In the past week, two influential filmmakers have died. While many people may not think of Richard Donner or Robert Downey Sr. in the same vein as Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Cecil B. DeMille, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, or Francios Touffait, they both helped change American cinema for the past 50 years.
Richard Donner started out like many directors on television before he hit it big in the mid-1970s with The Omen as movies about Satan and demonic possession had become popular following Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. While Donner was late to the party, one can’t argue that he made The Omen as entertaining if not more than the other two. As a matter of fact, I prefer The Omen over Rosemary’s Baby.
And Donner knew how pull a fast one on the audience with The Omen, most notably by setting the scene in which David Warner’s character is decapitated by a flying sheet of glass in which he filmed and edited it thinking the audience would shut their eyes but re-open them only to still see it.
The Omen was far more violent than the others two movie. The final shot of Harvey Stephens as Damien smiling at the camera came by accident as Donner said Stephens was just supposed to turn his head at his parent’s funeral and look toward the camera. However, Donner said the little boy was smiling as he was trying to tell him not to.
The success of The Omen led to Donner landing the directing role of Superman. For many directors, this is like hitting every lottery jackpot and parlaying it all on winning every Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and World Series bet.
But unfortunately, the job was full of a lot of problems for Donner. For one, the script was reportedly so campy, it was rewritten. Mario Puzo, hot off the success of The Godfather movies, was hired with others to write the script, but it had a camp tone and reportedly a scene in which Supes mistakes Telly Salvalas as Kojak for Lux Luthor.
Not happy with the script, Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite it but because of arbitration, Mankiewicz was credited as a “creative consultant.” And Donner fought with producers Pierre Spengler and Alexander and Ilya Salkind over to the point he refused to talked directly to Spengler.
As both Superman movies were being filmed back-to-back, his idea of ending the first one on a cliffhanger with Zod, Nod and Ursa being released from the Phantom Zone was shot down. And since Marlon Brando had scored a great contract to get a percentage of the profits in addition to his salary, Donner was later fired and Richard Lester was brought in to reshoot scenes for the sequel and leaving Brando’s scenes on the cutting room floor.
Donner’s cut of the movie languished in folklore for more than a quarter of a century before it was finally released in 2006 to coincide with the release of Superman Returns. The Donner Cut of Superman II does have some problems, mostly because of scenes that shot and continuity but it is a more straight forward movie.
One scene I like is when Marlon Brando, as Supes’ father Jor-El, appears to him at the Fortress of Solitude as Superman has decided that he can’t live on Earth as a regular man. The scene showcases how great of an actor Christopher Reeve was as well as the actor that Brando was before he became a joke.
It’s a poignant moment that a lot of people can to as a parent anticipating what their child will do and having a back-up plan ready as well as a child realizing their parents are gone and they’ll never see them again. Considering that Superman/Clark Kent has lost two fathers, it makes him truly feel human as he wanted to be to experience that emotional pain.
Donner wanted to Superman to be straight forward. Lester added camp and almost ruined superhero/comic book movies in the 1980s. If it wasn’t for Tim Burton building on that straight tone for Batman, the future of superhero/comic book movies would’ve relied on camp, even more than the Joel Schumacher Batman movies.
In many ways, Donner is responsible for the MCU, the DCEU, the X-Men movies (which he produced), and every other movie based on a comic book since the 1980s by showing it was possible. And the 1978 Superman movie was the most expensive movie ever made with a budget of $55 million. By today’s standards, it might look like camp, but one has to wonder what would’ve it had been like. They need only to look to the 1966 Batman movie and the Captain America TV movies for that answer.
Bouncing back from the Superman drama, Donner went small and made the movie Inside Moves which got good reviews and Oscar nominations.
But he hit paydirt again with a little movie called The Goonies on a premise by Steven Spielberg about a group of kids who go treasure hunting in Oregon. If you were a kid in the 1980s, The Goonies was the movie to love. Unlike other kids movies, the kids seemed like actual kids. They got into trouble. They cracked jokes at each other’s expense. They said dirty words. But at the heart, they really loved each other.
It was the language that probably made parental groups in the 1980s angry, even though it’s only PG. Watching The Goonies, you can see where the Duster Brothers got a lot of their tone for the Stranger Things series.
Donner reportedly hid the huge pirate ship from the actors and when they first saw it, he jokingly said they uttered some of that colorful language. Afraid to lose the initial reactions, Donner said the actors were still in awe of the ship and eager to get on it and film their scenes.
There’s even an in-joke as Sloth rips off his jacket to reveal that he is wearing a Superman shirt as the John Williams theme plays. While Spielberg is often more associated with The Goonies, it was Donner who helmed it. Incidentally, Spielberg was initially being considered to take directing duties on Superman.
Donner hit paydirt again with Lethal Weapon and its sequel, action movies from the mind of Shane Black, and it was a wonderful marriage as the two created the essential buddy cop duo with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. Lethal Weapon 2 is the first R-rated movie I ever saw in a movie theater at only 10, was able to purchase a ticket with help from my 14-year-old cousin.
You could almost see the similarities between Donner and Black and Murtaugh and Riggs. Donner was the veteran by 1987 after many years in the business and Black was the young hotshot reading to come in guns firing to take over the establishment.
It’s a shame Donner and Black had a falling out over the course of the sequel and Black went his separate from the franchise but that’s the way it goes sometimes.
The Lethal Weapon movies were meant to be a parody of action movies but yet it was almost as other directors saw them as a challenge. Even Black himself would go on to write The Last Boy Scout and Last Action Hero, both of which owed a great debt to Donner.
Donner’s Scrooged was Bill Murray’s leading movie after the failure of his pet project The Razor’s Edge and Donner would say directing Murray is like being the lone traffic cop in Time Square on New Year’s Eve during a blackout. Even though it got bad reviews, the dark comedic turn of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was reportedly much different than what writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue intended.
Considering the movie had an scene of Santa and Mrs. Claus pulling out an artillery that would make the NRA giddy and a scene of a dad given his kid 5 pounds of veal as a Christmas gift, it makes me wonder what the writers originally had intended. Scrooged was both funny and pulled no punches. Donner may not have been their ideal director but his track record probably helped get it made.
In the 1990s. Donner found himself being brought in as a replacement director for Radio Flyer, after Warner Bros. had to let the original director David MIckey Evans, go after being not satisfied with him. I don’t think Donner would’ve been able to save the movie. The coming of age movie set in the 1970s had Tom Hanks, Adam Baldwin, Lorraine Bracco (hot off her Oscar-nominated role in Goodfellas), John Heard, and Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello in their earliest roles. The movie’s focus was on child abuse, which was a sensitive subject and the movie got awful reviews and was a box-office failure.
However, the Internet had more or less resurrected the movie with fan theories swirling about what really happened in the movie.
Donner was only able to make the movie because pre-production of Lethal Weapon 3 had been put on hiatus as Mel Gibson decided he needed to take some time off at the beginning of the 1990s.
Lethal Weapon 3 came in 1992 and was a hit and Gibson and Donner, along with a cameo buy Glover, returned in Maverick. It’s not a big movie but it did gross over $100 million at the U.S. box office. Donner also proved that he has a soft side as he cast Corey Feldman, of Goonies, fame as a bank robber alongside Gibson and Glover. Feldman was going through a rough patch in his life and was only being cast in low-budget movies. Donner closed out the 1990s with Conspiracy Theory and Lethal Weapon 4. Their not his best works but they did make money at the box office.
Donner’s next work would be as a producer, along with his wife, Lauren Schuler Donner, on the X-Men movie eventually saving superhero movies after Batman and Robin and Steel almost destroyed them. This along with the popularity of Blade was able to set the stage for the many superhero movies.
And while many filmmakers and audiences may think the superhero movies are overdone, it was the career comeback that Robert Downey Jr. needed. Who would’ve known what RDJ would be doing now if the first Iron Man wasn’t a big success.
RDJ had many bad years in which like Feldman, he was just lucky to get work.
And depending on your thoughts, it’s no secret that RDJ and his father, Robert Downey Sr. had a relationship in which they would smoke cannabis together when he was younger. It’s very difficult to describe the films of RDS to anyone who isn’t familiar to the counterculture movies that sprung up in the 1960s. There were no boundaries. Filmmakers did what they could with the funds and resources they could.
This is from the same era in which Andy Warhol filmed a man for several hours just sleeping. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Hal Ashby and Brian DePalma, among others, would change the rules. And I personally feel the movies from this era will have a look and feel to them that we’ll never see again. Any attempts to duplicate it will be seen as a poor imitation.
RDS hit success with Putney Swope, a satire of mainstream advertising and the Hollywood system in regards to race. The movie helped inspire other filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch and Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast RDS in his movies Boogie Nights (where a character has the last name of Swope) and Magnolia.
Both of those movies by Anderson and Punch Drunk Love seem to be set in a world in which there is a mixture of extreme weirdness and real characters who seem unable to made up in a writer’s mind.
RDS would also appear as a recruitment investigator in the movie Johnny Be Good costarring RDJ where he is watching a scene from Putney and commenting how bad it is.
Unfortunately, RDS would be attached to some of the worst movies ever made. He co-wrote The Gong Show Movie, which was so bad George Burns even admitting retiring from show business after watching it. I’ve seen it and it’s about as awful as you’d think but that could always be blamed on Chuck Barris who directed it.
In 1980, he directed Up The Academy, a movie that Mad magazine advertised it was presenting in the vein of National Lampoon’s Animal House. Then Mad publisher William Gaines spent thousands of thousands of dollars to get all subsequent references removed in poster art and movie credits after seeing the movie. Ron Leibman sued to have his name removed from the credits.
I caught another movie RDS made, Rented Lips, years ago and it’s a crazy movie about Hollywood that has RDJ appearing mostly in Nazi Gestapo attire from the waist up as he sports a g-string underneath. A scene from the movie-within-a-movie has RDJ in said attire firing holes in the shape of a Nazi swastika on a door while trick-or-treating.
RDS would appear as a U.S. Secret Service supervisor in the gritty crime movie To Live And Die In L.A., one of my favorites, directed by William Friedkin, another director who didn’t direct to appease the masses.
One may call RDS a no-talent hack who made movies that didn’t make sense but I noticed that many of his movies were from the Absurdist movement and those movies don’t really need to make sense.
Would the independent movie explosion in the late 1980s and early 1990s ever happened if RDS hadn’t laid the tracks? It’s no wonder that RDS’ last movie as a director was the independent Hugo Pool in 1997 before the 2000s and 2010s brought forth a spate of movies that just had to be blockbusters and nothing else.
You could argue Donner is responsible for those blockbusters the same way people have pointed the finger at Spielberg and Lucas but movie studios are in the business of making money. Donner was able to make blockbusters entertaining.
Mel Gibson may not be seen in a good light but would any action blockbuster have a character who is suicidal and it’s not just a throwaway plot device. We really believe that Riggs in the first Lethal Weapon movie is at his point of no return.
Action movies nowadays seem to just have burnt out cops and military types who are on the edge which has become a worn out cliche, but here it was original.
Filmmakers nowadays are just standing on the shoulders of these two giants and unsung heroes.