Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A strong voice when it counted: Deceased Artiste Margot Kidder

It’s been a while since I’ve written an obit on this blog, and yet some really important folk have left the building – Stephane Audran, Milos Forman, Vittorio Taviani, Susan Anspach, Pamela Gidley, Stephen Bochco, and of course the great Chuck McCann. This past week the death of the legendary “New Journalist” Tom Wolfe was announced, and I was reminded of just how important his books were to me as a young reader, figuring out how one can write a piece about true occurrences and make it sound like vibrant fiction.

But, of all the recent passings, I didn’t want to let Margot Kidder’s go by without a word of comment. Firstly, I will confess: I had an infatuation with the lady in her “peak” years as a movie star. Not from her appearances as Lois Lane (jeezis, the second film was the best, and she’s not in it much; the series as a whole was pleasant but pretty dull, except when Gene Hackman was hamming it up).

But the series of “maverick” pics she was in in the early Seventies (that period when so many things in the mainstream were at least intelligent, if not downright brilliant) and then her work in the late Seventies and the Eighties when she was taking interesting chances, not only in theatrical features but also in cable movies and videotaped plays for TV.

Secondly, her obits did make brief mentions of her political activism, but I’d like to emphasize that aspect of her life, since it was where she proved to be extremely moral and “valuable” (as any show-biz personality who lends their fame to a good cause is). This part of her life isn’t as well-known as her acting (or her sad breakdown in 1996), but it should be.

Her acting career can be broken into three “eras”: the first, when she was an incredible beauty but just learning the ropes; the second, when she had gained her “smokey” voice and was starring in features – by this point her acting was assured and her characters three-dimensional; and the third, which occurred after she recovered from her well-documented breakdown in 1996.

So, back to the beginning. Once she had ventured southward from her hometown in Canada, she took up an interesting position in the both “maverick” movement, when she starred in a series of lower-budgeted features that now have cults (and was dating the director of one of them, Brian De Palma; this when she was the roommate of Jennifer Salt, who appeared in the same film).

One of the most charming, yet most easily forgotten, pics from this period was Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970). Gene Wilder stars, doing a quite creditable Irish accent, as a character (with the titular kooky name) who falls in love with an exchange student played by Kidder. Here is one of the segments from the film that are available on YT:

Another sequence with the charming young Margot, this time in a TV movie that is memorable only for its fine cast, Suddenly Single (1971), starring Hal Holbrook:

The film that certainly served as a springboard for many young lads’ fascination with Margot: Her turn as twin sisters in De Palma’s first Hitchcock homage Sisters (1972). It’s still quite a wonderfully deranged little movie. The difference between the work of the young, inventive and impulsive De Palma and his later, bloated films is the difference between night and day (night in this case being the always-watchable earlier option):

Here is the entirety of the horror flick Black Christmas (1974), starring Margot, Olivia Hussey, and Andrea Martin (!) as potential victims for a Yuletide killer. The film has quite a strong cult reputation:

A rarity that I’ve only seen edited on TV is now present in its entirety on YT. The Gravy Train (1974) is a crime action movie that has an odd pedigree: It’s one of only three films with a script by Terence Malick that was produced. (In this case it’s a co-write.)

We jump to the smokey-voiced Margot and the movie that catapulted her into fame, and made it possible for her to earn a good living attending fan-cons in her later life. Here is a video showing her audition for the first Christopher Reeve Superman (damn, it’s a long-ass picture!):

And an oddity recorded for the film’s soundtrack: Margot reciting the lyrics to the way-too-sincere song “Can You Read My Mind?” from the film:

In 1980 Margot starred in the film that got me infatuated, Paul Mazursky’s Willie and Phil. The film is Mazursky’s modern American update on Jules and Jim, which was reviewed as indulgent, random, and somewhat pointless. Those adjectives might ultimately be true, but the film hit me at the right moment when I was discovering cinephilia (Fade to Black came before it; The Projectionist long after), so I was enamored of it… and Kidder.

Margot plays the object of obsession for Willie (Michael Ontkean) and Phil (Ray Sharkey). Both men have affairs with her, but she ultimately belongs to herself – this is indeed a modern update on the Truffaut/Henri-Pierre Roche scenario. Ray Sharkey made a big impression, but for the film to work, Jeanette, the woman in between the two men, must seem believable, and Kidder strikes me as believable in the role. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no clips from the film online, not even a trailer (well, something claiming to be a trailer, which is a snippet of a poorly chosen clip).

Kidder started out as a pretty girl with aspirations to be an actress. She developed into an interesting on-screen presence who was best served when she played women who determined their own fate. She did still play not-so-smart female archetypes, though, and did so very well in two successive cable presentations of videotaped plays. One was Pygmalion (1983) with Peter O’Toole as Henry Higgins. The other was a rather silly production for Showtime of a play that dates pretty poorly, Bus Stop (1982). Here is a scene where she has to sing “That Old Black Magic”:

Two of the other films she starred in that I remember fondly (although one doesn’t work at all) are also not available in clip form on YT. Heartaches (1981) is a charming, effective female buddy movie that starred Kidder and Annie Potts as very different types of women who move in together and help each other through crises. Potts is the wholesome, innocent type, while Kidder plays a tacky, brassy babe. 

Some Kind of Hero (1982) could’ve been something great – Richard Pryor stars as a Vietnam vet who had been a prisoner of war. He comes back to the States and, due to a number of problems, tries to pull off a robbery. Before he reaches that point, he finds out his wife (Lynne Moody) has cheated on him, and he then falls in love with a hooker (Kidder). The film was a very interesting idea (based on a novel by James Kirkwood, Jr.) that was carried off very badly on film (I haven’t seen it since it came out, but remember that the comedy wasn’t funny and the drama wasn’t touching). Margot and Richard were indeed an “item” for a small amount of time.

Her third marriage was to filmmaker Philippe De Broca, a master of light farce (he did many other things, but his best films were comedies of one sort or another). They collaborated on the period piece Louisiana (1984), which was funded by a number of French, Italian, and Canadian concerns. The result is, um… picturesque:

Back on the home front, Kidder was unafraid to play in a kinky scene with the Nice Guy of the TV cop (and Western gambler) world, James Garner: 

During the period when she was best known (read: while the Superman series was still being made), she even got “movie star commercial” jobs. This has to be one of the mellowest, least enthusiastic ads ever made for a soda:


On to Margot Kidder, the real person. This segment, from the famous 1970 episode of The Dick Cavett Show wherein the two main guests were Janis Joplin and Gloria Swanson (!), Margot is the third guest, a barefoot free spirit who comes out and strokes Cavett’s ego and then declares that she’s not really that into acting and would like to be an editor.

She says she’s learning that trade at the CBC and has been allowed by Robert Altman, who is going to film in Vancouver (the film that was to be McCabe and Mrs. Miller), to watch the editing in progress for his latest film shot in Texas (which was Brewster McCloud). I’m surprised Altman never used her in any of his pictures.

From one of the three most intelligent late-night talk show hosts ever to the guy who lasted the longest and was very far, far from the best interviewer, namely everybody’s perceived pal David Letterman. He was a clunky interviewer, who built that all-too-evident discomfort with letting someone else hold court into a style all his own, where he didn’t play straight man but was willing to tolerate guests being humorous.

Here are all of Margot’s appearances back to back. The first is the most interesting, since she talks about a scene in Some Kind of Hero where she and Richard were supposed to simulate multiple orgasms and how it is to do that. This bit was cut from the interview, but the poster (who is a somewhat official fan archivist of every Letterman show) got the audio from the segment to patch into the clip. Given today’s silly sex talk on TV, it’s interesting to ponder that 35 years ago talking about “coming” on late-night TV was verboten.

The second interview shows the "other side" of Letterman. Margot tells him that she's keeping healthy and not doing what she did before the implication being drugs and possibly sexual activity. Dave wants to know more, but Kidder is hesitant, and then he persists. She finally has to tell him she'd prefer he move on to the next question.


Now onto what I feel is one of the most important parts of Kidder’s legacy, namely her political activism. Back in August 1990, when the first Gulf War was declared by George H.W. Bush, Margot was one of the only Hollywood celebrities to speak out against it (I believe two of the only others to publicly speak about the war as a bad thing were – no surprise – Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins).

At this time in U.S. history, it was considered bad form to criticize a war because you were, the argument went, “criticizing the troops” if you did that. (Not hoping they wouldn’t die for absolutely nothing.)  Kidder took the chance and was thus branded an enemy of the state (quite a commendation I’d say), in a period where “brave” Hollywood liberals remained silent about this blatant war for oil.

Kidder protesting the Keystone
pipeline at the White House.
Kidder spoke out when it was important to do so, not when it was convenient. For that she deserves deep admiration. What she got were nasty jokes when she had her breakdown a few years later, noting that she had always been crazy (meaning her political opinions and pacifist leanings were, of course, insane). We are nothing if not a charitable country….

Here she is, on Canadian TV, eloquently stating every objection to the war at the time. All of these arguments were shunted to the side on U.S. TV during this conflict (which played out like a video game on American news – nighttime images of bombs being dropped, viewed from a great distance). She is allowed to state her beliefs and respond to the critics who were mocking her as a “Bagdad Betty”  – it is necessary for the state (both Republicans and Democrats) to mock those who oppose it.

In 2013 she appeared on Canadian TV (are you noticing a pattern here?) to talk about many things, but mostly her work opposing the Keystone pipeline. She had been arrested a short time prior to this interview for protesting in front of the White House (then occupied by a perceived Progressive, who was really a nice-guy liberal at best, a middle-of-the-road Clinton-esque corporate tool at worst)

She continued to work steadily as a character actress throughout her later life, but also kept up her political activism. According to one obit I read, she was deeply unhappy with the Democratic candidate for president in 2016 (by the way, she got her American citizenship in the early 2000s). 

Campaigning for Bernie in 2016.
Here she is on American media – the Internet in this case, NOT the major networks or cable-news nets – talking about her opposition to the Keystone pipeline in 2011. This is the kind of coverage her activities got in the U.S., where truly Progressive voices are absent from the mainstream news media:

RIP to a woman who knew her mind. She notes to the first Canadian interviewer above, when he asks her if her political activities will cost her acting work (“you have to eat...”), that “I will eat – I’m very resourceful...”

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