Call Off the Celluloid

Supergirl Directed by Jeannot Szwate At the Sack 57

WHEN SUPERMAN is out of the Galaxy, Indiana Jones in the classroom, and Ghost busters working on their next movie, who va gonna call for some superior supernaturally super heroic cinematic relief? Unfortunately, not Supergirl.

Sure, she's got connections--she's Superman's cousin and the product of his producers. Yes, she's experienced from her inaugural battle with the over the evil witch Selena (Faye Dunaway) and her corny cohorts. But, by Krypton, is she boring.

When Christopher Reeve finally wriggled out of his contract after "Superman III," Alexander and Ilya Salkind, producers of the Superman films, were left with a Superman films, were left with a property and no star. Replacing Reeve would not be an easy task.

Fortunately, comics were spinning off characters long before T.V. and movies, and Supergirl, who actually dates back to the 1950s, must have seemed like the perfect candidate for celluloid incarnation. Reeve, who has elsewhere proven that he can act as easily as bend steel bars, would certainly have demanded a salary several orders of magnitude greater than the cost of a nubile unknown. A second coast-to-coast star search would generate gobs of favorable publicity. And the same people who enjoyed watching Charlie's Angels or Linda Carter bounce around as Wonder Woman are a sure bet to see this movie.

THE FIRST three films were consistently blessed by David and Leslie Newman's scripts. They never forgot the "comic" present in comic books, and were careful to protect the internal told total to the verisimilitude of factors

But David Odell's "Supergirl" script keeps the comic at the cost of coherence. The plot has holes large enough to fit the planet of Krypton through, even before it blew up into tiny bits of Kryptonite

The first hall of "Superman The Movie" was devoted to establishing the origins of the Man of Steel "Supergirl" does the same in 15 minutes. Argo City, a surviving Kryptonian colony in "inner space," depends on the omegahedron for its energy. Chief Scientist Zaltar (Peter O'Toole) steals the magic ball, Supergirl loses it, and then steals Zaltar's ship to find it. Arriving on earth in full costume, she starts hunting for the MacGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock's) word for the jewel/microfilm/painting/whatever that everyone is hunting for in a typical thriller).

If your city was about to perish to due to your clumsiness, and you had to search a whole planet for the single magic ball that could save it, what's the first thing you would do? Take out a want ad? Hire a P.I.? If you happen to be Supergirl, you would utilize your most enviable superpower, the ability to change hair color at will and enroll in a suburban girls' school under the alliterative alias Linda Lee.

Not only is this subplot illogical and a waste of time, it tears down all the suspense the MacGuffin is supposed to create. Odell makes ludicrously pointless decisions like having Supergals' roomie the cousin of Lois Lane, or having Selena's exhenchman Nigel (Peter Cooke) a math teacher at Lee's school.

Cooke participates in a completely irrelevant scene that epitomizes the defects in the story line. Nigel, dressed in a grey leather jumpsuit, visits Selena's amusement park hideout, and asks her right-hand woman Bianca (Brenda Vaccaro) to summon Selena Selena appears, both women insult Cooke's suit, and they slam the door in his face Huh'

THOUGH THE Salkinds may not have realized it at the time, finding Reeve was a luckier break than getting the Newmans. Almost the perfect physical match for a Superman, he could project the boyish charm that made both the ego-busting muscleman and the nebbish newsman palatable and credible. Underneath the red and blue Reeve kept enough of the sly midwestern farm boy to make Superman's schizophrenic life a myth rooted in the American ideals of silent strength and self-effacing mannerisms. None of the Superman films ever fully descended into campy self-parody, because Reeve made the Big Red S a hero worth cheering for.

This time, the fickle finger of film-fame fate fell on Helen Slater, yet another graduate of the much "Famed" High School of the Performing Arts in New York. Her performance shows the trademarks of that institution's actors: mere competence so polished that all traces of character have been rubbed out. Slater, cute as she is, overwhelms the film with her dullness.

But Slater's spectacular colorlessness cannot be attributed to her lack of talent alone. Director Jeannot Szwarc, with the blood of "Jaws II" already on his hands, is carrying out his own niche as a hatchetman of promising sequels. Given a cast of the most talented hams in Hollywood, he squeezes as bland a performance as possible from each one. Dunaway is left to rehash the residue of her Joan Crawfordisms from "Mommy Dearest," charging through some genuinely funny lines with the comic timing of Mr. I.

O'Toole, as the repentant Kryptonian Zaltar, reverts to the sloppy mannerisms that only a sloppy director would allow O'Toole is never on screen with Cooke, one of the great missed movie opportunities of many years. For his part, Cooke almost succeeds in catalyzing some comic chemistry with the self-absorbed Dunaway, but he is never on screen long enough to succeed. Hart Bochner plays Ethan, a sort of distaff Lois Lane, with as much quirky nervousness as Margot Kidder brought to Lane. The chubby Vaccarro seems to be the only veteran comfortable with her part, which entirely consists of insults and sarcastic variations on "Gee whiz, Selena."

ONE OF THE main pleasures of Superman is watching him bash buildings, save trains, and most important, commit assault on people in amusing ways. The cartoon violence in Supergirl is so tepid that we can only wonder if Szware was worried about in timidating males insecure about muscle bound women. The persons Supergirl bashes are two painfully stereotypical redneck truckers with ungentlemanly designs on Supergirl's too, too solid flesh. She can't even bring herself to hit the amazingly unthreatening invisible monster that tears up the countryside, choosing for some unknown reason a more ladylike lightning bolt. And why is it that someone who can fly has to crawl across a shaking floor instead of flying across it?

If intelligent scripting, inspired acting, and professional directing comprise a good super-hero film, then "Supergirl" is by far the worst of the four Super films. But if you feel, as most of Hollywood seems to, that stupidity, capriciousness, and a big bust are the prerequisite of being a female hero, Supergirl supererogates even the execrable standard set by Linda Carter's Wonder Woman. And that's a pretty big suit to fill.