Sep 14, 2018

On Blu-ray: Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway in Supergirl (1984)

The 1984 production of Supergirl has always felt like a missed opportunity to me. It has its moments, but suffers from a weak script and story. However, though it was a box office and critical bomb upon its release, it will nevertheless forever be a showcase for Helen Slater’s charming first screen performance. It also benefits from a small, but intriguing turn by Peter O’Toole and the scenery-chomping theatrics of Faye Dunaway, Peter Cook, and the slightly more understated Brenda Vaccaro. I recently had a chance to revisit the movie on the newly released, feature-packed Blu-ray from Warner Archive which includes the original theatrical release and the director’s cut of the film.

Supergirl begins in Argo City, the refuge of those who survived the destruction of Superman’s home planet Krypton. There Kyra (Slater) lives with her parents Zor-El (Simon Ward) and Alura (Mia Farrow). She is fascinated by the magical work of the scientist Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) which gets her in trouble when she launches herself into space via one of his creations. This is how she ends up on Earth, living incognito as boarding school student Linda Lee.

It doesn’t take long for power-mad sorceress Selena (Dunaway) to discover her presence. With the help of her evil sidekicks Nigel (Cook) and Bianca (Vaccaro), she is relentless in her quest to exploit Kara’s power so that she may rule the world.

In her screen debut, Slater showed promise that she has never entirely had the chance to fulfill. Upon its release, some critics found her performance bland, but I enjoyed her understated, humble approach to the role. Slater's inexperience lends her an appealing freshness. 

The pure joy of the scene where Kara/Supergirl discovers she can fly feels more potent because she really is a young performer experiencing a new kind of power. She approaches that moment with a quiet wonder not commonly found in a comic book flick. There’s a serenity to her that makes you lean in, as if to take in the magic she is experiencing.

The love interest is played by Hart Bochner, a dim-witted doofus so charisma deficient that it never makes sense that Linda/Kara would fight for him. Her friendship with O’Toole is more intriguing. In their brief scenes together, they take the action to a different emotional level, where a great actor seems to be recognizing a genuine emerging talent and taking her under his wing.

Supergirl suffers the most from its rambling script and essentially aimless plot. There’s never a sense of real peril, just a bit of toe tapping until you get to the next special effects scene. Those effects, while sometimes showing their age, are generally visually exciting and sometimes surreally beautiful. Dunaway, Cook and Vaccaro also draw some campy fun out of their villain roles. In the end though, it never becomes a cohesive whole.

This was the rare occasion where I was much more inspired by the disc’s special features than the film. I was mesmerized by the vintage documentary The Making of Supergirl, which featured the most pleasantly entertaining behind-the-scenes footage I’ve ever seen. This is mostly due to Slater, who is humble, clever, and game for anything her once-in-a-lifetime role. You can see why the filmmakers cast her and how hopeful they must have been that she would headline a new, successful franchise.

In addition to a rare director’s cut of the film, features on the two-disc set includes commentary by director Jeannott Szwarc and special project consultant Scott Michael Bosco and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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