Back From The Brink

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This is also about the movie, isn't it?" Margot Kidder says, sitting in a wing chair in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont midway through an interview promoting "Never Met Picasso." She gives a throaty laugh, but she's not kidding.

Kidder knows that she's going to have to discuss what's on everybody's minds: that she was discovered cowering in the bushes in Glendale early last year in a state of mental distress. The mental image is of her naked and missing a few teeth. She just doesn't want that to be all anybody talks about.

"You mean, what's it like to be the most famous crazy person in the world?" she says, cutting off the reporter trying to find a delicate way of asking how it feels to have people think of her emotional stability as soon as they see her. "It's a dubious honor. What can I tell you?"

The common sense of the answer underscores the journey she's made since the headlines around the world that, as she says, portrayed her as a crazy woman. The diagnosis, in reality, was manic depression, which is being successfully treated. And she has done eight projects since then, the last "The Return of Alex Kelly," which is to air on CBS on Tuesday.

At the Marmont last weekend, as she navigated among consecutive reporters, a photographer and publicist swirling around her, she had a forthright candor and a kind of fearless authority--as well as irreverent humor--that comes from being through the wars and living to tell the tales.

"I joke with my friends that I've done so many characters this past year, they're going to change my diagnosis to multiple personality disorder," she says, again laughing heartily.

She's gone the professional gamut from playing flamboyant chain-smoking drama teacher Cookie De Varen on the sitcom "Boston Common" to playing a dog in "Sylvia" on stage in Toronto, a new-age guru in a film shot in Fiji and a police officer in "Silent Cradle" shot in Edmonton, Canada. She played painter Georgia O'Keeffe in the two-person touring play "Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe" (co-starring Stacey Keach), a music teacher in the independent feature "The Planet of Junior Brown" and the aggrieved mother of convicted rapist Alex Kelly in the upcoming CBS movie.

"I'm loving being older," says Kidder, who just turned 49. "I know a lot of actresses get very panicked about it and run off to plastic surgeons. My advice is, don't, because there are better parts if you don't. You can do more characters when you're older, which is a lot more fun than being the babe. So I'm sort of relishing this age."

In her early stardom days, as the iconic Lois Lane in "Superman" and "Superman III," she says she felt like a fraud.

"I was being what I call 'Margot Moviestar.' Or trying to be, and very badly. After 'Superman' came out, I found it very difficult and hard to deal with. There is a sense of having to put on this phony face when you go out in public. I wasn't very good at it, and it filled me with anxiety and panic. I had to hide the manic depression, for one thing. I just felt inadequate for the job."

Her small-town Canada roots were at odds with the glamour role. "I grew up in Labrador City and Yellowknife--you know, real sophisticated hot spots--and somehow had this image that movie stars were these perfect glorious people," she recalls.

"And then I became one and I was still the same schmuck I'd always been, and it made me more insecure rather than less. I thought I would turn into a princess, and I was still me."

Kidder, who now lives in Montana, says L.A. is too toxic for her. "I find L.A. really difficult in that everyone is so career-driven that your life here becomes about your career. And I'm not one of those people that can stay solid as a rock within that. I just couldn't do it. I wasn't strong enough. I need a good community of wonderful people around me like you get in a small town."

Ironically, because of work, she's been away from Montana almost all year, working nonstop.

"Not only is she one of the most creative actresses, with extraordinary emotional resources, she is also one of the most pleasant," says director Ted Kotcheff, who had requested Kidder for the role of Alex Kelly's mother.

"Let me give you an example," Kotcheff says, describing the grueling two-day shoot of the courtroom sequence. "One day we shot 18 hours, until 8 in the morning. And for a lot of those hours, Margot was just set dressing. She has to be seen sitting in the courtroom behind the boy. I've seen a lot of actors get irritated doing nothing 95% of the time. But she did it with such good humor and grace, she kept up the whole spirit on the set."

From the Ventura set of his "Mike Hammer" series, Stacy Keach adds, "All I can say is, she's like champagne. A pro through and through. That's her priority. She has passion and sensitivity."

"Planet" director Clement Virgo was hesitant after the infamous press Kidder received. "But as soon as I spoke to her on the phone, any apprehensions that I had just went away. . . . She was very frank and open about herself and about what she's been through. And when she talked, I knew that she had really given the part a lot of thought. It all really instilled confidence in me."

He was impressed when Kidder arrived on the set, fully prepared to play the piano teacher. "She was determined that her piano playing looked authentic, so she had gone out and spent her own money and time for a piano coach for proper posture and fingering. And it really contributes to bringing life to the character."

Kidder has mostly steered clear of the press since last year's incident, but she finally relented for a mini-press junket for "Never Met Picasso," which opens Nov. 28.

"After my breakdown, the tabloid press was relentless and literally pursued me to a cabin I was staying in on Salt Spring Island, two ferries away from Vancouver," she recalls.

"They surrounded my family's houses, stood outside my daughter's house in Montana, took pictures in the window of my cabin in Montana. And after a few months, it became clear that they weren't going to stop unless I made some sort of public statement. So with my manager we decided to do both Barbara Walters and People magazine and get it over with."

The Walters interview worked. "As nervous as I was about doing it, it became a great relief. It was out in the open, the press did stop harassing me and I got letters from people from all over the place who I had quite unexpectedly helped by giving this interview. I talked about manic depression and facing it, both the pluses and minuses that go with that condition."

Kidder feels a kinship with "Never Met Picasso," which she completed just prior to her manic episode. It deals with the pressure to be normal and keeping up a front for the world and the relief when family secrets are finally out.

"You have this family which is supposedly abnormal because the mother is charging off doing odd theater and has her first lesbian experience, and her son is gay and can't figure out what to do about his art. In fact it's just another family. All families have secrets. . . . And when the secret is let out, and the steam is finally let off the pressure cooker, everything is generally fine."

Although Kidder would like the subject of her public breakdown to take a back burner, she is willing to describe how it felt during those hellish days.

"If I were to go into the real facts about the five days I was wandering around L.A., you'd have to write a book," she says.

"Because when one is manic, one of the things that happens is the brain is speeding at such a rate that the messages going from the neuron across the synapse are going so quickly, because your brain floods with something called dopamine. Every part of your mind is on red alert, so you are remembering everything you've ever read and everything that's happened in your life, and you're speeding so quickly, so within those five days I lived five years."

She takes issue with some media accounts of her episode. "I wasn't cowering with a knife or anything. I was sleeping in this woman's leaf pile in her backyard when she came out to do her gardening, and I didn't want to frighten her, so I said, 'Hi, excuse me, hello, I'm in trouble.' "

What else did the press get wrong? "I mean, I didn't read a lot about it because I was busy getting well. But the thing about my teeth was actually funny. Because anyone who has known me knows that my front teeth always came out because years ago I had some very bad caps put on that changed my bite, and my bottom teeth would hit my top teeth. Every friend who has known me for the last five years, would go, 'Oh God, Margot's tooth is on the floor. Let's find it.' And I'd super-glue it back in.

"So when my friends were reading the tooth part of the story, which became for some reason a major part of the story, they all laughed, and went, 'Where was her super-glue just when she needed it?' So, yes, some front teeth had come out, but no, I didn't take them out to disguise myself."

Like many survivors of emotional traumas, Kidder is grateful for the event.

"One of the many wonderful things I got out of last year--which was the best thing that ever happened to me, on so many levels--was the knowledge that I have to take care of myself. I can't go without sleep, and I can't get over-stressed, and I can't not eat regularly, and I just can't do any of those things that I did for so much of my life.

"And one's ambition has got to take a back seat to one's life. And in knowing that, you get a lot of gifts from that, when you learn, by necessity, to put your life first."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Friday November 21, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 34 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Telecast date--An incorrect date was given Wednesday for the telecast date of "The Return of Alex Kelly," in which Margot Kidder stars. CBS has not yet scheduled the film.
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