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Once upon a time, making a movie about Superman seemed like a daunting, bizarre idea. While producers Pierre Spengler and Alexander and Ilya Salkind simply saw the potential dollar signs in a franchise film, early writers on the project couldn’t get around the fact that the hero of the piece ran around in red underwear, stood for such concepts such as truth and justice (unfashionable for protagonists in the 1970s) and came from the pages of comics, which were still seen as kiddie fare at the time. When Richard Donner was hired to direct Superman (1978), he balked at the script’s parodic nature, insisting that he and partner Tom Mankiewicz be allowed to rewrite it. Donner’s approach wouldn’t just be seen at a narrative level, however — he made a point of having a giant sign made that was hung in his office during production that featured a drawing of Superman carrying a sash with one word on it, a guiding principle for the movie: verisimilitude.
That word and its attendant ethos wasn’t just Donner’s muse for Superman, but for his entire filmmaking career. As Donner explained to Variety in 2008, “I have my own sense of verisimilitude when it comes to each and every project. It’s a reformation, to a degree, of Method acting principles transformed for directing: Find the reality. I look for the reality in the situation, rather than the farce.” It’s because of this approach that Donner, who passed away on July 5, 2021 at the age of 91, was able to leave behind a large and varied filmography that contains so many giant hits, enduring classics and hidden gems within it. Not an auteur in the strictest sense, the director nevertheless approached all material that came his way with the same gusto, empathy and that “sense of verisimilitude” which allowed him to become one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Born into a modest family in 1930 in the Bronx, New York, Donner found a love of film early on thanks to the movie theater his grandfather owned in Brooklyn. After high school and a stint in the Navy as an aerial photographer, Donner pursued an acting career, moving to Los Angeles and landing bit parts on TV programs. One of those shows was directed by Martin Ritt, who encouraged Donner to get into directing instead. Following Ritt’s advice, Donner climbed the ranks within the television industry, eventually landing directing gigs. His being in the right place at the right time in the history of television resulted in his working on a gaggle of some of the most influential and iconic TV shows ever made: Have Gun, Will Travel, The Fugitive, Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, The Wild Wild West and The Twilight Zone make up just a portion of Donner’s extensive TV resume. As those titles indicate, the director received a master class in juggling multiple genres just by maintaining a television career, and it’s that deep knowledge and respect for genre that he brought to his feature films.
Donner’s first few efforts on the big screen expanded his genre horizons, starting with a sci-fi rocket ship film X-15 (1961), then moving on to a Sammy Davis Jr. comedy romp, Salt and Pepper (1968), and a sexual revolution melodrama, Twinky (1969). All of these movies benefited from Donner’s attempts to bring a sense of reality to them, but it wouldn’t be until his breakout film, The Omen (1976), that his ethos of verisimilitude would pay off in a big way. The Omen could’ve easily been a quick and dirty cash-in horror film catapulting off of the Satanic craze started by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and solidified by 1973’s The Exorcist. Its central premise, that a young boy, Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens), born to wealthy and influential parents, Robert (Gregory Peck) and Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick), is secretly the antichrist might have been treated in any number of sensationalist ways. Crucially, Donner keeps the film as ambiguous as possible, thereby lending it veracity. On the director’s commentary track for the movie, he continues to play coy, explaining how others may interpret The Omen as a supernatural and religious story while he was merely making a movie about a man who goes insane and believes that his son is evil, thanks to having enough circumstantial evidence. (Allegedly, this was precisely the angle used to get Peck to commit to starring in the movie.) Donner shrewdly made The Omen that much more powerful and unforgettable by emphasizing the verisimilitude of the story.
AfterThe Omen’s success led Donner to Superman, he continued to take genre films seriously by finding the truth at the core of each story and character. Superman could’ve been an embarrassing flop had the director not encouraged Christopher Reeve’s winningly earnest performance as an alien with super powers. With The Toy (1982), Donner took the outlandish premise of the 1976 French film Le Jouet — a man is bought by a wealthy family in order to act as a child’s “toy” — and made it believable, lending it some weight through its commentary on racism (making it one of the most overt instances of the very liberal filmmaker inserting political content into his movies). Literally and figuratively, Donner took the Spielbergian wish-fulfillment fantasy The Goonies (1985) and made a gang of young kids taking on pirates and gangsters seem totally believable. The medieval dark fantasy Ladyhawke (1985) became much more of a tender romance under Donner’s direction, the fantastical elements once again enhanced by the director’s treatment of emotional weight.
A crucial byproduct of Donner’s application of verisimilitude to his films is the way it helps engender empathy. Sometimes this is the explicit intent of the story, as in the Charles Dickens adaptation Scrooged (1988) and the child abuse drama Radio Flyer (1992). In other instances, it deepens what could’ve been more surface-level genre exercises: Shane Black’s script for Lethal Weapon (1987) is resolutely hard-boiled, but Donner’s collaboration with stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover makes the gritty, buddy cop protagonists so endearing that they became beloved, resulting in three sequels. Even when Donner went more broad, like in Maverick (1994) and Conspiracy Theory (1997) or more explicitly genre, such as with Assassins (1995), Timeline (2003) and 16 Blocks (2006), he never stopped trying to get to the core truths of his characters, finding the real in the unreal.
Perhaps the one film most indicative of Donner the man and the filmmaker is the underrated Inside Moves (1980). It’s note quite a traditional genre film, and sounds particularly Oscar-baity on paper: a distraught man, Roary (John Savage), attempts suicide and becomes crippled for life. Searching for direction and connection, he happens upon a bar frequented by many folks suffering from various conditions, and finds a makeshift family there. Lesser filmmakers would have likely taken such material and either poured on the treacle or undercut it with cynicism and snark, but Donner gives the movie an assured, even hand. Once again, his verisimilitude keeps things honest, and it’s that honesty and empathy that makes Inside Moves far more powerful than it might have been. By many accounts, the director was as gracious and understanding in real life as his films would indicate. It’s fitting, then, that Donner leaves behind a body of work that champions open-mindedness, films that illustrate how everyone is deserving of understanding. With understanding, even the impossible has the potential to become possible. Evil can be a force to be reckoned with, broken men can find themselves and gain lifelong connections, love can conquer all, a life can be made right, Goonies can never say “die” and a man can fly. We have Richard Donner to thank for making these dreams as real — as verisimilar — as they can be.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.
Categories: 2021 Film Essays, Featured, In Memoriam