Still Me (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Still Me is arranged in a sophisticated manner. The author begins with a detailed account of the jumping accident that left him totally paralyzed. Then, in the manner of some motion pictures such as Citizen Kane (1941), he flashes back in time to his early childhood to begin a fairly comprehensive autobiography. Chapters dealing with his painful physical and psychological adjustment to his quadraplegia are interspersed with chapters dealing with his vigorous, successful life before his accident. He had aspired to be an actor from the time he was in high school, and he went about building a career with the single- minded determination and perfectionism that characterized almost everything he did.
Appropriately enough for a person who is best known to the public through his images on film, the book is filled with photographs. These black-and-white snapshots tell a story in themselves. They show the handsome, athletic, outdoor-loving Reeve sailing his beautiful yacht the Sea Angel on Narragansett Bay, riding thoroughbred horses, and engaging in many other strenuous activities, including skiing, long-distance bicycling, baseball, and scuba diving. There are shots of Reeve playing various roles on stage and screen, shots of him standing proudly in front of his private airplane, and one of him being presented to Queen Elizabeth. There are pictures of Reeve’s young son Will and of Matthew and Alexandra, the two children he had with his long-term lover Gae Exton. The photographs also show him bound to his motorized wheelchair, completely dependent on others, unable to move any part of the impressive 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound body that had once helped win him the role of Superman.
Reeve became interested in horseback riding when he played the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1985), a film version of Leo Tolstoy’s great romantic novel. It was characteristic of Reeve, as it is of many dedicated actors, to develop a complete identification with the character he played. He began taking riding lessons from professionals, determined to excel as a horseman, just as he had always excelled in everything he had attempted. Although he had been allergic to horses as a child and had no previous riding experience, he eventually became exceptionally competent and confident—perhaps overconfident.
On Memorial Day in 1995, at an equestrian competition in Culpeper, Virginia, his carefully trained thoroughbred horse Buck inexplicably balked at a relatively easy hurdle. Reeve was thrown over the horse’s neck with his hands tangled in the bridle, preventing him from breaking his fall when he landed. The impact snapped his two top cervical vertebrae (designated in medical terminology as “C1” and “C2”). This is called the “hangman’s injury” because it is the kind of break that occurs when the condemned man falls through the trapdoor and the noose snaps tight. Reeve immediately found himself totally paralyzed and unable to breathe. If paramedics had not arrived within minutes to apply artificial respiration with an “ambu bag,” he would have been permanently brain- damaged or dead.
Fortunately for Reeve, he had by this time become a wealthy man, thanks mainly to his starring roles in the four Hollywood movies about the mighty comic-strip character Superman, who could leap over skyscrapers and run faster than a speeding locomotive. As a serious actor who had many friends in the legitimate theater, Reeve was always a bit embarrassed about playing such a flamboyant role; but his good looks, dark hair, and powerful physique made him the ideal candidate. He says little about his Superman experiences in his autobiography except that he tried his best to relate to the role by giving gentleness and vulnerability to Superman and Cary Grant-like charm to Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. He flatly rejected any invitation to mock the Superman character or “send him up.”
No doubt Reeve had grown a little tired of having friends and strangers calling him “Superman.” He may have overheard cruel jokesters asking how Superman could break his neck on a jump that twelve-year-old girls in riding outfits would take with aplomb. It was the Hollywood money, however, that made it possible for Reeve to get the expensive operations, therapy, and round-the- clock care he ultimately needed in order to stay alive and have a chance to recuperate. Although he has a long résumé of stage and screen credits, it was his international fame as Superman that brought him the attention he needed to carry on his philanthropic projects after he became paralyzed....
(The entire section is 1898 words.)
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