Richard Donner, RIP

Picture from the Superman movie
John Scalzi

Film director Richard Donner, best known for Superman and the Lethal Weapon series, has died, and this makes me sad. As I noted on Twitter, he once sent me a thank you note when I was a critic, because I was kind to his film Radio Flyer, a strange and fantastical little film about child abuse and the fantasies those children will produce in such circumstances. The film was generally panned (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review, which was typical) and was a commercial flop, but I didn’t hate it and found things to like about it. There were few enough reviews like mine that Donner took time to pen me a note for it. I appreciated that at the time.

Donner, shall we say, got over that disappointment quickly enough; his next film after Radio Flyer was Lethal Weapon 3, which was a monster hit in a series that never wasn’t a monster hit. The Lethal Weapon films eventually became the calling cards for Donner’s particular directorial style: Light and breezy and action-packed, with likeable good guys, boo-able bad guys, and not a whole lot of subtext. It’s not a style that wins Oscars, but it’s a style that made him one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful directors across two decades, from Superman to Lethal Weapon 4. That’s not chicken salad.

Indeed, Superman, Donner’s second major film (after The Omen; he’d done TV work and some small British films before them), is still one of the best superhero films more than 40 years on, because Donner’s gifts as a director mesh nearly perfectly with the subject material. His style plus the decision to make Metropolis a lived-in city and not just a Warner Bros backlot, plus arguably the best cast ever for a superhero film, created a bar that it took three decades for any other superhero film to get close to, much less clear. Watch Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a clear and obvious, if stilted, love letter to Donner’s film. Singer tries and fails to hit all the grace notes that Donner gives the appearance of hitting so effortlessly in his take. Take note just how difficult “light and breezy” can actually be.

I’ll let others argue whether Donner was a great director. What I will say is that he was great at playing to his directorial strengths, and kept a lot of people, including me, entertained while he did so. He had style, and no one else’s style was quite like his. He’ll be missed.

— JS

28 Comments on “Richard Donner, RIP”

  1. This saddens me. I liked Radio Flyer, A dark but nice film in spots.

  2. As an Old Person, who read Silver Age comics when they were new and was already old enough to go to a bar in 1978 when Superman came out, I want to emphasize that most people in 1978 thought it was a silly, foolish idea to make a major motion picture out of a comic book.

    Even those of us who were fond of Superman comics and hoped the film would do right by the title character were afraid that the filmmakers wouldn’t “get” Superman, or that they would go for lowbrow humor and parody.

    What a delightful surprise to discover that (by 1978 standards) Superman was everything you wish for in a Superman movie, and more.

    Even better, it was a huge commercial success. It paved the way for every superhero film that came after it. If Superman had not been made, or had been made badly, today’s cinematic landscape would look very different.

  3. Sad to hear. He did indeed make me believe a man could fly. Never too old for that s***.

  4. I’m sad too. He did indeed make me believe a man can fly (and yes, that cast). Never too old for that s***.

  5. I enjoyed Superman (yeah, I’m old enough that I saw it in first release at the cinema), and you’ve gotten me interested in “Radio Flyer” now … I’ll likely watch that this evening.

    Whether archetypical or not, Superman resurrected something of the comic books of my childhood a little better than some of the campy television series had, but without losing the fun and camp appeal. Perhaps it came down to production values, perhaps the actors. It seems to me that some of the modern superhero class of movies move just a hair beyond where I’m most comfortable, with a bit too much in way of CGI and fantastically impossible things trying to masquerade as real beyond the imagination. That’s not what comic books did … they left the fantastical up to the imagination and provided a framework to build it upon. Different aesthetic, differences in audience, I suppose; I’m old. LOL!

    Another old friend, a photographer and a technologist, also passed away today. As with him for Richard too: “Godspeed, Richard! Your work made a difference, you had your moment! Glad you were here, it made the world larger.”

  6. One little bit in Superman. Lois is hanging from the crashed helicopter. Clark looks up, runs to a pay phone. But it’s freestanding, not in a booth. A quick negative headshake, and he heads for the spinning door. Just a quick bit. Light and funny and a nod to the old Superman. Took longer to write this than to watch it.

  7. I urge people to see his lovely little character drama, INSIDE MOVIES

  8. I watched Superman at the Odeon*, Tottenham Court Road, London on the day it came out. When the he did the “open phone booth/revolving door” gag and then flew out of the door, everyone cheered!

    *It might have had a different name then, I can’t remember, but it’s the Odeon now.

  9. I’m so sorry to hear that he passed. Superman is also my favorite super hero film. It holds my record for seeing the most times in the theater, 11 times. I even won a costume contest at a con inspired by the wonderful design of Yvonne Blake, who’s the only one who’s figured out how to do the cape right. Donner did a great film, and I was so happy to see his “Donner Cut” of SII. I adored Lester’s work in 3&4 Musketeers but he was the WRONG director for Superman II. Donner took a very flawed script and managed to turn it into a fun film with some great performances, including Reeve’s tour de force comedic performance as Clark Kent and his absolutely sincere performance as Superman. It does what a Superman film should do, have you leaving the theater feeling good and uplifted. I had to watch it again after seeing Man of Steel to remove the stench from my memory.

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  11. I liked Superman but hands down, my favorite film of Donner’s was Ladyhawke. I saw it as a teenager and remember even then being blown away by the stunning cinematography. He made some of the most visually-stunning films. Ladyhawke was such a beautiful film with some fantastic actors in their early days (Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Broderick) and clever, witty dialog in an era with a lot of overblown, overly portentous swords & sorcery fantasy movies. (Looking at you, Conan & Krull.) More unusually, it actually gave the only named female character (Michelle Pfeiffer as Isabeau) agency, intelligence as well as emotion. Sad to lose such talent.

  12. Short Story: Donner was directing a bit of Goonies in Canon Beach Oregon (yup, I’m that old) when I had 10 seconds to ask him how to get into Hollywood. He said, “Go to school, get an internship, get a job.” I enrolled in Community College TV Production, got an internship with Public Broadcasting, and the following year, moved to Los Angeles and got a job as a Studio Page. From there, I got my first screenplay rewrite… Currently, I’m back in LA, in pre-production on my feature film… Thank you, Mr. Donner.

  13. The original theatrical release of Superman II was great and better than the first IMO, but the director’s cut Donner released in 2006 was even better. Great director, and he has some movies I still need to see. RIP.

  14. Speaking of LW3, I was in Orlando for Navy training when they imploded the old City Hall – it was something to see. But Superman is still my favorite superhero movie. I grew up on the 60s and 70s Curt Swan Supes and this was utter perfection. I still feel this is John Williams’ best score – yes, better than that OTHER mid-70s franchise. I mean when the fanfare plays over the final seconds of the Smallville season finale, I STILL get a little verklempt…. everything about this film is just wonderful.

  15. Daniel, I so strongly agree about the music. PERFECT theme song. I just rewatched the end clip of Smallville as I had forgotten they used it, and it does bring tears to your eyes. It’s one of the things I loved most about Superman Returns, which I thought was a wonderful homage to the original film, marred mainly by some darker tones that didn’t fit (the cannibalistic dog and Superman’s son killing someone with the piano, and Supes being a little stalkerish). I read once that when Donner was trying to decide whether to do the film or not the producers sent him a Superman costume to approve. He couldn’t resist and tried it on, and then called them to say he’d do the film. And Audry, I do agree that Ladyhawk was a fantastic film. Probably my 2nd favorite Donner film.

  16. He was nominated for a Hugo for Ladyhawke. His company, his wife and he, were also the directors for the entire X-men series.

    It is amazing how he could work in any genre and give it a touch or six of humanity.

    He will be missed, he was a rare talent, not to mention Scrooged.

  17. That’s a lovely testimony. Superman was indeed great, it hit all the right notes. And Ladyhawke was a Romance in the old sense, with a great balance between the relationship and the action.

    @Bob Leslie, I think it was the Dominion then. I saw both Sound of Music and Star Wars there on their first releases :)

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  19. One of Roger Ebert’s Superman review commenters liked how Smallville’s music included a bit from the movie. And of course Battlestar did well with using a bit of the original music in the final episode.

    As for me and Superman music, at the time, and for every rewatch or CD track since, I wished for a bit of the 69’s animated Saturday cartoon music: No such luck, of course.

  20. I’m not sure what makes a great director. What I do know is that if Donner had only done Superman, he’d be remembered and respected. Same if he had only done Goonies. If he’d only done the Lethal Weapon movies, he’d be considered an influential action movie director. If he’d only done Ladyhawke, he’d be a cult favorite. But he did all of those and more. Great or not, we would gladly have taken more.

  21. I love watching old TV shows, and a few years ago I binged “The Fugitive” (the original TV series from the 1960s) when it came out on DVD. Donner’s name popped up as a director on two of the show’s best episodes – in many ways, these episodes are better than any of his later big-screen efforts.
    The first episode he directed, “Wife Killer”, featured the first face-to-face confrontation of protagonist Richard Kimble with the One-Armed Man (took the show more than two and a half seasons to get there…). The episode is a true rollercoaster of thrills, full of twists and surprises, with some great guest performances.
    The second episode Donner directed, “In a Plain Paper Wrapper”, is a slower and more serious affair, with a script co-written by up and coming Glen A. Larson (later of “Battlestar Galactica”) and it’s a cautionary tale of the ease with which one can get hold of a dangerous weapon in the US (“You’d think there’d be some law against it”, mutters a cop character in one of the episode’s closing scenes). Other than the important message, the episode also features a wonderful performance by young Kurt Russell.
    So, I guess it’s a recommendation – watch these two episodes to pay a tribute to honor Donner’s memory. And because they’re really good.

  22. After reading this post, I thought to check Richard Donner’s TV work. Wow. I remembered that he’d directed some episodes of The Fugitive, and Raz Greenberg just gave us a great write-up.

    He also directed Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in the original Twilight Zone. And everything from Get Smart to The Banana Splits and from Gilligan’s Island and The Rifleman and The Wild Wild West. Not to mention Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic with Linda Blair (and Mark Hamill).

    I love Ladyhawke! I almost didn’t get to see it in the theater, but a professor loaned me the money. I forgot to repay him, so I will wander the earth after my death, looking for his descendants so that I can give them the money. :(

  23. Superman was my first movie obsession, and the Superman character was my first movie crush, as played by Jeff East and Christopher Reeve. It was the character, not the actors. I saw them in other roles and didn’t feel the same attraction.

    I saw it four times in theaters, which may not seem that much compared to people who saw Star Wars dozens of times, but I was in junior high in a small town and to see it I had to get someone to drive me to a big city.

    I remember reading in a making-of book that someone played a joke on the director by removing letters from the back of his chair, so that it read HARD ON.

  24. Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty as a pair of comic villains was inspired. I remember giggling helplessly into my popcorn as Hackman snarled “Otisville!?”

    Help me remember some others — Jack Lemon and Peter Falk in The Great Race come to mind.

  25. Kevin, I remember that book. Mark David Petrou wrote it. He had a cameo as the trainer telling Clark to collect up all the equipment after the football game. Donner had his revenger. Since Petrous was small, he had him strip down naked and climb into Kal-el’s spaceship to make sure the lights wouldn’t be too hot for the toddler playing young Kal. Donner took pics of him and threatened to use them if he wrote badly about him LOL.