in series television. In the last movie she worked on, Never Met Picasso, a low-budget feature that finished shooting in Boston in November, she plays a divorced theatre actress.
Picasso's makers expressed nothing but praise for Kidder's professionalism. "I absolutely loved working with her," said writer-director Stephen Kijak. "She's a phenomenal talent. I just think it is really tragic what's happening to her, and I hope she's OK." Said executive producer Jennifer Ryan: "She was wonderful. She knew her lines all the time. Everything was done in two takes." Added Ryan: "She has the most incredible sense of humor. We had some stressful times and she knew how to break the tension."
Last March, Kidder returned to Boston to successfully host a benefit for a gay and lesbian health centre. But the event's co-ordinator, Jim Goshen, says he had to convince an unconfident Kidder to accept the job. "She told me she wasn't funny and that she wasn't beautiful," he recalled. When he asked for permission to show a clip from Superman, the actress agreed, but added: "I used to be pretty." In fact, Goshen says, "she really came to life onstage. She was really funny and she looked beautiful. She made 700 new fans and brought a lot of magic that evening."
Born in Yellowknife, Kidder is one of five children (they include Annie, a Toronto theatre director, who is married to actor Eric Peterson). Her father, a former Texas mining engineer, was a rambunctious adventurer, and Margot seems to have inherited some of his renegade spirit. "I've never really met a man who measures up to him," she once told an interviewer. As the family moved around a lot, including stops in Labrador City and Vancouver, Margot was sent to boarding school, Havergal College, in Toronto.
At 17, she made her screen debut in a National Film Board production, The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar. Then, cast as a virginal prostitute in Norman Jewison's Gaily, Gaily (1969), she launched her Hollywood career. Jewison recalls that "she was raw and naïve, but even then she was a woman of causes, passionate and not afraid to stand her ground." Kidder worked her way through an eclectic string of films before Superman's Lois Lane made her famous in 1978. She also worked her way through an eclectic string of consorts, from director Brian DePalma to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Kidder has admitted that she burned through a lot money and alcohol in the early years of her fame. She also spent much of her fortune bankrolling unsuccessful attempts to adapt Margaret Atwood's 1976 novel, Lady Oracle, to the screen. She later tamed her substance abuse, but not her recklessness. "Margot is very much living for the minute and the day," said Canadian producer Vivienne Leebosh, who worked with Kidder on a film in Prague two years ago. "I never got the feeling that she planned for the future. She lived it up and spent it all. She had no concept of money. She could run up bills forever." Added Leebosh: "The thing I love about her is her generosity. She wasn't paid much in Prague but took a taxi for two hours to the set to give presents to everybody. Everybody loved her."
After filming in Prague, adds Leebosh, Kidder stayed to work on a memoir that she was writing. Leebosh's husband, director Ralph Thomas (Ticket to Heaven), read parts of it and said it was brilliant. But Goshen says that when he met Kidder, she said her book was stalled.
Stardom has been a rough ride for Kidder. After her career had lapsed into relative obscurity, fame was suddenly thrust upon her again last week. If she had been a bigger celebrity, perhaps her recent troubles never would have surfaced in the way they did. Hollywood stars are vulnerable to stress, and are usually well protected. Often, they are discreetly hospitalized for "exhaustion" without fuss. But there was nothing to prevent Margot Kidder, a star without a safety net, from taking her calamitous fall in full view of the world.
Maclean's May 6, 1996