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20th Century Boy

May 13, 2010

Alfred and Superman

I think I’m probably the last writer on the planet to have seen Deathtrap, the 1982 film adaptation of the Ira Levin play. I’ll get to my reasons in a second, but I should point out this film has three elements I believe guarantee a satisfying film viewing experience:

  • Christopher Reeve sans cape and hooker boots
  • Michael Caine
  • Sidney Lumet

Despite possessing all these elements – and few more I haven’t mentioned – I avoided the film because just thinking about seeing it made me sad. Christopher Reeve had the kind of natural aptitude for acting and charisma that Lyle Waggoner thinks he has, which, oddly enough, is why both are enjoyable to watch – albeit for different reasons.

That said, since Reeve’s death in 2004, I haven’t been able to watch any of his movies in the same way I’ve struggled to enjoy the music of Curtis Mayfield since his death over eleven years ago. What both of these sublimely talented people have in common was life changing event – change in ability status – which instantly changed their narrative in a way that erased everything that came before or at least drew a dividing line between what they accomplished prior to their ability status change and what was expected of/accepted from them afterwards.

What I found tragic was not their respective disabilities, which I’m sure presented challenges to them, but the way in which their bodies were suddenly appropriate for public discourse and each was suddenly defined by what their bodies could no longer do in a way I found diminished their continuing talents and contributions in their area of excellence. Their lives were not really theirs anymore and their bodies were expected to be everyone else’s educational opportunity.

It seemed to me, based on things such as the Superbowl commercial where Reeve walked with use of CGI, there was so much emphasis on the injustice of it all and the collective struggle to find means to make his ability status transition less painful for us, which is well, incredibly problematic. Even things like the retconning of one of his last “able bodied” performance (I have no idea whether Mr. Reeve had invisible disabilities prior to his accident) – in the movie Speechless, which was a terrible film. Reeve was not awful in it, but it hardly ranks high in his filmography which includes things like Somewhere in Time and the aforementioned Deathtrap.

Moreover, in both cases – Reeve and Mayfield’s – their bodies were considered a tad more “acceptable” because their disabilities had occurred later in life and well after they had made significant contributions to their respective fields, as though this is the only instance where a person is granted permission not to have a “perfectly” able body. Again, this is wholly problematic and just writing these thoughts is making me want to scream and throw things.

After watching Deathtrap, I feel vindicated. I feel comforted. I feel healed in some way. After listening to People Get Ready I felt inspired to write this. No matter what their bodies did or did not do, they will always be Supermen to me.


Besides, my fear of revisiting two great loves of mine is exactly an example of the kind of problematic behavior I am talking about.

Intentions are rarely of importance when it’s your actions inflicting the damage.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2010 9:35 am

    Every time I read you I get a new lesson I didn’t think I needed to learn.

  2. May 13, 2010 10:06 am

    Awww, thank you, Redlami. I feel that way when I’m writing too.

  3. May 13, 2010 10:14 am

    Thank you so much for saying so, Redlami.

  4. May 13, 2010 10:17 am

    Not that I feel you need to be my educational opportunity, mind you… just that I hadn’t thought about the way we (ie, currently able) frame and use the experiences and identities of those with disabilities.

  5. Teaspoon permalink
    May 13, 2010 10:57 am

    Great post. You put cleverer words than I could to the unease I always felt when Reeve’s accident and subsequent disability became such a focus that it seemed like everyone forgot that he was more than An Example of Permanent Injury. It’s downright creepy how they started only showing him from the shoulders up while still treating him like the faceless photographs in medical textbooks.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a way to make the hair on the back of my neck lay back down, because identity erasure creeps me the hell out.

  6. May 13, 2010 11:33 am

    @Teaspoon – thanks so much for your comment. Yeah, the complete erasure of Reeve’s personhood was so utterly disturbing to me but at that point in my life I didn’t really have the language to describe why I was so freaking creeped out.

  7. hsofia permalink
    May 13, 2010 3:24 pm

    Reeve was a big celebrity figure in my childhood, and I would watch his movies whenever I could. Still remember where I was and what I was doing when I learned of his accident. Beyond that I didn’t follow news stories about his life post-injury – just kept abreast of some of his work related to spinal cord injury advocacy. And his memoir. He did an interview right after he made the Superman movie, where he talked about how his greatest fear was to become like a baby again, i.e. having to be spoon fed and taken to the bathroom. He took great comfort in his solitude, his sports (namely flying and sailing), and his perceived strength (both physically and psychologically). He also talked about not liking people who don’t take charge of their lives, who just let things happen to them. He was a very young man then.

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