Last year’s paralyzing accident riveted our attention on Christopher Reeve as it hadn’t been since he was made an A-list movie star by 1978’s Superman. After reading Adrian Havill’s new biography Man of Steel: The Career and Courage of Christopher Reeve, this makes us feel terribly guilty. For if we get one thing from the book that we don’t get from our daily dose of tabloids, it’s an account of an all-too-common and spottily documented phenomenon: the fall of a promising actor. Not from a horse, but from his industry’s good graces.
Though it carefully reconstructs the circumstances surrounding Reeve’s injury, poking gingerly into his (apparently ongoing) sex life, the book succeeds mostly as a primer on Hollywood caprice, its unwillingness to forgive lapses in career management. As Havill (biographer of Woodward and Bernstein) tells it, Reeve’s troubles began when, demoralized by the increasing lameness of the Superman series, he started to reject any part remotely redolent of action adventure, including some that helped make box office magnets of less talented colleagues (Richard Gere in American Gigolo, Mel Gibson in The Bounty).
The irony there, we learn, was that Reeve’s offscreen schedule couldn’t have been more action packed. At the same time that he was Clark Kentishly bumbling into period pieces and unpopular roles (a wayward priest in 1982’s Monsignor; Michael Caine’s psychopathic lover in the same year’s Deathtrap), he was piloting planes, mountain climbing, paragliding — taking the kind of risks that, had they somehow made their way onto film, would have thrilled the audiences rejecting his post-Superman performances.
But Reeve, distinguished by noble French lineage, an intellectual childhood, classical musical and acting training, and Katharine Hepburn’s friendship, was determined to keep his career clear of cheap thrills. This cost him big time in Hollywood. At the time of the accident, he occupied a comfortable but slightly musty world: theater, fairly small character and novelty parts, narrating documentaries. He wasn’t the star that many people, including Hepburn, had once predicted he’d be. (The author has Reeve — heartbreakingly — politely asking studio execs for parts, but like so many of us they found it hard to see him as anything but Superman.)
Havill, holding sentimentality in check, has basically pieced together material from secondary sources to tell this story, but it’s an able patchwork. Lacking access to its subject, the book doesn’t reveal much new about Reeve’s convalescence or his ongoing recovery, but it’s a good case study of how a nuanced, sensitive, and patrician actor could be thoroughly trampled by his profession’s bottom line — a topic well worth examining in its own right. B