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Richard Donner Retrospective

Today’s show looked back at the career of Richard Donner who passed away in July 2021 at the age of 91. Donner was a prolific filmmaker who directed titles such as Superman: The Movie and Lethal Weapon and was a producer on pictures such as Any Given Sunday, The Lost Boys, and several of the X-Men films. His diverse list of credits made Donner a particularly important filmmaker whose work inspired others and shaped the film industry. 

Donner began his career aspiring to be an actor but early on he transitioned to work behind the camera. He got his start directing on television and helmed episodes of The Fugitive, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Get Smart. Donner’s first directorial feature film was 1961’s X-15, an aviation drama about the experimental aircraft. The film was well reviewed but it didn’t do much for Donner’s career and he went back to working on television until directing the 1968 crime comedy Salt and Pepper starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford followed by 1971’s The London Affair starring Charles Bronson and Susan George.

Donner again returned to directing for television until his breakout hit: 1976’s The Omen. The movie was released at a time when occult-themed films were in vogue and The Omen is popularly regarded as the third entry of the trinity of Satanic blockbusters alongside Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. The Omen is about a powerful politician who suspects that his son may be the Antichrist. The movie was an effective supernatural thriller that played out the mystery exceptionally well. The Omen remains a standout in Richard Donner’s filmography for its intensity and its bleakness. Many of Donner’s later films were more optimistic and the film’s popular success is partly due to the way The Omen does not compromise its horror but matches it with filmmaking skill and the spirit of an entertainer out to show his audience a good time.

Following the success of The Omen, Richard Donner was hired to direct 1978’s Superman: The Movie. This film remains Donner’s greatest artistic triumph. To this point, superhero films had been campy like 1966’s Batman: The Movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Donner’s Superman film is the genesis of the contemporary superhero movie but it’s also an extraordinary work of pop art. The movie demonstrates an understanding of the values Superman represents—goodness, integrity, and benevolent power—and wraps all of that in a story that was entertaining and romantic.

The production of Superman was difficult. The first two Superman movies were shot simultaneously with the intention of concluding the first film on a cliffhanger that would be resolved in the second installment. With production running behind and over budget, the decision was made to abandon production on Superman II and concentrate on finishing the first film. The script was reconfigured to give the story a closed ending. Superman: The Movie was released to great success but the relationship between Donner and the producers soured and Donner was fired off of Superman II despite having already shot about seventy percent of the movie. Another director was brought in to reshoot and finish Superman II, much to Donner’s displeasure.

In 2006, to coincide with the release of Superman Returns, Warner Bros. released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut which presented Donner’s vision of the movie as best as it could be restored. The tone of Donner’s Superman II is closer in spirit to the first film and it is superior to the theatrical cut in almost every way.

Richard Donner’s parting of ways with the Superman franchise was a mixed blessing. He created one of the definitive superhero films but without his guiding hand the franchise quickly collapsed. But this also freed Donner to work on other films, several of which were beloved titles of the 1980s, among them 1985’s The Goonies. Written by Chris Columbus and produced by Steven Spielberg, The Goonies followed a crew of young adventurers who follow a treasure map through a network of underground caves beset by boobytraps. The movie starred a cast of young actors, including Sean Astin and Josh Brolin, and The Goonies was one of the defining films of Generation X and Millennial childhoods. The movie also inspired imitators such as The Monster Squad and Adventures in Babysitting as well as the television series Stranger Things.

In addition to directing the movie The Goonies, Richard Donner also directed the music video for the song “Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” by Cyndi Lauper.

In addition to seeding the superhero film with Superman and inspiring kids on quests movies with The Goonies, filmmaker Richard Donner also had a hand in popularizing the buddy cop film with the Lethal Weapon series. The buddy cop genre had already been around for some time as seen in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night and 1982’s 48 Hrs. but it was 1987’s Lethal Weapon that solidified the genre and it was the touchstone for countless films and television shows that came later. The original Lethal Weapon starred Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as mismatched police detectives, with Gibson playing the psychotic wild card and Glover as his by-the-book partner. The film was an enormous success that inspired three sequels, all of which Donner directed.

Filmmaker Richard Donner is primarily known for franchise pictures, namely Superman: The Movie, The Omen, and the Lethal Weapon series and he found great success with these movies. But Donner’s career was more varied than that and his filmography includes some interestingly singular projects.

Throughout the early 1980s Hollywood produced a lot of medieval fantasy pictures including Conan the Barbarian, Legend, and The Princess Bride. Among these fantasy films is Richard Donner’s 1985 film Ladyhawke. The picture is about a common thief who gets involved in the adventures of a knight and his lady. The couple is cursed with the man turning into a wolf in the evening and the woman taking the form of a hawk during the day, preventing them from interacting one human being to another. While it’s an uneven movie, Ladyhawke is a unique fantasy adventure.

In the 1980s, comedian Richard Pryor made the transition to movies. Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with Pryor, whose standup act was notoriously edgy, and studios tried putting him into mainstream, family friendly comedies. One of the better efforts at this was Richard Donner’s 1982 film The Toy which was a remake of the 1976 French film Le Jouet. The Toy cast Pryor as a grown man who is paid to be the playmate of a spoiled child. This movie isn’t great but the material could easily have gone very wrong and it is one of Pryor’s better movies (which admittedly is not saying much).

Richard Donner also directed 1988’s Scrooged. This was an ambitious adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that treaded on being self-aware and deconstructive well before that was fashionable. The tone of the movie is all over the place. The opening is the best part of the film and it flies apart by the very end. But Scrooged has acquired a cult following and it has become part of the holiday film canon.

Another of Richard Donner’s lesser-known works is 1980’s Inside Moves. Following a failed suicide attempt, a man finds new friends and a new community at a local tavern where he befriends a bartender who aspires to play professional basketball. Donner made Inside Moves after being fired from Superman II and this is a movie made by a filmmaker stepping away from the largess of Hollywood spectacle to reconnect with a personal kind of moviemaking. The result is one of the best films of Donner’s career as well as one of his most underappreciated.

The last feature film Richard Donner directed was 16 Blocks. This was a crime thriller starring Bruce Willis as an alcoholic police detective escorting a witness across town while pursued by corrupt police officials. That’s a familiar premise but the filmmaking and the performances elevate the material. 16 Blocks was especially novel because it plays in real time.

Richard Donner hasn’t really been part of the discussion of great directors of his generation like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. His name wasn’t branded that way in part because Donner didn’t have the distinct visual and storytelling style of some of those auteur directors. But, as Scott Mendelson pointed out in his own retrospective on the filmmaker, Richard Donner made some of the most influential and beloved movies of the past fifty years. That’s as impressive a legacy as any filmmaker could hope for and it’s well past time to regard Donner as one of the great American directors.