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On Dec. 10, 1978, Warner Bros. unveiled Richard Donner’s Superman at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for its premiere. The Christopher Reeve-starring film launched a big screen franchise and went on to be nominated for three Oscars (for film editing, original score and sound) at the 51st Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
First things first: The wires don’t show and the special effects are truly spectacular in Superman, an Alexander and Ilya Salkind production of a Richard Donner film. And the promotional line, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” that is being used by Warner Bros. in the advertising is not that far fetched.
One of the wonders of the film is the sense of reality that director Donner is able to create and sustain, despite the fact that the film changes styles about halfway through. The original story by Mario Puzo was scripted by Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, with “additional script material” by Norman Enfield, but much of the reason for the stylistic shift seems inherent in the material itself.
The first half of the story — dealing with Krypton and Superman’s early life on Earth — is totally imaginative science fiction fantasy. The second half, when Superman gets to Metropolis, is strictly modern action adventure. Donner makes the transition smoothly, however, and subtly moves from one style to the other without destroying the sense of continuity or believability. This is not a cartoon, in spite of the comic book origins of the hero (who was originally created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). These origins do show somewhat in the second half, but Donner offsets this by switching to a lighter, James Bond adventure style. The reality is sustained through the addition of humor based on the world’s reaction to this new phenomenon and his super powers.
The science fiction element is not continued in the latter half, which comes off as somewhat ordinary — or familiar — action plot. During the opening sequence, before the planet is destroyed, however, three evil Kryptonites are banished into space shouting promises of revenge. The fact that these briefly seen characters are played by Terence Stamp, Maria Schell and Jack O’Halloran leads one to expect that they will find their way to Earth to confront the son of the man who finalized their judgment. This would have given a more direct continuity to the story, but Superman II is promised for next year in the final credit crawl.
The cost of the production, rumored to be over $40 million for the two films, is fully evident on the screen. John Barry’s production design is elaborate, especially the fantastic crystalline Krypton sets. Geoffrey Unsworth’s expansive photography is richly visual and aids the transition by gradually shifting from soft focus to sharper images. The effects, credited to a long list of special technicians and ranging from the spectacular destruction of Krypton to space travel to a massive earthquake in California, are both imaginative and exciting. John Williams’ score is appropriately majestic and well-executed flying scenes are totally acceptable within the context.
The performances are also excellent. Christopher Reeve is perfect in physical appearance for the title role and he manages to play the open honestness and naivete without losing credibility. The script also allows him some tender emotion in his feelings toward Lois Lane. Reeve’s performance, like the others in the Metropolis portions, borders on light comedy, but never suggests satire or camp. Margo Kidder is especially appealing as Lois Lane, making her slightly dizzy but also very warm and human. The chemistry between these two is excellent and the romantic attraction works — even in a somewhat corny “Can You Read My Mind?” song (lyrics by Leslie Bricusse) spoken by Kidder as Superman takes her flying.
Marlon Brando is tremendously effective in his authoritative, yet sensitive, portrayal of Superman’s father, Jor-el. It’s a relatively short but important role and Brando’s fully developed characterization makes it memorable. He also quickly sets the tone and establishes a strong sense of believability, which is reflected in the excellent performances of Susannah York as his wife, Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Pa and Ma Kent, the rustic middle-American Earth couple who discover and raise the baby from space, and Jeff East as the young Clark Kent.
Impressive bits are also provided by Trevor Howard, Sarah Douglas and Harry Andrews as members of the Krypton council.
Gene Hackman plays Lex Luthor, “the greatest criminal mind of our time,” with an effective light touch, making him humorous but not out-and-out comical. Ned Beatty is fun as his dense and bumbling sidekick and Valerie Perrine is decorative as his vacuous and voluptuous assistant, a role that does not challenge her ability. Other major characters are well portrayed by Jackie Cooper as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. The large supporting cast includes Rex Reed in a one-line walk-through as himself.
Superman was produced by Pierre Spengler, with Ilya Salkind as executive producer and Tom Mankiewicz credited as “creative consultant.” — Ron Pennington, originally published on Dec. 13, 1978.
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