A Woman of Steel

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."

Salt says she treated Kidder like a difficult friend, someone who went off on tangents. "I'd think, 'When is she gonna stop talking about it'--whatever it happened to be."

Looking back, Salt says, "it's hard to know where the illness leaves off and the greatness begins." Now that Kidder is in control of her life and her acknowledged illness, she adds, "our friendship is more solid than ever before. . . ."

Eventually, Kidder accepted a diagnosis of manic depression. The label means little to her. "A diagnosis is just a description of symptoms to guide doctors on how to treat you. A diagnosis does not even hint at the root cause or the possible cure for those symptoms." In her own case, she says that after her big flip-out, she finally found the way to control her symptoms: orthomolecular medicine. She says the intake of natural vitamins and minerals corrects a chemical imbalance in her brain.

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Kidder was in Los Angeles to accept the Courage in Mental Health Award from the California Women's Mental Health Policy Council for her courage in speaking out about mental illness--something few people are willing to do.

She holds forth in good humor about the huge problems she believes she has now conquered, and that others may also conquer--with a little love and medical luck. Her narrative wanders back and forth, from what she calls pre- to post-cuckoo, about what turns out to have been a lifelong fear that she was going crazy, and a lifelong attempt to hide it.

The public never knew, she says, of the many breakdowns she had, even in her 20s and 30s, at her peak of fame in Hollywood. She became an expert at hiding all that, with the help of friends and doctors who tried their best to keep her sane, out of the tabloids and out of the mental health system.

Whenever an "episode" of mania or depression occurred, friends would stay with her at home and keep her away from the phone and the public. Her general practitioner for 30 years, the late Dr. Elsie Giorgi, was often able to sense the onset of symptoms, and tell her, "Dearie, I think you're exhausted. I need to put you in the hospital for some tests to see what's wrong." Kidder says she never realized that Giorgi knew exactly what was wrong--and was simply trying to protect her.

She recalls when she, too, wandered the streets, eventually reaching downtown Los Angeles. "One of the extraordinary gifts I got from that flip-out was the experience of the homeless people who took care of me," she says.

It began when two men pushing shopping carts said, " 'You look a bit confused. Why don't you come with us?' I somehow knew they were safe . . . more than safe . . . and as we walked to their shanty-town underneath a freeway, I said in my cocky little voice: 'I don't know how to act in this part of town. I'm not from around here.' They looked at me and said, 'None of us are.'

"They were right. There was a doctor in their bunch, and people from every walk of life. One let me share his cardboard box." It didn't matter to them, she says, that "I was, in common terms, cuckoo. They had compassion and understanding. They knew that my confusion did not negate my humanity. What people need when they're crazy is not to feel separated from the rest of humanity, but to have that hand reach out with love, and say, 'OK, this is who you are right now. That's fine. I'm here for you.'

"After it was over, I totally understood the need to abolish the stigma attached to people with thought disorders. Those people tend to be treated, even by psychiatrists, as separate from the population, rather than as part of it, but with a problem. And that kind of isolation tends to amplify the fear, the insecurity, the terror that one cannot ever get well," she says.

It was a fear she'd had since age 10 or 11, when she first wrote in her diaries that she thought she was going crazy. "I knew I was different, had these mind flights that other people didn't seem to have. And I had deep depressions."

At 14, she attempted suicide. In those days, in the Canadian mining town of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, where her father was an engineer and her mother an English teacher, "people didn't send their children off to shrinks. And I thank God for that, because if they had, I would have been medicated with the drugs in fashion at the time, which could have ruined me for the rest of my life." Instead, her parents told her to ignore the problem and "just keep going."

At 18, she left for Hollywood to make a film with Norman Jewison ("Gaily, Gaily"). By then, she was experiencing more extreme depressions and feelings of elation. "My mind ran too quickly and made connections that other people's minds didn't make." But she never talked about it to her friends. And during the long periods in which she was "normal," she tended to forget about the problem, to pretend it didn't exist, she says.

At 18, she told Maclean's, Canada's weekly news magazine, that she "had mood swings that could knock over entire cities." Looking back years later, she says, "I was shocked to realize that I knew . . . I just didn't know I knew."

In her 20s, she saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed her as schizophrenic and put her on the first of what was to become an endless series of medications--drugs prescribed by dozens of different doctors whom, she says, all tried to keep her stabilized by using the newest "miracle." Few worked for her.

When she'd go off her medications because they made her feel foggy and unable to do good work, she says she would self-medicate. "You feel yourself getting a bit too jumpy, and say I'd better have some wine. Suddenly, you've had two bottles."

In essence, she was on and off doctor-prescribed medication and self-medication for a quarter-century, during which she appeared in more than 40 feature films and 100 TV shows and married three times (to author Tom McGuane, with whom she had a daughter; to actor John Heard and to French film director Philippe de Broca).

She had dozens of romantic relationships along the way, from Brian DePalma in the early '70s to Richard Pryor and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the 1980s. (During her flip-out, when she was sure the CIA was pursuing her, she says she distributed Trudeau's home phone number to dozens of homeless people in downtown L.A., telling them, "Call Pierre, he'll help me.")

Understandably, she eventually developed a Hollywood reputation for difficult on-set behavior--a result, she says, of both her condition and the drugs prescribed to fix it.

After her highly publicized breakdown, she says, she knew once and for all "that I couldn't do that again; I could not be put on another drug. Neither I nor my body could tolerate it."

That decision opened the door for her to alternative treatments.

She flew to Canada and was "brought down" by an acupuncturist who knew a doctor who "was curing patients with vitamins, minerals and amino acids, balancing the chemistry of the brain naturally." She has pursued that course ever since, she says--and has remained stable.

These days, she evaluates life on a different basis. Her most cherished job is that of baby-sitter for granddaughter Maisie. Her daughter Maggie, who married a Montana writer just as her mother had done years earlier, will soon have a second child. They all live in a small town in the Rockies, near where "A River Runs Through It" was filmed.

"And guess what?" Kidder asks in that dusky, velvety, ironic voice: "I live in the foothills of a mountain range called 'The Crazies.' "

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