Spotlight On: Richard Donner
He taught us Goonies never say die; made us terrified of small children; and made us believe a man can fly. Recently we lost the legendary director/producer Richard Donner who passed away at the age of 91. Beginning his career directing for a number of classic TV shows like the Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and Gilligan’s Island, Donner would eventually move to film. With the one-two punch of the Omen and Superman, Richard Donner had arrived on the Hollywood A-list. From there he brought hig magic touch to everything from blockbusters (Lethal Weapon) to cult hits (Ladyhawke) and under-the-radar gems (Conspiracy Theory). With his wealth of experience and work ethic he earned the respect of his casts and crew while also serving as a mentor to others. He may be gone, but Richard Donner’s contribution to film will never be forgotten so it is time to shine the Spotlight On Richard Donner.
The Twilight Zone “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963): Many filmmakers get their start directing in television and Richard Donner was no exception. In his case, he helmed an episode of the Twilight Zone which has become one of the most iconic pieces of TV ever, recognizable even to those who have never even seen the show. William Shatner plays a man trying to readjust to life after being institutionalized with a nervous breakdown. What should have been a routine flight home is interrupted by a gremlin he sees on the wing of the plane wreaking havoc. His attempts to save the plane are met with skepticism, as he is the only one who sees this gremlin who floats away every time someone else looks. With each passing moment the passenger’s madness grows as he has to do something to save the plane.
The Omen (1976): When the child of an American diplomat dies shortly after being born, Ambassador Robert Thorn quietly adopts a new infant he names Damien. As the child grows, Thorn notices strange events surrounding the child including his nanny publicly killing herself at his fifth birthday party. At the suggestion of a priest, the diplomat and his wife soon begin to learn that Damien may in fact be the Antichrist himself. With his first major film, Richard Donner produced a critical and commercial hit out of something that should have simply been an Exorcist knock-off. Today, the Omen has cemented itself a classic of the horror genre.
Superman (1978): Nowadays big budget, tent pole superhero movies are everywhere, but there was a time where adapting a superhero to the big screen was unheard of. Richard Donner took that initial step when he brought the Man of Steel to the big screen with Superman. The last survivor of the planet Krypton Superman uses his powers as a protector of his newfound home while disguising himself as reporter Clark Kent. The only person not happy about this superhero is the villainous Lex Luthor who sees him as an obstacle for his grand schemes. Assembling an all-star cast and utilizing visual fx never seen before, Donner guided Superman to becoming a classic and laying the template for the modern superhero film.
Ladyhawke (1985): A dark fantasy film that bombed at the box office, but has still gone on to become a cult classic. After escaping prison, young thief “The Mouse” Gaston runs across the enigmatic Navarre and Isabeau. He learns they have been cursed by the evil Bishop, where by day Isabeau is a hawk while at night Navarre becomes a wolf. Having escaped the impregnable fortress of the villain, the two hope Gaston can help them reach the Bishop and break their curse. The key to their freedom lies in the oncoming solar eclipse which will allow them to be human together. Aside from an ill-fitting music score Alan Parsons, Ladyhawke is a character-focused fantasy epic one rarely sees anymore.
The Goonies (1985): For so many of us this film was a landmark of our childhoods. When the community they call home is threatened a group of young friends calling themselves “the Goonies” find a lead to the lost treasure of One-Eyed Willie. Descending beneath their town, the Goonies have to survive booby traps, puzzles, and the dangerous Mama Fratelli. Along the way they make a new friend in Sloth and together set out to find the lost treasure. Helming a grand Spielberg-produced adventure film was one thing, and doing so with a young cast was a challenge in of itself, but Donner made the Goonies a classic of the 80’s
Lethal Weapon (1987): The quintessential action/comedy buddy cop film of the 1980’s. The “too old for this s–t” Sergeant Murtaugh gets paired with a new erratic loose-cannon partner Sergeant Riggs. While they have their issues the two partners must work together when a young woman winds up dead. What unravels is a plot from a group of mercenaries led by Mr. Joshua to set up and maintain a drug operation in the city. Teaming with producer Joel Silver, screenwriter Shane Black, and the duo of Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, Donner crafted a blockbuster hit which led to a series of sequels and a TV show.
X-Men (2000): In the 70’s he modernized the superhero film, in the 2000’s he helped oversee their resurgence. As the producer responsible for bringing decades of X-Men lore with hundreds of characters to the big screen in a way that makes both fans and newcomers happy, the pressure was there. Along with his wife and collaborator Lauren Shuler Donner the two oversaw one of the most important comic book film making it’s way to the big screen. X-Men along with Spider-Man proved superheroes were box office gold and started the boom we are still in.