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A Woman of Steel

After suffering a humiliating public breakdown, actress Margot Kidder rebounded with humor and now spreads the word about the pain of mental illness.

January 30, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few miles east of where Margot Kidder received an award last week for her work in the cause of mental health, a woman marched south on the Hollywood Freeway. Head high and shoulders back, she looked determined and unafraid--a barefoot soldier led into traffic by invisible generals.

For a reporter who had just spent the morning with Kidder, the urge was to stop and offer help, to ask the woman: Whose voices are you you hearing? Where are they telling you to go? What medications do you have that you are not taking?

It has been almost five years since Kidder took her own trip into downtown traffic, since what she now refers to as the "Big Flip-Out," "The Incident" or "The Event"--all uttered in the verbal equivalent of italics. It was an episode so publicized that it even reached Beijing via CNN, she says. The actress who'd played Clark Kent's sidekick in four Superman films had been found bruised and babbling in a Glendale backyard, wearing dirty rags and with the caps of her teeth missing. She was whisked to Canada by members of her family for treatment. And that, most people presumed, marked the end of any possible, meaningful public life.

Kidder, 52, says it marked the beginning.

Here she was in Hollywood again, radiant in winter white, eyes ablaze behind Lois Lane glasses--still a working actress, and now an advocate for those who've been dealt some of the same nasty labels she's been handed over the past 30 years: schizophrenic, manic depressive, narcissist, sexual hysteric ("a label thankfully out of fashion now that we know women are allowed to have their libidos," she says with a chuckle). She is now a doting grandma who skis all winter, hikes the Rocky Mountains with her dogs and who says she is in better shape physically and mentally than ever.

"After a lifetime of waking up each morning and wondering who is going to come out today," she says, for the last four years she has awakened each day, "and generally I am the same person I was yesterday, and the same the one I will be tomorrow--a fact that is just beginning to cease being a surprise." She laughs. Now that she feels able to work better than ever, she has two strikes against her, she says. "You've got the 'Oh, she's the one who went crazy' contingent, and the fact that I'm 52."

Since the Big Flip-Out, she has worked in her native Canada and has made one feature film here--"The Annihilation of Fish" (1999), with James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave, in which she played an 80-year-old woman. She played a recurring role in the 1996 sitcom "Boston Common," created and executive produced by partners Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, who went on to create "Will & Grace."

Says Mutchnick: "We knew she had comedy chops, that she was funny. We were aware of her body of work. And I was moved by her. I felt terrible for this woman who had to play out a very personal problem so publicly, in front of the world. She was so very exposed, so very fast. It was all out of her control."

Listening to Kidder explain her lifelong struggle, you begin to understand the horror of an illness in which the one thing that allows you to control your actions is the one thing over which you have no control: your mind.

But the illness did not rob her of what her friends and supporters describe as a brilliant mind, a quick wit and an enduring capacity for friendship. Friends she has had for up to three decades--ex-roommates, famous ex-husbands and lovers, people in the film world and out--have maintained relationships with her simply because they continue to like her.

Christopher Reeve, who played Superman opposite Kidder in four films, says he sensed she was "disorganized" and "lacked discipline" from the start. But he never thought of her as ill. "Once, on a Thursday, she was scrambling to make plans to go to the Azores or Bermuda for the weekend. I said, 'Why fly so far on Saturday when you have to be back here Sunday night, and fresh for Monday?' I remember she didn't seem to appreciate the impracticality of that." But Reeve says he could never stay mad at her "because she had real charm, warmth and a sense of humor. She was like a sister to me." He says Kidder went out of her way to visit him after the accident in which he suffered a spinal cord injury and was always generous when friends were in need. News of her breakdown and lifelong struggle was "a complete shock to me," he says.

Says writer Jennifer Salt, who met Kidder in 1971, when both were actresses renting a beach place together: "Our house was sort of notorious, full of friends who went on to become influences in the film industry, all connected to each other through us. Brian DePalma, Marty Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader. . . . None of us ever thought of Margy as mentally ill. It never even occurred to us, never came up. She was bright, courageous, a brilliant actress with extraordinary energy and intelligence."

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