...Appreciative "The Loss of Stanley Donen"
STANLEY DONEN (1924 - 2019)
Hollywood film director Stanley Donen passed away this February 21st, 2019, at age ninety-four. Known for directing such musical classics as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “Damn Yankees!” (1958) and “Funny Face” (1957) – the latter with dancing icon Fred Astaire and a sprightly Audrey Hepburn – Donen was a magical, whimsical powerhouse director whose ethereal glitter will be greatly missed. For me, however, I most loved Donen’s 1960s non-musical films. My three favorites are “The Grass Is Greener” (1960), “Charade” (1963), and “Two for the Road” (1967). Think Donen was only good at manufacturing glittering images alongside a glittering Gershwin melody? Au contraire. Watch these three non-musicals and be pleasantly surprised. Now the reasons why a person might love one artist over another can sometimes be tough to articulate, to pin down. But for me, I’ve always known why I loved Donen.
He’s known for AWESOME opening credits. Opening credits? Totally. I first fell in love with his opening credits when watching “Two for the Road” (1967) back when I was in high school. When I saw this black background suddenly spring to beautiful life with a unique, imaginative, almost cartoon-like green tree, then continue with beautifully vibrant 1960s yellow, red, etc., road signage, and finally a sweet lilting orange road with a white car – all a fitting nod to the film’s "roadsy" title – I was hooked. Couple that with composer Henry Mancini’s sweet instrumental opening music – wow – I almost cried even before this movie started! This is trademark Donen. He hooks you immediately. His opening credits are distinctive, engaging. Now I must give credit where credit is due. Famed title designer Maurice Binder is responsible for these opening credits. But still. The director gets the final “sign-off” on all aspects of a film. So kudos to Donen on these unique, colorful 1960s credits. He allowed Binder to shine.
Donen got the best actors for his movies, and knew how to get arguably their best performances. Anyone who has seen Audrey Hepburn in “Two for the Road” (1967) is shocked at her darker, more realistic, and glossed “down” portrayal of an unhappily married woman named Joanna Wallace. Her portrayal is touchingly believable. This is said to be one of her best, most critically acclaimed – though often overlooked – performances. Sure, rumor has it that the film “The Grass Is Greener” (1960) could have benefited from more rehearsal time for its male leads – Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum – but for diehard fans of these legendary actors (which I am), there are still enough laughs to be had in this “drawing room” rom-com. Plus, their characters' on-screen paramours – legendary actresses Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons – save the day. Their performances are as stellar as always. I love the playfulness and witty banter of “The Grass Is Greener” (1960), even if it feels tedious at times. Additionally, I ADORE the London romance sequence between Mitchum and Kerr – they’re not even present in most of their own love scenes! Brilliant, right? You’ll need to watch this movie to see what I mean. Think an abandoned canoe, an abandoned picnic blanket, and where do these two lovebirds run off to after skipping out on the theater? Donen was wonderfully clever. By keeping these two actors off-screen, and only sweetly alluding to their characters' illicit affair, he ultimately keeps these adulterous characters wholesome and likeable. Yes, he knew how to get a good performance. What irony.
Donen always brought the "sparkle" factor to his movies. For “Charade” (1963), the most critically and commercially successful of my three favorite ‘60s Donen films, I am forever blown away by its quality. Every stylized shot (Donen’s mastery of the 1950s highly stylized musical is evident here), every plot-twist, and every romantic moment between actors Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn is THRILLING. When first watching this movie, I was certain Alfred Hitchcock had directed. Turns out it was Donen! The undisputed “Master of Suspense” Hitchcock has nothing on Donen in this film. Donen ROCKS. It must’ve been amazing to watch this film in a darkened movie theater in the 1960s. “Charade” (1963) is a “let's go to the movies” kind of film. It’s movie-making at its best – what all those silvery, gray-haired cinema-gods might’ve hoped for when inventing celluloid back in 1889. Of course, too, “Charade” (1963) has superb opening credits. They, like “Two for the Road” (1967), are bright 1960s colors and geometrics, but this time – throw in a Henry Mancini song that’s mysterious and suspenseful. It’s James Bondish, 007ish – yet still unique.
I’m sorry that Stanley Donen has passed away. There aren’t many Old Hollywood greats still living – and Donen was one who proved that a great director can be just as magnificent and larger-than-life as any brilliant actor or actress. To me, he's in the ranks of other fantastic deceased directors – Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Elia Kazan, and the aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock.
Donen's aesthetic was uniquely magical. Because of this, he was one of the first directors who made me want to peek BEHIND the movie curtain – instead of staying in front with all those ravishing peacock-like performers. It’s easy to love an actor or actress. After all, they’re who we see. But Donen expanded my appreciation of movie-making. I’m grateful to him for that. To this day, when I see an old 1950s or 1960s movie with awesome opening credits, I think – “Is this a Donen film?” It takes a skillful, caring hand to create an excellent movie that will touch people. Donen had this in spades, and it showed – right down to his opening credits.