Margot Kidder: Superman’s ‘Lois Lane’

Margot Kidder: Superman’s ‘Lois Lane’

“You’ll believe a man can fly,” promised the advertising campaign for the 1978 blockbuster Superman: The Movie.

None of that technical razzle-dazzle would have counted for much, though, without the lively rapport between the film’s stars: Christopher Reeve as Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent, and Margot Kidder, who has died aged 69, as the go-getting, chain-smoking reporter Lois Lane.

They brought a screwball vivacity reminiscent of The Lady Eve to their scenes together, with Kidder playing Barbara Stanwyck to Reeve’s Henry Fonda. Her smart, sassy performance never allowed Lois to become merely the love interest or damsel in distress, even when those were her superficial functions in the script. In her hands, Lois was nobody’s fool, give or take her inability, necessary to the narrative, to spot that only a pair of glasses and a Spandex bodysuit distinguished Clark from Superman.

A highlight was Lois’s nighttime tour above Manhattan (or Metropolis, as the film called it) on Superman’s arm. Their romance was wisely placed at the centre of the sequel, which was shot back-to-back with the first movie. Though Kidder, never shy of speaking her mind, bemoaned publicly the sacking of the director Richard Donner in favor of Richard Lester for Superman II (1980), the second picture was a superior showcase for her range.

Early scenes, as she tries to confirm her newfound suspicions that Clark and Superman are one and the same by placing herself in danger, ripe to be rescued, are brimming with comic pizzazz. Later, when Superman sacrifices his powers in order to live with Lois as a mortal, she plays this highly charged scenario with tenderness and subtlety. Even now, the film remains a clear pinnacle in the overcrowded superhero genre.

Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman during Lois’s nighttime tour above Manhattan in Superman The Movie, 1978.

Her outspokenness about Donner’s sacking cost her dearly. On Superman III (1983), again directed by Lester, her screen-time was drastically reduced in favour of two new female co-stars, Annette O’Toole and Pamela Stephenson.

A change in producers meant she was featured more prominently in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), but too late: not only was this the weakest of the series, it also has some claim on being one of the worst films of that decade. (In one scene, a bus station in Milton Keynes doubles for the UN headquarters.)

Kidder was born in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, to Jill, a teacher, and Kendall, a mining engineer and explosives expert whose job demanded that the family relocate regularly. She attended 11 schools in around 12 years and suffered emotional problems as a teenager; at 14, she attempted suicide. Her interest in acting was encouraged at a Toronto boarding school, Havergal college. “I thought in acting I could let my real self out and no one would know it was me,” she said. Two years after graduating in 1966 she got her first professional acting job, in the short film The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar (1969). Her movie debut was as a prostitute in the comedy Gaily, Gaily (1969). “She was a woman of causes, passionate and not afraid to stand her ground,” said its director, Norman Jewison.

She began getting work in Canadian TV series and relocated to Los Angeles in 1970. She starred opposite Gene Wilder in the gentle comedy Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970). She and a fellow actor, Jennifer Salt, moved in together in a house outside Malibu, which soon became an unofficial hang-out for Hollywood’s young up-and-comers, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Kidder’s then-partner, Brian De Palma, who cast both women in his clever horror film Sisters (1973). She was already gaining a reputation for wildness. In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind wrote: “She broke hearts and sued producers … and struck her friends as not altogether stable.”

Her acting career was going great guns, with appearances in another horror movie, Black Christmas, the caper-comedy The Dion Brothers (both 1974) and alongside Robert Redford in The Great Waldo Pepper. She married the novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane after working with him in 92 in the Shade (1975), his only film as director.

She gave up acting briefly when she became pregnant with their daughter, Maggie. She and McGuane divorced after a year, as did she and her third husband, the director Philippe de Broca, in 1983. In between was a second marriage, to the actor John Heard in 1979, which lasted just six days. She was also romantically involved in the 1980s with the former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

In the wake of Superman: The Movie, Kidder starred in the hit haunted-house story The Amityville Horror (1979). The critic Janet Maslin described her as “the bright-eyed life of the party” but Kidder thought poorly of the film, calling it “one of the worst movies ever made” and resenting the part it played in keeping her away from the British premiere of Superman: “Amityville couldn’t release me because the flies they were breeding to crawl over Rod Steiger’s face were hatching that day.”

In Willie & Phil (1980), Paul Mazursky’s loose spin on Jules et Jim, Kidder was delightful in the Jeanne Moreau role. She took the Marilyn Monroe part, Chérie, on television in Bus Stop, starred in the Richard Pryor comedy Some Kind of Hero (both 1982) and played Eliza Doolittle in a TV version of Pygmalion (1983). Notable work dried up, replaced by TV guest spots and little-seen films, and her career was already in the doldrums by the time she was injured in a serious car crash in 1990. Bankruptcy followed.

In 1996, she suffered a public breakdown when she was found in a stranger’s garden, having hacked off her hair and damaged her teeth after becoming convinced that McGuane had enlisted the CIA to kill her. “I guess I came to terms with my demons,” she later said, attributing her recovery to orthomolecular psychiatry, which spurns conventional medicine.

Later acting appearances included Rob Zombie’s horror remake Halloween II (2009) and TV series such as the Superman spin-off Smallville (2004), The L Word (2006) and Brothers and Sisters (2007). Political activism dominated her life; in recent years, she protested against US military action in Iraq and the Keystone oil pipeline, and campaigned for Bernie Sanders.

She is survived by Maggie and by two grandchildren, Charlie and Mazie.

* Margot (Margaret Ruth) Kidder was born on October 17, 1948 and died on May 13, 2018.

  • Adapted from a tribute in The Guardian by Ryan Gilbey



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