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Superman vs. Hollywood

Superman vs. Hollywood

How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon

Author: Jake Rossen

Published by: Chicago Review Press (February 1, 2008)

Reviewed by: Barry Freiman

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Anyone who has followed the Superman Homepage over the past few years surely realizes I know an awful lot about Superman's exploits in film and television. I've done in-depth interviews with Ilya Salkind, Margot Kidder, Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran, Dana Delany, and "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" Editor Michael Thau, among others. I covered the production of "Superman Returns" for the website non-stop for at least a year. Last year, I even wrote a detailed two-part article on all of the Superman-related film and TV footage that remains to be released on official DVDs.

So, when it comes to the high-drama that seems to punctuate virtually every attempt to bring the Man of Steel to mediums outside comic books, I think I can say with absolute sincerity I know more about this subject than just about anybody on the whole planet Houston. And even I am impressed by author Jake Rossen's comprehensive and enjoyable "Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon" (Chicago Review Press, February 2008).

Every aspect of Superman in non-comics media is covered - Superman's first live-action appearance at Macy's New York; the radio show; the Fleischer cartoons; the movie serials; the George Reeves "Adventures of Superman" series; the unsold "Superboy" and "Superpup" pilots; the Filmation cartoons; the Broadway musical; the "Super Friends" franchise; the "Superman" film series; the short-lived "Superman" cartoon on CBS; the "Adventures of Superboy" syndicated series; "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman"; "Superman: The Animated Series", "Justice League", and "Justice League Unlimited"; "Smallville"; and that's not to mention the 19-years of starts and stops between 1987's "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" and 2006's "Superman Returns". Even "Hollywoodland". The book is not so much a synopsis of how these films and shows came to be as much as it's a book about the complications, in-fighting, litigation, and soap-operatic drama that seems to permeate every attempt to bring the Man of Steel's world to life outside of comic books.

The most interesting parts of the book concern the film series. Rossen interviews virtually every major player in bringing the original Chris Reeve film series to life. The eternally vilified father and son Salkinds, Producers of "Superman: The Movie", "Superman II", "Superman III", and "Supergirl", get the fairest, most unbiased treatment they've gotten since, well, my interview with Ilya Salkind for the Homepage two years ago.

After reading this book, it becomes clear that no one's hands are totally dirty or totally clean on the whole firing of "Superman" director Richard Donner and his ultimate replacement by Richard Lester. Donner's "Creative Consultant" on "Superman", Tom Mankiewicz, relates the story of almost being stabbed with a steak knife - twice - by Ilya Salkind's mother. But, interestingly enough, after reading Mankiewicz's tale, my conclusion was that, if Mankiewicz said to me what he said to Mrs. Salkind, I'd probably at least have decked the guy too.

And Richard Donner, while he clearly cared more for the character than Richard Lester, he was most definitely a slow moving director. The cast would say Donner was an "actor's director" and surely that's a good thing when it comes to the end-product but he often moved at a snail's pace which peeved not just the Salkinds but Warner Brothers too. What's unfortunate is that Donner didn't return and co-direct "Superman II" with Lester - they seemed to work well together briefly in finishing the first movie; Lester seemed better able than the Salkinds in keeping Donner focused more on the film than the actors; and the two Dicks would have been the perfect combination of love for the character and economy for the Producers.

It's ironic that the Salkinds developed the reputation they did as being so disloyal to Donner when their history indicates they are very loyal people to those who were loyal to them. Producer Pierre Spengler was and is a life-long friend of Ilya Salkind. Salkind worked with actors and crew over and over throughout his career - Marlon Brando returned to the Salkinds' employ for 1992's "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" and actually allied himself even more with son Ilya as Ilya's relationship was souring with his father.

Faye Dunaway worked on "The Three Musketeers" movies and returned to the employ of the Salkinds for "Supergirl". Richard Lester directed the "Musketeers" movies and returned to their employ for "Superman II" and "III". Director Jeannot Szwarc directed two films in a row for the Salkinds - "Supergirl" and "Santa Claus: The Movie". Even Margot Kidder, disgusted as she claimed to be with the Salkinds, returned - without being forced - for her cameo in "Superman III". The Salkinds worked with much of the same crew on all the "Superman" movies all the way through to their last Superman project, "The Adventures of Superboy" syndicated series. Ilya even employed his ex-wife, Skye Aubrey, for a guest-shot on "Superboy" (and it was Aubrey who tipped Ilya off to Richard Donner when they were scrambling for a director for the first film).

This isn't to say that none of the stories involving the Salkinds didn't happen - bounced checks, lawsuits, and the like - but they came from a different era in film-making, particularly father Alexander.

The biggest misconception that people seem to have is that "Superman III" was the beginning of the end because of the Salkinds and Richard Lester. The author implies that it was more the growing influence of Warner Brothers that resulted in pushing the series further away from traditional Superman lore. Warners pushed for Richard Pryor. Warners put the kibosh on Brainiac as the villain in "Superman III" and "Supergirl". And Warners pulled strings behind the scenes to take "Superboy" off the air notwithstanding excellent ratings and one of the most faithful comic adaptations brought to the small screen.

The biggest fault in the book is the author's somewhat lackluster coverage of the Superman cartoons. With the exception of the Fleischer 'toons, the author is particularly flippant in his treatment of Superman's animated adventures. Most egregious is his treatment of the "Super Friends" franchise. Superman voice actor Danny Dark, who passed away in 2004, warrants but one brief mention though he voiced the character virtually non-stop from 1973 through 1986. The author ignores completely the changes in tone of the show's last two incarnations which brought Darkseid, Firestorm, and Cyborg into the fold. There's no mention of the attempt to connect the "Super Friends" with the Super Powers toy line. And he mistakenly says that "[Adam] West assumed the role of Batman when Olan Soule left after the first few seasons." Soule voiced Batman from 1973 to 1983. He didn't leave the series, he graciously moved over to voicing Firestorm alter ego Martin Stein when West joined the series in 1984.

The toughest - and most interesting - part of the book to sit down with concerns the attempts to revive the Superman movie franchise after "Superman IV". Producer Jon Peters was certainly more disruptive to the Man of Steel than the Salkinds ever were. Having lived through every start and stop on getting the Man of Steel back on film, it's frustrating to see that almost every crazy rumor we reported on the Superman Homepage about the aborted Superman film projects was true.

There's an interesting revelation in the book concerning "Superman Returns". The author refers to director Bryan Singer's "excessive partying" as the main reason "Superman Returns" fell victim to some less-than-top-notch editing before its release. I'd heard these rumors myself back in 2006 (ironically not through my Superman connections but through my gay connections as Singer and I share the same orientation) and had to keep them to myself and I am glad to see it out in the open finally. Though the author doesn't define the exact type of "excessive partying", if what I'd heard in 2006 was true, Singer's drug of choice was about as bad as it gets (and ironically shares the same name as the composition of Superman's Fortress of Solitude) and causes exactly the type of erratic up-and-down emotional upheaval that could have resulted in the final one-third of the 2006 film.

I was fascinated to read that actor Kyle MacLachlan wanted the George Reeves role in "Hollywoodland". MacLachlan is the latest voice actor for Superman in the upcoming direct-to-DVD "Justice League: The New Frontier". Ironically, "New Frontier" executive producer Bruce Timm explained that they hired MacLachlan because he "sounds exactly like what you'd think a 50's era Superman would sound like."

I was most pleasantly surprised to find that, among the sources the author cites in the back of the book, was my 2005 interview with Margot Kidder for the Superman Homepage. Unfortunately, the author should have cited that interview one more time in the chapter on "Smallville" when he referred to Kidder's refusal to return to "Smallville" to announce the death of Chris Reeve's Dr. Virgil Swann character and her feeling it would have been "exploitive". That's something she only said to me in that interview, and the New York Times and other publications picked the quote up, leading some to believe that's why she never returned to the show.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to both casual Superman fans and the more obsessive fans such as myself. There's new information in this book for both types of fans. And, if nothing else, the book is replete with the heroes and villains we've all come to expect from a good Superman story.

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