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Richard Donner - I Believed A Man Could Fly


Richard Donner did not fit the mold of the typical master directors discussed en masse by critics and academics, yet with his passing we can expect a massive outpouring of tributes to a director who made classics spanning all manner of genre and tone, having a massive impact on the shape of modern movies.

Many of these tributes will be from industry insiders, seeing as Donner was by all accounts a wonderful mentor and friend. Steven Spielberg epitomizes this beautifully: “Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favorite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally... He was all kid. All heart. All the time. I can't believe he's gone, but his husky, hearty laugh will stay with me always.”

Richard Donner began in television, directing for some of the best remembered shows of the '60s, including the all-timer Nightmare at 20,000 Feet for The Twilight Zone, starring William Shatner as an increasingly manic airline passenger, convinced he can see a creature dismantling the plane midflight. Working on a TV budget, confined largely to a single seat and a view from a window, the director was able to muster a string of distressing moments, blemishing the character's reliability as narrator and adding a moody element of texture to the view of the creature by injecting a torrential thunderstorm into the scenario. Claps of thunder briefly illuminate the frame of the creature, as do sparks from the machinery of the wing as it tears panels off. The episode contains a moment, as Shatner pulls aside the curtain slowly and then all at once, that is still, to this day, piercingly startling. Something about dark, dark eyes peering from closer than they were before; it just works.

After some minor film work, Donner's next classic production was similarly unsettling, although free from the constraints of TV he was able to create something truly disturbing: The Omen. The film acknowledges the fact that the reality assumed by fundamental protestants is terrifying, playing out the conclusions of premillennial dispensationalism through the lens of matter-of-fact horror. Damien, the young child discovered to be the literal reincarnation of the Anti-Christ, certainly seems to leave an unnerving impression on most everyone who sees the film. The Omen played on an increasingly disillusioned and secular audience, paradoxically in search for films which affirmed their paranoias about supernatural evil and religious fears. While suppressed in normal life, these fears were stoked in the cinema by the likes of The Omen and The Exorcist.

For such a morbid conclusion, it may be surprising to find that Donner's next film would be a bright and chipper superhero movie. It would also be his greatest legacy. One cannot overstate what Superman did for cinema. Along with Star Wars, for many, Superman restated for the public the fantastical and transportive nature of cinema in a way that had not been seen to such a degree since The Wizard of Oz. Beyond the importance of being the ‘first' in the long line of modern comic book films, it's also a joy to watch, full of wit, humour, spectacle and the inimitable talents of Christopher Reeve.

In a sense it was ‘dated' upon release in that Superman reflects an America so fantastically nostalgic that it could only be found in Norman Rockwell paintings, but the movie holds strong to its fundamentals, romance and heroics and pathetic mean-spirited bad guys and responsibility and, and and. These things don't age.

Beyond that, Superman was in fact made with an impressive degree of verisimilitude, considering the public attitude to comics at the time, leaving camp mostly aside without forgetting to have fun. It played up the caped crusader's Christian symbolism and cemented Superman not as just an adventurous fantasy but as a towering modern myth, worthy of escaping print and Saturday morning cartoons to achieve epic scope. Donner's vision foreshadowed our contemporary obsession with superheroes, the prevailing mythos of modern movie-going.

But he didn't forget to typify the prevailing genre blockbusters of his own tenure though. As kids ran wild in that most particular of the ‘80s subgenres (Stand By Me, The Sandlot, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial), Donner made the quintessential example: The Goonies. Whilst the movie has plenty of adventure, laughs, and general Spielbergian goodness (often being confused as one of Steven's movies), it's the chemistry of Donner's child cast, friends on the verge of being separated by foreclosure, that makes the fun-park style high-adventure work as well as it has for audiences over the years. (Quick side-note, how to tell if something was really a subgenre in the ‘80s or just a trope common to most film eras: Is it an element of Stranger Things? If so, yes.)

It's that same talent for molding a pitch perfect dynamic between cast members that allowed Donner to elevate the '90s action buddy comedy, Lethal Weapon. His most acerbic film to date, the classic cop caper paired an aging straight-faced Danny Glover with suicidal loose-canon Mel Gibson. If you were unaware of Richard Donner's career and aren't yet impressed by the revolving door of diverse Hollywood classics he made in just over 10 years, you may want to keep revolving. Shortly before Lethal Weapon he directed Ladyhawke, a medieval dark fantasy, sandwiched between two comedies, one with Richard Pryor, the other with Bill Murray, which doubles as a Christmas film. A Western, science fiction, political and action thrillers, Donner didn't afford himself the time to settle down. He was all ready to direct the upcoming Lethal Weapon, reuniting the original trilogy's stars.

Richard Donner was a generous showman, he left a legacy filled with convivial gems vital both to the formation of the modern movie landscape, and the lives of so many movie lovers. If you're in the mood to laugh, to be scared or riveted, mollified with nostalgia or swept up in adventure; you could do worse.