Monday, January 26, 2015

Superman, On and Off the Silver Screen


My initial reading of Still Me, the autobiography of competitive sportsman, A-list actor, Emmy-nominated director, producer and screenwriter, passionate activist, and author Christopher Reeve was immediately following its 1998 release, three years after he was thrown headfirst from his horse during the Memorial Day, 1995 horse jumping competition that left him unable to move or breathe—a time when I, along with almost everyone in the civilized world, was still reeling from the irony of the fact that “our” Superman would never walk, or do anything under his own power again, much less fly. I needed to read it again recently as research for the book I am writing that I hope to publish in the autumn of this year—a novel in which one of the main characters is paralyzed from his chest down by a bullet wound to his spine.

                I searched every nook and cranny for my pristine, hardback, first-edition copy of Reeve’s autobiography, and to my horror realized that in a harrying period of downsizing nineteen months ago, I donated it to a local public library, apparently. I remember weighing the pros and cons of holding on to it, and I was sure I decided in its favor—but…oh well. I have experienced this same gut-wrenching regret over the donation of other precious books that held places of honor in my formerly extensive library. Oh, the awful things life too often forces us to do! I ordered another copy of it, and my second reading of it reminded me of what a good and important book Still Me is. I will state at the outset, just to get it out of the way, that its only drawback that I can see is its title. As explained in the book, the title derives from Reeve’s wife Dana’s assurance to him following the accident that despite everything, he was still the same person, and she would be with him forevermore. Regardless, from the moment I first heard the title, it also suggested to me a double entendre on Reeve’s “stilled” condition. No matter the motivation behind it, it is an unfortunate title, in my opinion. However, it is the first and last mistake in this significant, well-written, non-fiction book.

                Reeve begins his life story with the following: “A few months after the accident I had an idea for a short film about a quadriplegic who lives in a dream. During the day, lying in his hospital bed, he can’t move, of course. But at night he dreams that he’s whole again, and is able to do anything and go everywhere. This is someone who had been a lifelong sailor, and who had always loved the water, and he had a beautiful gaff-rigged sloop. Not like my boat, the Sea Angel, which was modern and made of fiberglass. In the story the boat is a great old wooden beauty, whose varnish gleams in the moonlight…In his dream he sails down the path of a full moon, and there’s a gentle breeze, perfect conditions—the kind of romantic night sailing that anyone can imagine. But by seven in the morning, he’s back in his bed in the rehab hospital and everything is frozen again…” He goes on to relate the entire idea, and then says“…But the way out is through your relationships. The way out of that misery or obsession is to focus more on what your little boy needs or what your teenagers need or what other people around you need. It’s very hard to do, and often you have to force yourself. But that is the answer to the dilemma of being frozen—at least it’s the answer I found.”

                Throughout the book, just when the inner workings of the agonizing daily routine of his “frozen” existence as he describes it, is in danger of treading territory too heartbreaking for the reader to bear, Reeve turns to lighter fare. He embarks on a spellbinding, often funny, always moving, treatise of his life before his disability, including his bittersweet childhood as a product of divorced parents, his triumphs in sports, his first-rate college education, his advocacy for funding of the arts, his seemingly anointed pathway to acting, for many years on stage, both in classical and contemporary productions, and then in films, with his role as Superman skyrocketing him to stardom. The breadth and diversity of his acting career was a revelation to me, so attuned was I to him as Clark Kent in Superman, to the romantic lead Richard Collier in the cult film Somewhere in Time, and to the American Congressman Jack Lewis in the British film The Remains of the Day. He takes us into his ten-year relationship with the mother of his two older children Matthew and Alexandra, teenagers at the time of the release of the book. And then to Dana, and although his beloved, his commitment issues threatened to sabotage their love. His humanity came through most clearly with his admission of that weakness in himself, but true to the pattern of his life, he set out to rid himself of that flaw. He sought counseling, and it worked. He and Dana married and bore their son William. For the first time, he was happy in his personal life, for the first time as well, gave it precedence over his career and sporting life. The accident occurred only three years into their marriage.

                His disability ceaselessly tugged at him to be told, however, and with flawless timing and immaculate taste, he returned to the subject of paralysis as a result of spinal cord trauma, interspersing his personal trials and triumphs pertaining to it with a generalized discussion of spinal cord injury, its modes of treatment and its ramifications. An in-depth review of his new life is included—his return to his film career, and his use of his celebrity to become an ambassador for all victims of the disability—fund-raising for the American Paralysis Association, and other such entities, as well as a consistent program of lobbying Congress for funds devoted to research, for insurance reform, among other things. His speaking itinerary was so full that his previous life seemed almost static by comparison. In this way, he continued his financial support of his family. His crowning achievement was the foundation he and Dana formed—The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Paralysis Research Center which is dedicated to raising funds for medical research of and—ultimately—a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis—Toll Free (800) 539-7309; International Callers (973) 467-8270 – Matthew and Alexandra serve on the board of directors of the foundation.  

The format of the book is spot-on. Reeve merged his past and present seamlessly. It is like a father and son gently lobbing a ball back and forth, or a duet between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga—divergent in every possible way other than the matched quality of their voices and their mirrored urgency to tell their individual versions of the same story.

                   I wish I had known Christopher Reeve—I wish I had been his associate, his pal. His was a purposeful life—a life well-lived.         

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