It is interesting this Oscar weekend to reflect on the life and career of the great Stanley Donen who died today at the age of 94. For those nominated tomorrow night who end up losing, don’t despair and just think of Stanley Donen , the director behind the camera on Singin’ In The Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, On The Town, Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, It’s Always Fair Weather, Royal Wedding, Indiscreet, Charade , Arabesque, Two For The Road, Funny Face, and so many more. He never got a single Academy Award nomination in his career, not one, yet he made so many movies that are the epitome of style , and virtually (with mentors like Gene Kelly in particular) helped to reinvent the movie musical before passing the baton to Bob Fosse ,Rob Marshall, and Damien Chazelle among others all clearly influenced by him in one way or another. He had five DGA nominations , but nothing from the Academy which, finally recognizing an egregious oversight , voted him an Honorary Oscar in 1998 leading to one of the most memorable and charming acceptance speeches ever, a model of grace and wit as he sang “Cheek To Cheek” with his new golden statuette and did a little dance that wowed the audience. The words he used in that speech were also a brief master class in the art of making movies.
“I’m going to let you in on the secret of being a good director. For the script you get Larry Gelbart, or Peter Stone, or Huyck and Katz, or Frederic Raphael — like that. If it’s a musical, for the songs you get George and Ira Gershwin, or Arthur Freed and Herb Brown, or Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green, or Alan Lerner and Fritz Loewe — like that. Then you cast Cary Grant, or Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman or Frank Sinatra — like that. When filming starts you show up and you stay the hell out of the way. But you’ve got to show up, you’ve got to show up. Otherwise you can’t take the credit and get one of these fellas. Thank you very much,” he said as he strolled off stage with presenter Martin Scorsese.
He was the last from the golden age , so young when he started at 17 that we still had him around for a long while, even up to seeing the new era of musicals like La La Land ushered in. It is no wonder so many of the current greats in the medium from Spielberg to Del Toro have taken to twitter today to sing their praises for a man I rank right up there with the best of the best, and I have to confess has made at least ten films I can watch over and over and over, and often do.
Just last August I dove into a Donen double bill as part of UCLA’s screening program at the Billy Wilder Theatre. It was 1957’s Doris Day musical The Pajama Game , and 1958’s Damn Yankees, both with rare (one flown in from England) vivid technicolor film prints that simply dazzled the packed audience. Donen co-directed both with another mentor, the legendary George Abbott who gave him his first big break working on Broadway in the 40’s as a choreographer. I cannot count on only two hands the number of times I have seen both of those films. I recall as a kid watching Channel 9 L.A.’s daily “Million Dollar Movie” where they used to run the same film every day for a solid week. I watched Damn Yankees seven times in a row and it never got old, even in a cut up version with commercials. To see it in all its glory on the big screen last summer was to realize it doesn’t get old, the “Whatever Lola Wants” number, a sly, slinky musical triumph for Gwen Verdon that oozes with seductive sexual style. Number after number in Pajama Game drew applause like we were in a live performance. Both those 50’s Broadway adaptations still shine.
Of course the best known Donen classics like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers have never gone out of fashion. That one was one of the first screen musicals to go wide screen Cinemascope in 1954, and unforgettable for that Barn Raising dance number alone. Or how about that roller skating musical sequence in the terrific “It’s Always Fair Weather” the next year? Or Fred Astaire’s mind boggling dance on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, a scene that when it got renewed appreciation in the 1974 MGM musical compilation film , That’s Entertainment audiences watched with astonishment, both on the part of Astaire and of Donen who pulled off the technical feat without a hitch. It also became the title of Donen’s 1996 autobiography which I read immediately and is one of the best show biz autobiographies ever. I think of so much in my cinematic life that is owed to Donen. How about Audrey Hepburn modeling a red gown while shouting to the photographer, “Take the picture! Take the picture” as she descends some steps in the glorious 1957 Funny Face opposite Astaire. If you haven’t seen that film (Hepburn does her own singing , not dubbed as she was in My Fair Lady) I envy you getting to discover it just now for the first time. Of course there are innumerable classic scenes and musical numbers in the three directorial collaborations he did with Kelly , On The Town in 1949 , Singin’ In The Rain in 1952, and the aforementioned It’s Always Fair Weather.
Singin’ In The Rain is now considered perhaps the greatest movie musical of all time, but in 1952 when it came out , it wasn’t and, incredible as it seems in retrospect, received only two Oscar nominations for Supporting Actress Jean Hagen , and Musical Scoring. Its continued never-ending life though is proof positive of the timelessness of Donen’s work. With his passing today all of the principal players in the film , on and off screen , are gone, but oh my, what they left behind.
The musicals are just one aspect of Donen’s taste and directing talents. He often specialized in taking big stars and put them in highly sophisticated comedies and dramedies, notably Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in 1958’s Indiscreet; Yul Brynner and the wondrous Kay Kendall in the criminally underrated 1960 Once More With Feeling; Grant and Hepburn in 1963’s Charade, a mystery suspense film that still delights; Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in a similar stew of intrigue and romance in 1966’s Arabesque; and best of all, yes best of all, Hepburn and Albert Finney in the brilliant Two For The Road from 1967, a movie examining 12 years in the complex relationship of a married couple that mixes flashbacks and editing techniques decades ahead of its time , a movie that is in a word, perfect, still vital and current 52 years later.
I’ve had the one sheet poster hanging in our house for years (along with Singin’ In The Rain, Indiscreet, Damn Yankees and other Donens over the course of time). With Henry Mancini’s lilting score (one of his best), screenwriter Frederic Raphael’s exceptional dialogue, and that teaming of those irreplaceable stars there is a reason that when people ask me to name my favorite movie, I never forget to say Two For The Road. This should have been a Best Picture contender in 1967 (it repped Donen’s last nomination from the DGA) but instead was ignored by the Academy , save for an Original Screenplay nod that it lost to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. 20th Century Fox had released it in April of that year, and put all their weight instead behind a bloated Oscar campaign for their expensive Christmas release, Doctor Dolittle which ended up with nine nominations including Best Picture. It’s a shame, but like so many other Donen films , this one lives on. In fact the studio had it in development as a possible remake in recent years with Meg Ryan. Please don’t remake Two For The Road. Leave it alone as a legacy to Donen, Hepburn , and Finney, another great we just lost.
I rarely ask for autographs but I have a bound book of the screenplay and over the years got it signed by Hepburn , Finney, Mancini, and Donen. It has a place of honor in my library. The musicals are splendid, but for me Two For The Road is his masterpiece right up to the wickedly biting final two words uttered by its stars.
Donen’s last film was 20 years ago for the ABC TV movie Love Letters. In later years he took a few big swings with projects that didn’t always quite work the way they were intended, although his hommage to the era of double features and the glory of cinema, 1978’s Movie Movie is worth a revisit, a work ripe with charming cinematic invention. And though the uneven 1984 comedy Blame It On Rio wasn’t his shining moment, he did discover an unknown young actress named Demi Moore who stole the film in a supporting role.
I can’t imagine that the Academy wasn’t scrambling today to include Stanley Donen in the In Memoriam reel of all those we lost in the past 12 months. It is sad to think he and Finney will both be in it. Thanks for taking us on the road , Mr. Donen. Your movies made life a little better, and they will live on.