With the passing of Richard Donner Hollywood has lost one of its most diverse mainstream filmmakers. Donner can’t be pigeonholed into one genre and defined every one he worked in. Whether it be Horror, Action, Superheroes, or Fantasy he was creating the templates for others to follow.
Cutting his teeth on just about every major American TV show in the 60s, including the famous William Shatner episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’, he moved into filmmaking full time from the mid-70s and began churning out hit after hit with his most successful being ‘Superman: The Movie’. Although only officially directing one superhero film this is the genre he has had the biggest impact on, an impact that is not common knowledge to most. His production company, spearheaded by his wife Lauren Shular Donner, oversaw the X-Men’s jump from comics to the big screen. It was at this point that he took Kevin Feige under his wing, the man who would go on to be the most success producer in film history as the head of Marvel Studios. But that’s not his only connection to the modern comic book industry, another one of his personal assistant was Geoff Johns who has been a driving force behind DC comics, films, and television for the last twenty years.
Donner was the kind of filmmaker that some like J.J. Abrams wishes they were but he never saw himself bigger than the films that he was making. Never wanting to be the star himself he always let his films and actors shine. As a director coming out of the 70s he is as important to modern cinema as Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola and quietly assembled a list of credits that most directors will never beat.
5. The Goonies (1985)
Contrary to what some people may believe ‘The Goonies’ isn’t Donner’s best film, it isn’t even the best film he released in 1985. That said, it is still one of the best family films ever made with Donner proving he can Spielberg with the best of them.
This tale of a gang of young outsiders who embark on a great adventure to save their town is a creative powerhouse built by some of the leading names in the industry. It is based on a story by Spielberg himself who also produces alongside Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (basically the Indiana Jones team minus Lucas) and written by Chris Columbus (who would go on to ‘Home Alone’ and ‘Harry Potter’).
The film is so popular that thirty six years later there is still a demand for a sequel.
4. Ladyhawke (1985)
Richard Donner tried his hand at Medieval fantasy and the result was ‘Ladyhawke’ – his best film released in 1985.
It is the epic tale of cursed lovers played by Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer. She transforms into a hawk by day and him into a wolf at night dooming them to never be able to meet in person until the spell is broken by killing the Bishop that cast it. Helping them on their quest is Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, as a young thief who allows the couple to communicate through him.
The one odd choice in the film is for it to have a synth-pop score rather than a more traditional classical one.
3. Superman: The Movie (1978)
The film that made you believe a man could fly. ‘Superman: The Movie’ was a groundbreaking film in a genre that now rules the cinema. This was the first modern superhero film to take it’s subject matter seriously and had a budget-breaking cast (we are looking at you Brando) of talent and special effects that could sell the material.
Donner took a script by Mario Puzo that was closer in tone to ‘Batman: The Movie’ and, with the help of Tom Mankiewicz, created a piece of mythic storytelling that still holds up today with the first act being one of the best superhero origins put onto film. The film had a lot of stand outs – the production design, John Willaims’ score but with Christopher Reeve, whose performance of Clark Kent/Superman is one of the greatest superhero performances, he created a star.
If it wasn’t for the notoriously difficult to work with Salkinds, who were the producers, Donner may have made surpassed this with the sequel that was taken out of his his.
2. The Omen (1976)
With ‘The Exorcist’ putting horror on the mainstream Hollywood map Donner took on ‘The Omen’ which would become his first genre defining film. With a template that he would use again for ‘Superman: The Movie’ he took the subject matter seriously and used star power to sell it and there isn’t anyone more Hollywood than Gregory Peck.
In a story of the Anti-Christ’s rise to power there are numerous shocks from Patrick Troughton’s impalation to Lee Remick’s dive out the window but the standout scene is David Warner’s ‘Final Destination’ style decapitation. Donner maintains a level of unease throughout that has rarely been matched and delivers a classic 70s ending. Everything is brought together by Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous and memorable score to create a classic piece of genre filmmaking.
1. Lethal Weapon (1987)
This was Donner’s magic. The right script with the right actor at the right time. A lot dark than the sequels would have you believe, it is the story of a suicidal cop looking for a way to end it all and the unwilling veteran who has to take him on as a partner. No matter what you think of Mel Gibson now this a hell of a performance where he goes through all the emotions showing he his more than the near mute, brooding ‘Mad Max’. He is ably supported by Danny Glover and there is a clear, believable chemistry between the actors, up there with Newman and Redford, that is the reason we got three sequels. Donner, Gibson, and Glover loved working together so much that there was still talk that a fifth film was in pre-production as recently as late last year.
Shane Black’s pull no punches, banter heavy script along with Stuart Baird’s dynamic editing coupled with Donner’s storytelling ability make this the peak of 80s cop thrillers and every buddy cop film since this has tried and failed to be the new ‘Lethal Weapon’.