From The Curse to Lethal Weapon via Superman or The Goonies, Richard Donner embodied the fantastic 80s until the end. A look back at a huge career.
He had shaped pop culture. Or rather, reshaped, reinvented, brought up to date Hollywood entertainment. The buddy movies, it was partly him. Superhero movies, him. The franchises, him among others, and the family horror film always him. He obviously didn’t invent everything, but he took every genre or every industrial component to the next level. The father of Superman, of The lethal Weapon, or The curse passed away on Monday July 5 at the age of 91. And it’s an essential part of Hollywood 80s and popular cinema that disappears with this man. A true studio craftsman, also capable of freeing himself from his producers when necessary, Richard Donner was involved in all the great revolutions of this decade. And his cinema would mark the imagination as much as the industry of the golden 80s.
Yet his career began long before. In the 1950s. After studying theater at New York University, he started out as an actor in broke shows and played small roles on television. Very quickly, however, he abandoned the boards and sought to achieve. The meeting with Martin Ritt changes his life: the latter takes him as his assistant and he then goes on commercials, docuses and TV series episodes. It is also on the small screen that he first made a name for himself. Between the end of the 50s and the mid-70s, it is found in the credits of In the name of the law, The Fourth Dimension, The Mysteries of the West or Perry mason… from its beginnings, his work therefore falls within the confines of genres and feeds on the fantastic. His first movie, X-15, on the life of rocket plane pilots, with a young Charles Bronson, is an oven. He will have to wait more than five years to have the right to a second chance. First with Salt, pepper and dynamite, buddy movie (already!) in black and white with Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr and then with The angel and the devil, in 70, a drama in tune with the times, ersatz hippie of Lolita which was going to install his small reputation of sulfurous artist.
But its real notoriety will be on another register and it will not arrive until the mid-70s. Following the success of The Exorcist, American studios are launching a series of satanist horror films that must compete with Friedkin’s masterpiece. None will of course succeed, but Richard Donner saves the honor. In 1976, The curse departs from Friedkin’s realism to favor an eerie gothic fantasy and his acting direction impresses (Gregory Peck is brilliant). Success will be there and will give rise to two suites. It is precisely by thinking back to The curse that the Salkinds, clever Hollywood producers, offered him the script for Superman. The rest is history: the fight to impose its casting, the setbacks in the editing rooms, the fight against the Salkinds, his replacement by Richard Lester on Superman ii, and especially the incredible global success of the film… Richard Donner finally appears as a major filmmaker. What it is: just review some plans Superman to rediscover his mastery of the setting, its sumptuous fluidity. And his grace: he knew how to tell a feeling in a shot of fragile naivety, a whole story in a sequence shot (as the scene in the newspaper shows).
But as if he sought above all to assert his status as an artisan, not to mostly not to be locked in a box, Donner will take care to change genre with each new project. There will therefore be successively a dramatic comedy (See you at Max), The Joujou, remake of Toy by Francis Veber with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason, the epic Ladyhawke, Woman of the Night, a fantastico-medieval love story that the wonderful photo of Vittorio Storaro completed to transform into a dark myth, or even the amblinesque comedy The Goonies over time has become a nostalgic standard, a cellulo blanket.
In 1986, Donner returned to the detective genre that had made him famous on TV. The lethal Weapon was powered by a script by Shane Black and inspired by the flair of its producer Joel Silver. The film is a real success. If his two accomplices were two masters of the 80s action, Donner is in no way foreign to the success of the film. The chases in LA, the pulp and contagious madness of Gibson, the paranoid staging belong to him and make this buddy movie a true classic of the genre. Abrasive, macho, we discovered with this thriller the alpha and omega of the modern blockbuster, right in its time. The success helping, there will be three suites (all less good) … Moreover, after The lethal Weapon, Donner will never return to this level. The western Maverick, Assassins or Conspiracies would never revive its 80s hits.
It was this decade that he embodied perfectly. He invented (in part at least) certain aesthetic or narrative codes, and embodied to the tips of his nails the uninhibited and daring Hollywood that still obsesses us today.