Thursday, July 8, 2021

Rest in Peace Richard Donner

photo by Tostle14

Earlier this week, director Richard Donner passed away.

I find that when you mention his name to people who are only casual movie-goers, they don't recognize him right away.  But when you start listing his impressive credits, they respond with respect and affection.  Between, Superman, The Omen, the Lethal Weapon series, Goonies, Scrooged, Ladyhawk, and The Goonies, you have experienced some entertainment and delight at the hands of this master filmmaker.  

Donner started his career doing mostly television work until he directed The Omen.  I don't enjoy that movie, but that is not an insult.  It is disturbing and unnerving the way Donner wanted it to be.  The early scene of Damian's birthday party is so horrific.  Donner shoots the scene with idyllic brightness only to have the horrid public suicide break through.  People remember the over-the-top choral score, but Donner knew when to use it and when not to.  That early scene at the party is so disturbing because of the lack of musical manipulation.  But the final shot with that musical sting hits you like a punch in the gut.

It's quite incredible how much of an impact Lethal Weapon and its sequels had on the action movie genre.  The first one could have been lost in the plethora of other such films of the era.  But two things set it apart.  The first is how Donner is able to frame Riggs with a rich emotional inner-life.  Remember that at this time in film, action heroes were stoic machines.  It took films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard to really infuse their characters with emotional vulnerability.  Pierce Brosnan once cited the scene where Riggs puts the gun in his mouth as a huge turning point in action cinema when these heroes were allowed to plumb deeper emotional depths.  The second thing was the chemistry and relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh.  What's great about the franchise is that this relationship is able to grow and develop over the course of four films in a way that seems organic to the characters.  I've never forgotten the way Riggs tells Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon 3, "You're not just retiring you, you're retiring US!"  

All of this character work is done in the context of some fantastic action directing.  I've often said that action films are some of the most purely cinematic experiences you can have and that action directors are often overlooked for their craft.  Donner knows how to set you on the edge of your seat whether on the streets of Los Angeles or in his medieval fantasy epic Ladyhawke.

I wrote in an early article that Donner had a gift for casting.  "He picks actors he can trust to carry the story.  Take his holiday classic Scrooged.  The original Dickens tale has been done to death.  And yet Donner built his movie around the comedic genius of Bill Murray and then trusted the actor to carry the final monologue.  That last speech by Murray is essential to making that movie work and if it feels at all forced or faked, the film collapses.  Donner instead gets one of my favorite Bill Murray performances because it is funny and moving and sincere while keeping in rhythm with his manic energy."  You can also see this in the way he let's Gibson push the limits of sanity in Lethal Weapon or casting a skinny, light-haired  actor to be Superman.  Donner could see beyond the obvious and could bring out the actors' potential.

I also wrote about how fun many of his movies are "Another aspect to Donner's movies is that they tend to be a great deal of fun.  Maverick is a movie I've watched over and over again.  It is a little too long, but the parts that are good are so enjoyable that you forget the length.  Ladyhawke is an exciting medieval adventure with synthesizer soundtrack.  And of course The Goonies is a perfect kid adventure movie.  There just enough danger to keep you on the edge of your seat but not too much violence as to be repulsive.  All the while he fills you with a sense of child-like wonder."

Only someone with that sense of wonder could make a movie like The Goonies.  I watched the reunion meeting that the cast had during the pandemic and it was wonderful to see how much genuine affection they had for Donner and he for them.

But to me, his greatest cinematic gift was Superman.  Instead of simply making a pulp action flick, he made a beautifully mythic tale about the utlimate hero.  It is quite incredible how in the late 70's they made Superman so believeable.  Yes, there were limitations to the technology, but Donner knew how to use them to fire up your imagination so that what you saw on the screen felt real.  Watching that movie, you do believe a man can fly.

And that is part of what made Donner so great.  He could inspire you to dream big.  It is no accident two of his proteges are Geoff Johns and Kevin Feige.  Johns is, to my mind, the greatest comic book writer of all time.  He took lessons of epic and personal storytelling to revitalize many of DC's flagship heroes.  And of course Feige has is the man architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  In a cinematic climate when it is popular in Hollywood to tear down heroes, Feige seeks to build them up.  As flawed as the MCU heroes are, they are still in many ways aspirational and inspirational, the way Donner treated the Man of Steel.

Donner's movies weren't all perfect.  And I was more than a little annoyed when he would make ham-fisted references to abortion in his films.  He was married to the same woman since 1985, which in Hollywood is saying a lot.  But those that knew him found him to be a truly treasured friend.  Steven Spielberg said of him, " “Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favorite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally, and — of course — the greatest Goonie of all. He was all kid. All heart. All the time. I can’t believe he’s gone, but his husky, hearty, laugh will stay with me always.”

He may be gone, but his movies will stay with me forever.

Rest in Peace, Richard Donner.  Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.

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