You will have heard the news already and it is sad: a great director has left us. But what a life! Great legacy! Warrants a tribute..
When I think of Richard Donner, five things come to mind immediately:
1: Calling him ‘Dick’ conferred a kind of elite club status upon those using the sacred abbreviation. Not from any pomposity on Donner’s part. More an unspoken code among Hollywood professionals. They could call him ‘Dick’ to indicate their own collaboration and friendship with the man? In any event, I once referred to Donner as ‘Dick’ among some top flight movie personnel.
They gave me that look from which one can only infer an immediate need for social course correction. Perfectly polite but also clearly unimpressed by my accidental impertinence. ‘RICHARD Donner..I mean..RICHARD DONNER’..I said, emphatically. I was back in the game, immediately.
Lesson learned: only call him ‘Dick’ to his colleagues if, like them, you had the honour of some long term collaboration along the lines of Mel Gibson /Gene Hackman / Michael Kamen et al. Irony being I thought Donner’s preferred name was ‘Dick’, coz every second article in trade papers seemed to use that rather than ‘Richard’ as the first name. There you have it. Suspect the man would have seen the funny side but also appreciated the mark of respect and its silent recognition among peers.
2: Richard Donner was versatile. He could master ANY genre and at once play by and reinvent its rules. THE OMEN gets to the very core of what frightens us about Satan. It is not the idea of a big red fella with pointy horns and cloven hooves with a red hot poker on speed dial for eternity. No. It’s the primal personification of unseen danger and human hysteria: that not only can evil hide in plain sight, but under the most innocent of guises, thereby catalysing the most horrific despair. And the juxtaposition of a (then) modern family in civil, diplomatic power, being destroyed by an eternal force? Scary stuff! Definitive horror!
By contrast, SUPERMAN (and yes, his cut of its first sequel) are an ode to innocence and a purity of heroism. Yet there is a mythological weight to his take on the Man of Steel. It’s earnest. Biblical. Epic. Fun but deep; such a shame he never completed his vision of a full trilogy. Donner made every genre his own through respectful reinvention. There was a pervasive heart, wit and soul to his work, engendering a community on set where all actors especially felt valued and could experiment, improvise and innovate with their director. True collaboration: one of a kind!
3: Political yet egalitarian; inclusive rather than tribal. We now live in an era whereby politics IS film and vice versa. The message has become the entertainment, with moral motif now a substitute for rather than supplement to, character and plot. Donner had a more inclusive and accessible ethos. He snuck in messages about the likes of animal welfare and racism, without ever undermining a sense of escapist entertainment.
1997’s Conspiracy Theory managed to address some truly dark corners of psychological warfare yet remains a thriller with comedic moments, neither expecting nor demanding a political commitment from the audience. 1995’s ASSASSINS delves into the murky underworld of contract killing for hire among military veterans, whilst remaining a hokum fuelled romp for Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas and Julianne Moore.
4: FAMMMMILLLLEEEE! YEARS before Dominic Toretto made a sense of brotherly community the defining weapon in action movies, Richard Donner was evangelising a similar ideal. Mel Gibson’s Riggs and Danny Glover’s Murtagh evolve, together, over a four movie arc. As they grow to love and work together in harmony (without ever losing the anarchic action beats), so their extended family of supporting characters enable the tone to lighten and bring more romance, comedy and hope to the LETHAL WEAPON formula.
‘Family’ is the last word in the 4th movie, with Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz and Rene Russo’s Lorna every bit as integral to the series’ image as the two leading men who kicked things off in the first movie. Buddy cop pulp thrills meet cinematic soap opera comedy.
I am actually pleased Donner never made his promised ‘Lethal Finale‘ fifth film, as he indicated it would return to some darker tones. Nobody wants that family to break up. Sure, they would have had further adventures after 1998 and many of those might well have gone wrong, even ending in the death of Riggs? We just don’t have to see that onscreen and now we never will, unless Mel decides to direct it as a Donner tribute of course (mooted, already).
5: LONGEVITY! Richard Donner has died aged 91. NINETY ONE!! And he was working pretty much up until the end by many accounts. Though he had not directed a massive hit in a while, it is worth noting that the gritty cop thriller SIXTEEN BLOCKS was made when the director was in his 70s.
And his production company was always in business, with the X MEN and FREE WILLY series standout standout successes.
From tv movies (TWILIGHT ZONE) to movies based on tv (MAVERICK), Donner had an impeccable work ethic throughout his wonderful life. And that, in itself, is an inspirational legacy for all to admire and emulate.
RICHARD DONNER was loved by family, friends and fellow directors, ranging from Spielberg to Mangold and all have posted moving memories and tributes. In that sense, it is clear that the man will indeed live on, through his work and the gentlemanly manner in which he carried it out.
Much like the ‘Goonies’ (a gang of treasure hunting kids in an adventure movie of same name), this brilliant director will never truly die. He’s just gone to the post production room in the next life.
One of cinema’s true heroes. Thoughts with widow (Lauren Shuler Donner) /family.