Wolf Pascoe remembers the masculinity of his childhood.
He sits at the knee of Scarlett O’Hara, one of the Tarleton boys, begging for a dance. His stunning good-looks, despite the shocking, dyed-red hair, make a fitting ornament to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. Around them, spilling into the fertile Georgia soil, are the steps of Tara. Tomorrow is the barbecue at Twelve Oaks. The last barbecue, it turns out, and the last, splendorous night of Antebellum.
It was George Reeves’ first film role, the opening scene in the movie of all movies, and it boded well for his acting career. Had he been a few years older, more seasoned, he’d have made a fine Rhett Butler. But he was only twenty-three and just getting started, and of course, there was the little matter of Gable.
He went on to appear in ten other films, including From Here to Eternity, and a lovely turn as Claudette Colbert’s boyfriend in So Proudly We Hail, respectable parts, but never a lead. Never anything really to showcase his genuine charm and good-heartedness, his undeniable magnetism, his chemistry with women. What he needed was a champion, a director, say, who believed in his talent.
What he got was the letter S on a red cape.
To the ten million little boys who watched him smash through walls and fly, George Reeves will always be Superman. The Superman. There is no other, just as there is no other Bond than Connery. The amazing thing is, seeing DVDs of those old television shows, how cheesy the effects were, how shoddy the production values, how stock the writing. It didn’t matter. George made it work.
“How did you know that, Clark?” a suspicious Phyllis Coates or Noel Neill would say.
“Just a … lucky guess, Lois,” Reeves would answer with a precise touch of irony. And presto, we were all included, all in on the secret. The way was lit for Christopher Reeve and those who followed.
I think, as Connery transcended the role of Bond, Reeves eventually might have transcended his career as Man of Steel. But it would have taken a lot of time, and time ran out.
“Superman shot himself, but this time the bullets didn’t bounce off,” my cousin announced to me triumphantly, one June day in that faded age.
The unbearable news went straight through my heart. I had already lost my father. Now this. What kind of world was it that played such cruel jokes? How do you defend your love, if what you love is a comic book character? I would have defended him and wept, had I someone to weep with, someone in my corner. Superman was in my corner.
If you’re curious about the backstory, you can find it in Hollywoodland, the noirish, 2006 movie with Ben Affleck as Reeves. He’s actually pretty good in the role. Reeves had a whack-job mother, who believed her son didn’t kill himself, but had been murdered. He’d been involved with two wrong women, and maybe one had it in for him. The mother hired a detective, Adrien Brody in the movie, to get the goods.
There’s also a little boy in the movie. A boy with an absent father, a boy in love with Superman, a boy who is devastated by Reeves’ death.
Reeves’ own childhood was troubled. When he was an infant, his mother left his father and remarried. Young George was raised with a step-father, whom he believed was his biological father. When his mother abandoned that marriage, she told her son that her husband, the man Reeves believed was his father, had killed himself. Reeves learned the truth many years later. Perhaps that’s why, despite his misgivings about playing Superman, he was always gracious with his young fans.
I have a friend now who, when he was a kid, had watched an episode of Superman being shot at the old California studios on Melrose, near Gower. He remembers a weird feeling on the set that day because James Dean had just driven his Porsche off the road in Paso Robles and been killed. In one scene, Reeves, who did his own stunts, leapt out a window, landing on a mattress that had been laid on cardboard boxes. The scene went awry, and the fake wall he had just jumped through toppled down on him. Reeves picked himself up, went to his dressing room, and returned with a signed photo for my friend.
Hollywoodland never really gels, as Reeves career, in his own mind, never quite gelled, or his life. The whole, sad story is a pill stuck halfway down, a letter that never arrives, some sisters who didn’t get to Moscow.
I am going to tell you how to walk like Superman.
Inhabit your body. Take a few moments, breathing into your chest, arms, abdomen, legs. With each breath, feel the yellow rays of the earth’s sun giving you strength and courage. Your cynicism drops away, and you become aware there is something that wants doing in this life, something you must do. You know that there is evil, and there is also good. You say “Yes.” You bless it, all of it, this work you’ve chosen, or that has chosen you. You bless the earth and sky, the animals and plants, and all the people, down to the seventh generation.
Stand tall. Take your first step, head erect, eyes open, watchful; your body resilient, fluid, ready. Take another, and another. The breeze unfurls the cape at your back. You can feel it flapping and waving, a banner you carry for the world to see. There are, perhaps, walls in your way. You walk through them without fear or tension, as if they are nothing. Your rhythm is constant, unhurried, even joyful. You are Superman, after all.
One more thing, I almost forgot. Someone is walking behind you. This is very important. A few yards back, a little boy is watching you. He’s seven, or eight, or nine. He wants to be just like you.
He follows in your footsteps, the whole way.