Goodbye Margot Kidder

On May 13, 2018, Margot Kidder passed away at the age of 69. She was a generation’s definitive Lois Lane. She was a grand comedian and, by her own admission, a bit of a crackpot. In ’96, her bipolar disorder got the best of her and it resulted in a big scandal, with Margot faking her death. In 2004, I was contracted by Sirens of Cinema, owned at the time by Draculina‘s Hugh Gallagher, to profile Margot for a cover story. She’d worked with Tom Savini for a rather lackluster anthology movie called “Death 4 Told”. Her publicist insisted: “Do not ask her about her breakdown.”

Calling Margot the next day, the first thing she said to me was, “Did they tell you not to ask about my breakdown?”

“They did.”

“Want to talk about my breakdown?”

Here’s the unedited version of that 2004 interview. She was a delight to talk to, wild, wacky, very funny. I’m going to miss her.

MARGOT KIDDER

Here’s some good news for fans who grew up part of that weird, untethered generation between the Baby Boomers and the so-called “X”: Lois Lane herself is returning to her horror roots. Margot Kidder, who will forever be known for her portrayal of the headstrong and empowered lady journalist of the Daily Planet in the SUPERMAN franchise that began in the late ‘70s, will soon be seen in the independent horror anthology DEATH4TOLD, directed by Bo Buckley and C. Michael Close. As the psychic Madam Badeau, Kidder is tying the segments of the film together, as she forsees death, pain and destruction for those who seek her out.

What makes this news particularly exciting to those of Gen-in-between is that this will be Kidder’s first out-and-out ‘horror’ role in some time – depending on your definition, DEATH4TOLD could be her first horror film since the much-beloved 1979 classic, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. Sure, she is and always will be Lois Lane to the kids inside us all. But to the blood-thirsty teenagers who also share space in our ids, Kidder is Barb Cord in the Bob Clark masterpiece BLACK CHRISTMAS. And beyond that, the demented twins Danielle Breton/Dominique Blanchion in DePalma’s claustrophobic SISTERS. “It’s a fun genre,” she says. “You tend to forget but everyone [in these movies] has a twinkle in their eye. Gleeful! That’s a great word for it – that’s exactly what it is! [laughs] I like to take the tact that a sweet murderer is always more surprising.”

And that’s why DEATH4TOLD will be a project to watch for. “I got the script and it made me laugh,” Kidder says about her latest horror venture. “I thought I might use the same French-Canadian accent I used in SISTERS – I don’t know if it will work, I’ll have to fiddle with it. It’s just a great little piece. I don’t know these guys at all but they sound terrific. This director’s fantastic. He said, ‘here’s what I thought of for the backstory’ and he gave me the most detailed backstory I’ve ever had – it was almost like a novel. It was the best I’d ever gotten from a director, I was really impressed. I went, ‘well, I’m just going to steal this rather than work out my own!’ These guys did all this wonderful homework. I can’t wait to meet them. They’re really, really prepared, really enthusiastic and just seem like good guys. To find something that is basically ageless and fleshed out [as this role is] and fun besides is a great relief. [Madam Badeau] is a person who is a psychic. But the trick becomes – and this is where the director and I have been talking – is how much of this stuff does she buy? When I separate her reality from mine, I don’t buy any of it. That’s just me. So does she buy it? How much does she have to buy in order to keep her business going? All those questions. But there are all these little tricks to the trade – that’s what I want to learn.”

DEATH4TOLD began for Kidder in July, shooting in Ohio, a far piece from her home in Montana, which doesn’t bother her at all. “I have my nice normal – I guess boring to other people, but quite delightful to me – life in Montana. And then I make these forays into that other world I lived in for so many years. And then by the end of it I’m ready to come home and run with the dogs, see my friends and putter in the garden!”

Life is treating Kidder pretty good right now. These days her family, her daughter and grandchildren, are her first priority, but every now and then a project comes along that gets her excited about working again. She spent much of the last few months, for example, touring and performing in the vastly popular stage show THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES. “It’s such fun. It started out as this thing where, ‘okay, I’ll do a couple of shows’. It ended up being this two-year adventure, banging around the country in my terribly-non-politically correct SUV, with my dogs. I became the guest star who came to dinner. I was just guesting on a couple of shows, but I was just having so much fun. At my age, one of the criteria for doing things is somewhat different from the raging ambition from when you were young – and one of those things is ‘are you enjoying what you’re doing? Do you feel that this is worthwhile?’ And I fulfilled both of those criteria!”

Just a decade ago, Kidder had distinctly different criteria for doing things, just as she suggested. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it seemed as if she was in everything. SUPERMAN and its sequels had made her a household name. When she wasn’t busy as a theatrical staple, she could be seen on television, in versions of PYGMALION as Eliza Doolittle, or alongside James Garner in THE GLITTER DOME. But fame, particularly in those youth-obsessed days of drug-high Hollywood, usually meant pressure and increased pressure. “It’s not the least stressful of careers but it beats working in a bank,” she says with a laugh.

“I think [my] primary goal back then was fulfilling a need for things certainly lacking in my life, but it was also a need for approval, it was a need for applause, it was a need to gain a certain status in society. Because I didn’t feel like I had it in myself. That’s an old cliché but it’s really true. It is a terrible cliché, but cliché’s are based on something. So the goal – when I was in my early twenties, my goals were quite firm. I was to have become a movie-star, directed a great movie and written a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the time I was thirty. And if I hadn’t done all that, I was a failure. Well if you have goals like that, you’re destined to be a failure! Because nobody can accomplish that. But those were my terribly modest goals. So you kind of set yourself up! [laughs] I look back at it now and get a giggle. I did the first part, and did some directing, but didn’t get the novel written, obviously. Then you have to work really hard at getting rid of all those voices that say ‘see, you’re a failure, you didn’t get your novel written!’ Kind of a wasted life, huh? [laughs]”

With the added pressure placed on herself, Kidder was constantly in forward-motion, searching for that next project that would keep her in ‘Lois Lane’ world-wide status. You would think that being a star in that monumental franchise would have been empowering enough, but that wasn’t the case. “You know, when you’re in it, it isn’t [empowering]. When you’re in it, and you’re young and ambitious, you usually can’t see past your nose. What usually happens and what happened to me, I was just thinking about this yesterday, is you get caught on that ‘what makes Sammy run’ treadmill. You’re going from project to project and you’re offered everything in the world, you’re on top of the world but you can’t see that. You just know that you have to get to the next level and you can’t stop or everything will fall apart. I don’t think I really enjoyed it. I think I was an asshole. I was just so consumed by ambition and moving on and making sure that the next building block was in place. I never did what I do now everyday, which is slow down and stop and smell the roses – quite literally, actually – and go ‘oh this is fun!’ I think I was just pushing too hard. And I think that’s very common. Which is so sad. I look back and say ‘Jesus Christ, I had the world at my feet and I didn’t know it!”

SUPERMAN, beginning with the landmark Richard Donner-directed blockbuster, was a runaway phenomenon, and it was everywhere. At the same time, there was litigation from the camps of the original ‘Superman’ creators, Siegel and Shuster, suing DC Comics for ripping off their creation. There were allegations of theft and “fine-print” thieveries made against the DeLaurentiis production company and the producers themselves. But the fans, if aware of any of this, paid little attention. SUPERMAN was a hit, Kidder and star Christopher Reeve were the embodiment of the cinematic heroes. “You couldn’t miss it! You couldn’t go to the grocery store. It was madness. Running through airports with my baby in my arms screaming at paparazzi to leave me alone. Oh no, it was all over the world. There’s nothing quite as weird as becoming world-famous overnight. It happened over a few months but it was very real. No matter how much you’ve wanted it, nothing prepares you for that kind of scrutiny. And you go through this thing when you’re an actress and become famous, you don’t lose your insecurities – if anything they seem to amplify. So you become terribly consumed with trying to cover them up, so people don’t see all your flaws – which of course are still there and you’re still a big jerk like everyone else. I figure we’re all fifty-percent jerk, fifty-percent angel, as humans in the species. You spend a lot of time paralysed by the fear of being found out. That’s why famous people tend to know primarily other famous people – it’s like a little club. It’s such an odd experience to have. The whole thing of shared experience is very real. You’re in a crowd of people who are all terrified of being found out. [laughs] And there’s a kind of consolation in that.”

In the wake of that fame came the inalienable back-end fact of celebrity, in that it is fleeting. But after being so big for so long, slowing down was not an option for the actress – as her aforementioned goals will testify. But Hollywood is a die-hard boy’s club, with a ‘sink-or-swim’ mentality that is practically a thrown-gauntlet for women in the industry. The Entertainment Capital requires women to work twice as hard as men to find quality roles in film, twice as hard to hold onto their achievements and fame. The boy’s club mentality requires women to stay young and beautiful forever. “[Which is] less of a problem when you’re younger, but when you’re 54-years-old in LA, you’re supposed to disappear and spare everyone the embarrassment of watching you age. But we’re so stupid about that in this country.”

This mentality has posed to be a problem for her in recent years, and she rather subtly-hints at some of the other odd turns her career has taken. “When you add to [my age] the fact that I flipped out in public doesn’t exactly make producers go ‘Whee! We want her!’ [laughs]”

Her candid admission and good humor might strike some people as a surprising, but the current person in the Margot Kidder shoes is not the same as those who wore the Lois Lane pumps. The Kidder of the ‘80s was goal-oriented to the exclusion of all else, particularly her health and well-being. And because of this obsession with forward-momentum, in the mid-90s, she had a considerably public nervous-breakdown, in which she was found cowering in the bushes of a private residence in Los Angeles, convinced that she was under government surveillance. The tabloids and trash-journalists had a field day. “I had a girlfriend who told me ‘just tell everyone you had a bad day!’ I don’t think that’s going to wash,” she says with a laugh.

While she’d struggled with insecurity and manic depression for most of her life, her resistance not only to treatment, but to understanding the problems were what led to, as she calls it, “the last big flip-out”. With time and distance between her and the problems, Kidder is not only frank about that period of her life, but also approaches it with a sense of humor. There’s no ‘poor-me’ in her voice whatsoever. In fact, she seems to consider the breakdown more of a break-through. “I was really lucky,” she says. “A lot of people do have to go through it alone because you alienate people. I told you, my behavior when I was younger was just appalling. Just real awful, rude, obnoxious, crazy behavior based on a total unconsciousness of what was going on with myself. I’ve been blessed by friendships that are rock-solid, and after that last big flip-out in public, the general public was so supportive – the press wasn’t and the tabloids weren’t. But I had so many people who wrote to me and you don’t realize how many people had someone in their family go through it. And how common it is. And that was a big shock to me. Having spent years and years trying to hide my little flights into madness, looking at that and going, wait a minute, everyone on the planet knows somebody – often knows somebody well – who has either flipped out or they flipped out themselves. There were so many letters from people that were so sweet and so supportive. And that was really an eye-opener for me. In the sense of ‘well, what makes you so special?’

“It was being manic depressive – which is very real. And running from the depression, I didn’t do my homework and didn’t know that once you start spinning out on a manic cycle, you’d better stop it or you end up exactly where I did, thinking the CIA is after you. What I had was a very common psychotic break. I had the most ordinary one you could have, which was quite a blow to my pride. Thought it was kind of unique, but it wasn’t at all. And if you have any tendencies towards manic depression and something doesn’t stop the mania so you start sleeping and start eating, you’re going to end up exactly where I did. It’s kind of pre-ordained. So it was really interesting – first of all, how much the general public did know about it and were sympathetic, and then going and doing my own homework and learning all about it. A lot of people – I hate the words ‘mental illness’ because it’s got its own connotations and it’s not a very accurate description because there’s something physically wrong with you – but a lot of people who go through mental illnesses have lost all their friends. There’s where the real tragedy is and then you’re at the mercy of all those god-awful psychiatrists who simply pump you full of drugs. I took those drugs for years and years and now I just don’t want any part of them. I feel very sane and very well now, and have for about eight years now. I was very lucky,” she says again. “Life is terrific, I must say. It’s hard to complain. Things are just the way they should be as far as I’m concerned.”

The contentment that fills her voice is nothing short of astounding, and she insists that it came from finally embracing one of the very things she feared the most: time. “Everyone tells you it’s horrible, and you live in terror of this horrible thing called ‘getting older’ and then you actually get older and go ‘wait a minute, this is pretty empowering. This is kinda cool’. It’s actually wonderful, and that’s where I am with it. I was worse than anyone I know in terms of the fear of the woman getting older thing. My terror was huge. But now I’m really having a great time. It’s very empowering in that you’re not dealing with the ‘how does it look from the outside?’ level. You don’t look as good from the outside, so that’s no longer your criteria for impressing people or not impressing people, or impressing yourself or not impressing yourself. The impressing part doesn’t enter into it, you can just be yourself, because there’s not much of a choice. And your sexual credit card is kind of used up, so worry about all that shit isn’t an issue. So all you get to do is say and do exactly what you please. I don’t care who you are, very few people do that when they’re young. Everyone’s too concerned with how they look to other people and is this going to get them ahead, and is that going to be misinterpreted. When you get older you make your own rules, and it’s really great. It’s the big secret about getting older that nobody tells you.”

With her new attitude came a certain kind of peace that is also quite evident. For one thing, Lois Lane doesn’t seek out roles, they come to her. “Wild horses couldn’t get me down to LA – I just don’t go there if I can help it. I’ll go down to do the VAGINA MONOLOGUES, and while I’m there I’ll take some meetings. But it’s… okay, I don’t push it, I’m terrible! [laughs] This is my time of life where I get to indulge myself in my grandchildren and my garden and my dogs. I spent so much time not noticing life from moment to moment, so life has slowed down considerably and as a result is much richer. Acting itself has become very delicious, but the career itself is not as much an issue. I don’t get my retirement for another ten years, so I have to earn my living until then. [laughs] But the career part is a non-starter. Just getting to act, I love. It’s a much more pleasant way to work. You don’t have one eye ahead of you at all times. You can be in the moment.”

Of course, nowadays, Kidder doesn’t have to seek out her roles. With the in-betweeners and Gen-Xers making their own films, they’re coming to her, now, just as Buckley and Close did with DEATH4TOLD. Kidder takes this as a good sign for a number of reasons. “I am thrilled to see all these kids doing independent movies like we did in the early seventies. I think it’s absolutely imperative that [independent spirit] does come back. If we don’t have people in the arts making statements against this general direction that American culture and society is taking itself – greed is good soulless Republican attitude – there’s no hope. I think it’s time for all of us to make our little statements and say ‘enough’. I think that it’s great thing to see, where people are not judging their projects not by the money it makes, but by the process of making it and what worthwhile things it has to say. So that’s a great relief. But you know, we’re in George Bush era – greed is good times ten and the greedy shall inherit the earth. So anybody who tries to fight that I’ll cheer on forever. Some of these movies are just wonderful, so if we could just educate audiences to go see them… I do love a good movie. But I see everything a little later than everyone else. I’m in Montana, so you really have to make an effort to go see stuff. I don’t like this trend towards all these stupid special-effects blockbusters, because all the special effects have been done with computers and you can tell! I don’t find it very convincing. SUPERMAN’s special effects weren’t computerized and I think they were much better. The HULK doesn’t look real!”

There’s a lot of philosophy in Kidder’s life these days, and a lot of contentment. She’s embraced her bad times and has stepped back far enough to finally appreciate the good ones. Once upon a time, the words ‘Lois Lane’ were the last she’d ever wanted to hear. “Now, I have two grandchildren that I live for, and my grand-daughter is at a phase where she can see SUPERMAN any minute and it’s really thrilling. I think, my gosh, I was in classic! My granddaughter’s going to watch it with her friends. And I can’t tell you how warm and fuzzy that makes me feel. It’s just fantastic. Any vain and false-pride notions I had at being just known as Lois Lane as opposed to – I’ve done lots of parts and always considered myself kind of a character actress – any vanity about that just goes out the window. She’s still at an age where she’s only now coming to grasp certain things. She still calls him “Thermos-Man” because he’s on her thermos that she takes to pre-school. It was on TV and my daughter pointed me out, my grand-daughter is going ‘well, why is she in the TV with Thermos-Man?’ So we’ve got a way to go yet. [laughs]”

Almost a decade ago, just after Kidder’s breakdown, SUPERMAN star Reeve was thrown from a horse, an accident that severed his spinal column and rendering him paralyzed from the neck down. Since the accident, Reeves has served as an inspiration to all who know him and to those who suffer the same affliction. His strength of spirit is remarkable, and his former co-star is in just as much awe as the rest of us. “I haven’t talked to him for almost a year now, but he’s doing just terrific! His mental attitude is just impressive. It’s extraordinary. He really reached down inside himself and pulled out some really profound wisdom.”

Obviously, Reeve isn’t not the only one who came up with the positive after a healthy-round of enforced soul-searching. We in-betweeners can learn a lot from the real people behind our celluloid heroes.

“I’ve had a few dramatically, spectacularly bad times! Bad times that just screamed for attention. Then people tend to look at those and go ‘oh god!’ You get a lot of juicy gifts in this business. I got to fly all over the world, I’ve had adventures in half the continents on the planet. I have had a really great life so far.”

 

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