For all the fame, and box office that films directed by Richard Donner received, the filmmaker himself was seldom seen as a major artistic force. Donner’s list of beloved films is longer than that of many more “artistic” directors, but he never scored an Oscar nomination. Donner never scored a single Oscar nomination. But for nearly a decade and a half, he was one of the most reliable commercial craftsmen of his era.
Donner cut his teeth directing episodic television from 1960-1968. While much of his TV work can be qualified as a “pro job,” there were hints of the sort of muscular direction he would known for years later – particularly in his helming of The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner (“There’s a man on the wing of the plane!”). Donner got his first shot at a feature with 1968’s “Rat Pack” crime comedy Salt and Pepper. Two years later he made the May-December comedy London Affair starring Charles Bronson(!) as a 38-year-old man married to a 16-year-old Susan George in a film I’ve never seen, but whose description kind of boggles my mind.
After the twin audience dismissals of Salt and Pepper and London Affair, Donner returned to television for six years until he got his third shot at the cinema with The Omen, and this time he made it count. While some some may find the story of a pre-pubescent anti-Christ as a bit silly, the film was a huge hit, and would reveal who Donner was to be – an audience’s director. Donner would go on to make movies for the masses, and his next film, 1978’s Superman: The Movie, is still the archetype for how to make a great superhero movie without taking one’s self too seriously. While Christopher Reeve’s costume may have looked ridiculous on the rack, Reeve filled it out nicely, and Donner’s mastery of romance, comedy, and derring-do resulted in a huge smash.
Donner’s next film was to be Superman II, but after shooting roughly 75% of the film, Donner fell out with the producers (the infamous Alexander and Ilya Salkind) and was replaced by veteran British director Richard Lester (who worked second unit on Superman). The film ended up being an amalgam of Donner and Lester’s work (you can have a lot of fun spotting continuity issues), but was a massive hit nonetheless. Much of the crew and cast quit after Donner’s firing (including Gene Hackman, whose re-shoots had to be completed with a stand-in), and when Lester (in all kindness) offered Donner a co-directing credit, Donner turned it down, saying “I don’t share credit.” The lack of the existence of a making of Superman II documentary is absolutely baffling.
Ever the professional, Donner moved on quickly with Inside Moves, a barroom drama starring John Savage and David Morse that scored a best supporting actress nomination for Diana Scarwid. Inside Moves is a bit of a lost movie that while being perhaps overly earnest, hosts a lot of fine acting as well as the behind the camera craft that Donner was always known for. Donner had another sizable hit in 1982 with The Toy, a comedy starring Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason where Pryor is hired by Gleason’s character to be, a, well, toy, for one of the more unlikable child actors in film history. Let’s just say that regardless of its financial success, it hasn’t aged well.
Donner followed up with two cult classics, Ladyhawke and The Goonies. Ladyhawke is a medieval fantasy starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer as cursed lovers who can only see each other in human form (Hauer’s character takes on the form of a wolf by day, and Pfeiffer’s a hawk by night) at dawn and dusk. The box office returns for Ladyhawke were modest, but if you ever run into anyone who’s seen it, don’t be surprised if they wax poetic about the film for a good 15 minutes. If you are a child of the ’80s, you probably don’t need me to tell you much about The Goonies – a kids adventure tale that has the rare distinction of being both a sizable success at the time of its release, while also being to sort of film that results in themed watched parties by film lovers who know every word and look askance at anyone who doesn’t cherish the film like they do.
After flourishing for years with PG material. Donner took a more adult turn with Lethal Weapon in 1987. The fairly gonzo cop thriller (seriously, Gibson’s suicidal, gun-in-the-mouth moment in the first third of the movie is so convincing, you forget that the character doing himself in would end the film way too prematurely) may not have created the cop “buddy movie” (48 Hours can probably lay claim to that), but it sure as hell perfected it. The first Lethal Weapon film was a hit with audiences (and most critics) and made a huge star of Gibson (your mileage and feelings may vary on that fact). Just like with Superman, Donner felt the pulse of the audience and the era and produced a film that many consider the mountaintop of its genre.
As if to say, “I can do whatever I want and get people into the movie theater seats,” Donner followed up Lethal Weapon with Scrooged – a take off on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Bill Murray – that may not have landed with critics, but certainly found an audience, and is still a holiday staple more than three decades after its original release.
As the ’80s closed, Donner directed a second Lethal Weapon film, one that many (including myself), would argue is the rare sequel that improves upon its predecessor. Lethal Weapon 2 was more grim, more violent, and gnarlier than the first film, yet somehow, an even bigger hit. The chemistry between Gibson and his onscreen partner Danny Glover was hand-in-glove. The Lethal weapon series would go on to be imitated countless times, but never surpassed.
Three years would pass before Donner would take the director’s chair again. In 1992 he directed the childhood drama Radio Flyer (which wasn’t a success, but if you worked in a video rental store as I did after its release, you saw it get checked in and out with regularity) and Lethal Weapon 3. While LW3 was a hit, Donner was working in “soft” R territory and to be honest, I can’t remember a single thing about Lethal Weapon 3, and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.
Gibson and Donner reteamed for the comedic western, Maverick, based on the television series starring James Garner (who Donner, ever so astutely, cast as Gibson’s father in the film). No one is going to confuse Maverick with Fellini, but it was a good night out – something Donner specialized in.
Donner’s final stretch as a director was not as memorable as his peak years (I suppose that’s why they call them “peak years”). 1995’s Assassins starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas is pretty awful, 1997’s Conspiracy Theory (with Gibson and Julia Roberts) underperformed, 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 was just plain tired (despite some comic relief provided by Chris Rock), and 2003’s Timeline failed to stir filmgoers from their homes, but his final film, 16 Blocks from 2006, starring Bruce Willis (how did they not fin each other sooner?) and Mos Def was not only reliably entertaining, but grittier than anticipated. If you squint hard enough, 16 Blocks almost looks like a Sidney Lumet film…almost. 16 Blocks proved to be a disappointment at the box office and Donner collapsed his director’s chair for good (although he kept busy as a producer for a few years).
If I were looking for a modern comparable to Richard Donner, it might be James Mangold. A director who can move between genres with ease, and, perhaps most significantly, “give the people what they want.” That’s an undervalued skill in Hollywood. One that seems deserving of more respect. Especially on this day.
Richard Donner died yesterday, he was 91 years old.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.