Margot Kidder, who died May 13 at the age of 69, was just one Lois Lane in a string of many—preceded by black-and-white Loises Noel Neill and Phyllis Coates, and succeeded by Kate Bosworth, Amy Adams, and even Teri Hatcher. But Kidder did it best; like her co-star Christopher Reeve, she became the canonical version of the comic-book character, the definitive version her successors would have to contend with.
There are countless reasons why Richard Donners Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980, but especially the 2006 directors cut)—arguably the first modern superhero films—work beautifully. But much of their success rests on Donners interpretation of his heros relationship with Lois Lane. In these films, Lois and Clark arent simply living a recurring Scarlet Pimpernel scenario, where the heros love interest is constantly being lied to; instead, they take a more active journey of mutually approached intimacy.
This dynamic wouldnt work as well without Reeves Superman, who makes toggling between valiant Superman and doofy Clark Kent look easy. But it would have been impossible without Kidders saucy, determined messiness, her vocal fry, and constantly disheveled hair. Kidder played a human woman who could believably both attract and deserve a man who is canonically perfect, with the physique of a Greek god and the moral compass of a saint.
Where Reeve was always carefully articulate, both as Superman and as Clark, the Daily Planets chief lackey, Kidders Lois is casual, breezy, and down-to-earth, with a working-girl sensibility that took no nonsense—and delivered none, either. Shes distracted, effective, and ambitious; when she meets Clark in the first Superman, shes immediately defensive, because it looks that hes there to take her job. Kidder played the role as an update of Hildy in His Girl Friday, but with grace notes of delicate fragility. And shes also our eyes in the film: we see Superman the way Lois does. She openly admires his appearance; she analyzes his actions, both as Superman and Clark Kent; and she literally interviews him, on her balcony, in a scene where it seems as if her brain is moving so fast that her body can hardly keep up.
Its an unabashedly sexual scene—and in a reversal of the norm, here, its the woman who wants sex more than the man. Hes implacably cool, while shes practically jumping out of her skin. In 1995, Kevin Smiths Mallrats would cover, in tortuous detail, the physical mechanics of Lois Lane having sex with Superman: “Do you think her fallopian tubes could handle his sperm? I guarantee he blows a load like a shotgun right through her back.” But in 1978, Kidders Lois was already thinking about the mechanics. “How big are you?” she asks the hero, abruptly, shortly after asking his marital status. And then, with nervous affectation, and a flushed face, she stammers: “I assume then, that the—the rest of your bodily functions are normal?”
Superman is almost as much a romantic comedy as it is a superhero film; all it needs is Joan Cusack playing workaholic Loiss high-strung best friend. Even as shes falling for Superman, Lois remains comically suspicious of Clark Kent; when he asks editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) to send half of his check home to his mother in Iowa, Lois is certain the moneys really going to a bookie. At the end of their first day together, she almost physically trips over his use of the word “swell.” And even when shes interviewing Superman, shes cynical about his mission statement: truth, justice, and the American Way.
Its not exactly that Lois is a pure cynic; her dedication to journalism suggests otherwise. Instead, its that Kidders Lois Lane doesnt have much faith in men. Her romance with Superman requires her to believe in the goodness of one particular person (well, alien)—even, and especially, because he has power that could crush her. The sequence when Superman takes Lois flying plays out from her perspective, allowing the camera to interpret the wonder of his power through her human eyes. But first, she has to let herself be carried. She purposefully withdraws her hand from his grasp—and of course falls, and of course has to be rescued again. Its coquettish, maybe, but Kidder plays the whole thing sincerely, like shes trying to figure out the answer to a question. The scene reveals coy flirtation as the battleground where women can test mens integrity.
Thats true for almost all of Superman II as well— the Donner cut, anyway. (The original theatrical release, which I havent seen, was substantially re-shot after Donner was fired during filming. In 2006, Donner resurrected his story, using leftover footage, including some from screen tests.) The sequel starts as a classic screwball comedy—complete with Clark and Lois pretending to be married in a Niagara Falls honeymoon suite—after Lois deduces that her boyfriend is Superman, and spends much of the first part of the film trying to get him to admit it. But their romance grows tortured as the game of identifying Superman gives way to the much more painful question of whether a superhero can really have a partner. As if to underscore just how serious this is, almost all the schemes of Superman II are punctuated with death, whether thats Lois flinging herself from the Daily Planets window to see if Superman will come rescue her, or the screen-tested scene in which she checks if hes immortal by shooting him with a revolver.
That is the scene that cements Kidders greatness in the role, I think. (The love scene in the Fortress of Solitude, on what appears to be a giant Mylar balloon, is a close second.) Lois and Clark are getting ready for dinner, and shes annoyed by how he keeps insisting that hes not, in fact, the superhero she knows he is. He walks in fully dressed to find her in a towel, doing her makeup, ignoring him like its an Olympic sport. He hands her flowers, and she responds: “Pansies. Clark. How . . . how different.” She goads him like a toreador, cloaking her insults in girl-next-door breeziness. And then, just when it seems that he cant bear it anymore, she flips the interrogation back on him, responding to his questions with a litany of her own.
Secret identities aside, its the kind of power play that movie courtship is made of. In other superhero narratives, the importance of maintaining the heros secret identity is given as fact, but in this scene Clark Kents reasoning collapses in on itself, making less and less sense. The she pulls out the gun in order to call Clark on his bullshit, and her Hail Mary works. It is, in effect, Lois Lane asking Superman to treat her as an equal in their relationship, even if they cant be equal otherwise. Thats the Lois Lane that Margot Kidder gave to us.
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Sonia SaraiyaSonia Saraiya is Vanity Fair's television critic. Previously she was at Variety, Salon, and The A.V. Club. She lives in New York.