Stanley Donen (1924 – 2019): Dancer, director proved a nimble pragmatist

by Glenn Lovell

“I can’t change the world,” said a typically stoic Stanley Donen, recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1995.Donen

Movie buffs begged to disagree. As proof they pointed to the director- choreographer’s “On the Town,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain” (co-directed with Gene Kelly), and reminded Donen his name had been affixed to some of the most stylish and scintillating entertainment of all time.

It was this body of work, which ranged from trend-bucking musicals to sparkling comedy capers, that brought Donen to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The then-71-year-old film maker received SFIFF’s coveted Akira Kurosawa Award. A Q&A followed a screening of his never-more-entrancing “Funny Face” (1957), a May-December romance with Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and some of George and Ira Gershwin’s best love songs.

Donen, a dyed-in-the-woof New Yorker, died last Thursday in Manhattan. He was 94.

Donen’s “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “Charade” (1963) and “Bedazzled” (1968) were slated for later in the festival. “Singin’ in the Rain,” a musical-comedy about Hollywood’s reluctant transition to “talkies,” has long topped fan-mag polls. Its only competition: “Casablanca.”

“Who knew it was going to be revered all these years later?” Donen shrugged. “When it opened, it was just another movie. The reviews referred to it as ‘this very nice MGM musical.’ Bosley Crowther of the New York Times half dismissed it. He thought it was fair.”

To what, then, did the dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-director attribute its growing appeal?

”It’s full of energy — everybody was young and lively and at the peak of their powers,” replied Donen, who when the cameras started rolling was a 27-year-old veteran with 10 years’ experience and 50 movie-musical sequences behind him. “Also, it’s unusually earthy for a musical. . . . It tells it like it is, or was, with a funny attitude.”

The donen2sequence everyone recalls has Kelly splashing happily through the rain to the title tune. Donen recalled the number with a shrug and a smile.

”We always knew what we had to do. We said, ‘Gene’s going to dance in the rain, and the place for him to do that is when he’s happiest, when he’s in love.’ No great inspiration. It took 2 1/2 days to shoot.”

While awaiting his next movie — which turned out to be A.R. Gurney’s two-character “Love Letters,” released in 1999 — Donen spent a lot of time in the dark, watching movies. He saw Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” four times and continued to search retrospectives for the names Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa and Orson Welles. He loved Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”: “It’s fresh, inventive . . . constantly surprising.”

Donen stayed in the game by “constantly reinventing myself.” He made his Broadway directorial debut in late ’93, with the calamitous “The Red Shoes.” (It closed in three days.) When we talked he was considering other stage projects.

”But between talking about it and getting it on is a large hiccup,” he allowed. “We need to get the score, the cast, the money. Doing a movie or a show is like moving a snowball up a mountain.”

Ironically, the man who refused to bow to protestations of “… but it’s never been done!— remember the Jerry Mouse – Gene Kelley routine in “Anchors Aweigh” and Astaire as human fly in the “Royal Wedding”? — was, at heart, a bottom-line pragmatist. It didn’t bother him that movies cost more (as much as $175 million, if the rumors surrounding Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” were to be believed). “Show business is two words — partly show, partly business. If they (the producers) think they can satisfy the business side, God speed. I hope every movie is a hit. The more hits, the better for everybody.”

Donen’s last crowd-pleaser was 1963’s “Charade,” a sleek, Paris-set murder mystery with an unforgettable Henry Mancini score. He still winces when critics refer to it as “an homage to Hitchcock.”

”He isn’t the sole owner of the mystery-romance genre any more than I’m the sole owner of the musical film,” Donen said.

Donen considered “Two for the Road,” with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, his last great picture. The critics agree, pointing to its Antonioni- like time shifts and brittle dissection of what at first looks like a fairy-tale romance. ”Many people have said, ‘I got married or I got divorced after seeing that movie.’ But I don’t believe it.”

Though it now has a cult following, “Two for the Road” also flopped.

”We’d all like our movies to gross $325 million, like ‘Forrest Gump,’ ” Donen acknowledged. “It’s like Samuel Goldwyn said, ‘If people don’t want to go to your movie, nothing can stop them.’ “

This article was originally published in April, 1995.

Contact Glenn Lovell at glovell@aol.com

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