Monday August 02, 2021
Richard Donner (1930-2021)
Donner directing Kidder and Reeve on the set of “Superman: The Movie.”
At the end of my review of “Superman: The Movie” (1978), I picked up on the line Jor-El tells his son about the general goodness of humanity—“They only lack the light to show the way”—and applied it to Hollywood and superhero movies:
What was the greatest superhero adaptation before “Superman: The Movie”? The “Captain Marvel” serial from 1941? Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons from the same year? The Adam West “Batman” of the 1960s? “Superman” wiped them all away. It was years ahead of its time. It was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton's “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer's “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn't think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.
That light began and ended with Richard Donner, who died last month, aged 91. His watchword on the set was verisimilitude. He wanted the movie true but light, fun but not campy. He saw that the story of Superman could be epic and made it so. Maybe he saw America was ready for heroes again. We were ready to be kids again, and in awe. Sadly, we were all too ready and we haven't grown out of it. We were a maturer country then.
Donner cast great actors in supporting roles and then ignored the movie's producers, the Salkind father-son duo, who wanted Superman to have a huge package (yes), and who wanted a big name for the title role: Robert Redford or Al Pacino(!) or Clint Eastwood. Instead Donner searched and searched and searched, and no one was quite right until, wow, who's this kid? I still think of Christopher Reeve as the greatest superhero casting ever. “He was Superman from day one,“ Donner said. In the commentary track to the Richard Donner cut of ”Superman II,“ Donner is talking about how the Salkinds cheapened the product and what a sin that was, and then Christopher Reeve's name flashes on the screen during the credits and he says, alluding to Reeve's subsequent paraplegia and early death, “This is the biggest sin. This is the best kid that ever lived. Without him, there would‘ve been no Superman.”
There's a Donner cut to ”Superman II“ because Donner's reward for making a superhero movie that was true but light, fun but not campy, a movie that was the second biggest box-office hit of 1978 and that showed Hollywood the light when it came to superhero movies—a light Hollywood didn't really follow until nearly a quarter of a century later—Donner's reward for all this was to get canned from the sequel even though much of the sequel was already in the can. And in came another Richard, Lester, to muck it all up. He made it campy. He dumbed it down. The great care Donner had put into it was gone. You watched Lester's versions and couldn't believe you once believed a man could fly.
”Superman“ was Donner's second big hit in a row, after ”The Omen“ starring Gregory Peck, but before that he'd spent 15 years in television. His first directing credit on IMDb is a 1960 episode of ”Zane Grey Theater“ called ”So Young the Savage Land,“ which starred Claudette Colbert in one of her final roles. Then it was five episodes of ”The Loretta Young Show,“ six episodes of ”Wanted: Dead or Alive,“ seven episodes of ”The Rifleman.“ He did six ”Twilight Zone“s, including ”Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,“ and three ”Gilligan's Island“s. All of it seemed to be leading nowhwere. By the end of the decade he was directing the bizzaro Saturday morning TV show ”The Banana Splits.“ Was that set in London? Was he? His first movie seems to be ”Salt and Pepper,“ from 1968, starring Rat packers Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford as a pair of detectives in London, and then ”Twinky“/”A London Affair,“ about a 38-year-old American author, Charles Bronson, who, imagine this, ”discovers the difficulties of being married to a 16-year-old British schoolgirl.“ (Last century's cool movie plot is this century's career-ending move.) Then more TV (”Ironsides,“ ”Cannon,“ ”Lucas Tanner“) and TV movies (”Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic“) before he was tapped for ”The Omen.“ I wonder why/how he got tapped?
I've never seen his more personal film, ”Inside Moves,“ starring John Savage, released in 1980 as personal films were on the way out, but unfortunately did see ”The Toy,“ an attempt to cash in on Richard Pryor's popularity by casting him as a man who is bought (!) as the toy for a rich man's bratty son. Damn, Hollywood, get a clue. I remember ”Ladyhawke“ being a good movie, while ”The Goonies“ is still beloved—we watched it with our nephews a few years ago—and then there was the whole ”Lethal Weapon“ series. It was a casting director who suggested Danny Glover to Donner, and though he objected at first, saying, no, it's supposed to be a white character, he listened when she said asked a simple question: ”Why?"
That's Donner to me. He was a man's man who was tough enough, sensitive enough, smart enough. He seems like he would've been fun to hang with. And he gave us Superman when we needed him.