The musical manBy James Verniere
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
What’s it like to interview a legend like Stanley Donen, director of such classics as “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “Royal Wedding” (1951), a musical in which he made it possible for Fred Astaire to dance on a ceiling, and the Paris-set Audrey Hepburn-Astaire vehicle “Funny Face" (1957)?
The short answer is, “Heaven, I’m in heaven.”
Donen, 85, whose work is being celebrated at the Boston Pops’ Film Night with John Williams (Thursday and Friday, may 28th and 29th), is a giant who believes that movies and music go together like the proverbial horse and carriage. A “Jewish boy” from Columbia, S.C., Donen retreated to the wonderland of his town’s movie theaters.
“I was infected by the magic of movies,” Donen recalled by phone from his apartment near Manhattan’s Central Park.
“I watched everything, but when I saw ‘Flying Down to Rio’ (1933) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I went home and told my mother and father that I wanted to study dancing.”
Luckily they said yes. After graduating high school at 16, Donen auditioned on Broadway for two parts.
“I was accepted for both, but chose the one that went into rehearsal one day sooner. I had to make a living.”
The “sooner” one was “Pal Joey,” starring young sensation Gene Kelly. Donen and Kelly later formed a creative partnership, co-directing such films as “On the Town” (1949) and “Singin’ in the Rain,” a film listed in an American Film Institute poll as the greatest musical ever made. “Number one is a good place to be,” Donen deadpanned.
Early in their collaboration, Donen phoned his colleague at 3 a.m. to tell him he had a great idea for a sequence in “Anchors Aweigh” (1945), which Kelly was shooting with director George Sidney. “How’d you like to dance with Mickey Mouse?” asked Donen. “Can it be done?” Kelly responded.
It could, even if Walt Disney refused to lend Mickey (“Sorry, boys”). Notably, Donen did it 43 years before “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988). You see, little Stanley received an 8mm movie camera at age 8 and it gave him ideas.
Donen lists that “other” brilliant Stanley, the late Stanley Kubrick, as a close friend. “He called me up to say he was going to use the upside-down trick from ‘Royal Wedding’ in ‘2001: (A Space Odyssey)’. Did I mind? he asked. I said, ‘Of course, I don’t mind.’ ”
When I ask Donen how well he knew Bob Fosse, who choreographed Donen’s “The Pajama Game,” he’s effusive. “What a talent! We were best friends. I shot his MGM screen test.”
In the 1960s, Donen made the transition to nonmusicals, directing two Hitchcockian larks - “Charade” (1963) with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and “Arabesque” (1966) with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren - and the sophisticated marital saga “Two for the Road” (1967) with Hepburn and Albert Finney. “It was out of necessity. The market for musicals had dried up.”
Donen received an honorary Academy Award in 1998 and gave one of the greatest acceptance speeches ever.
A partial list of actors with whom Donen has worked includes Kelly, Astaire, Grant, Hepburn, Loren, Peck, Frank Sinatra, George C. Scott, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day and Ingrid Bergman.
Is there a common denominator?
“They’re all terrific.”
Here’s more from my interview with Stanley Donen:
How did Donen get from Broadway to Hollywood? “I was in three shows, ‘Pal Joey,’ ‘Best Foot Forward’ and ‘Beat the Band,’ all George Abbott shows. I saved up a little money, and I bought a train ticket and went to Hollywood. I was 17 years old. Again, I auditioned at MGM and got hired. Later, Gene (Kelly) got loaned to Columbia to make ‘Cover Girl.’ Harry Cohn started shooting that picture with no leading man. After Gene got the job, he said, ‘You want to come help me with my numbers?’ I had this idea to do a double-exposure dance number with Gene dancing with himself, an idea that appealed to him on several levels. Cohn said to Gene, ‘Do you think the kid knows what he’s talking about?’ And Gene said, ‘Yeah, he does.’ So Cohn let me direct it. It was all luck, serendipity upon serendipity.”
When I interject, “You had to deliver.” Donen replied, “If you didn’t deliver, that’s the end of the story.”
On the meeting with Walt Disney. “I woke up Gene at 3 a.m. all excited and said, ‘Gene, I got this great idea. How’d you like to dance with Mickey Mouse.’ He said, ‘Can it be done?’ And I said, ‘Oh, sure.’ MGM made an appointment for Gene and me to meet with Walt Disney. He was an amazing guy. He owned Disney and had a tiny little office. I explained the number to him, and he said, ‘Let me get this straight. You want Mickey Mouse to be in an MGM picture?’ We said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Mickey Mouse does not work for MGM. Sorry, boys.’ ” Thus, did MGM’s Jerry Mouse get his big-screen dance break.
In “Funny Face,” a Paris-set Cinderella story featuring costumes by Edith Head and based on the life of fashion photographer Richard Avedon, Audrey Hepburn plays a model photographed by Fred Astaire as she descends a set of stairs in the Louvre. At the top of the stairs looms the sculpture “Winged Victory.” Guess what gets upstaged by Hepburn?
“If you’re going to shoot in the Louvre, the great image is ‘Winged Victory,’ ” said Donen. “I have a strong aversion to the word ‘creative.’ “Only women who give birth are creative. What we are is interpretive. Einstein didn’t invent E=MC squared. ()He realized it. That’s what art is, I think, realizing what’s there.”
On Donen’s friendship with the “other” Stanley, Kubrick. “Kubrick and I were very close friends,” said Donen, who like Kubrick lived in England for a time. “We saw each other often. We’d have dinner together. He called me one day and said, ‘I’m doing this thing upside-down, and I think you’ve done it before’ (Kubrick is referring to the famous scenes of weightlessness in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), and I said, ‘Yeah, I did it years ago with Fred Astaire,’ and he said, ‘I hope you don’t mind.’ I said, ‘Of course I don’t mind.’ A few years later Kubrick called again, ‘I never do this,’ he said, ‘but I’d like you to see a rough cut of “A Clockwork Orange.”
“So we watched it in Elstree (studios) I think it was, and afterward he said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I think it’s a great movie, Stanley, unlike anything before.’ Then he said, ‘No, I mean what about the thing?’ I said, ‘What thing?’ and he said, “Singin’ in the Rain.” I thought you were going to think I had (besmirched) it,’ Kubrick said in reference to the song, which is used in one of the film’s most notoriously violent scenes. I said I thought it was great.”
I tell Donen I watched his 1998 honorary Academy Award acceptance speech on YouTube recently. He has an amusing anecdote. “I was the only person on that stage that night who knew he was going to win. So I said, I gotta figure out what I’m gonna do, so I asked my friend Marshall Brickman (an Oscar-winning screenwriter for “Annie Hall”) if I could borrow his Oscar because I want to see what’ll happen when they hand it to me. He said sure. So I borrowed it and picked it up and I started to sing, ‘Heaven, I’m in heaven.’ So that’s how it came about.”
When I tell Donen how sophisticated I felt taking my girlfriend of the time to see “Two for the Road” (1967), a film written by Frederic Raphael (“Eyes Wide Shut”), Donen said, “It’s not one you want to take your girlfriend to because it takes a very tough look at marriage, really hard, how tough it is and what happens.”
Donen knows whereof he speaks.
He’s been married five times.
Besides the movies listed in the article (with fabulous videos linked in their titles, btw), he directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers , and co-directed It's Always Fair Weather with Gene Kelly, and was partially responsible for the alter-ego number in Cover Girl.
Classic Gossip Trivia: Stanley and Gene were friends and collaborators up until circa 1955, when they directed It's Always Fair Weather. They fought and parted ways, and, alledgely, the reason was this love quadrangle: Stanley was married for a brief period of time to Gene's choreographic assistant, Jeanne Coynne, who had always been in love with Gene. Stanley, on the other hand, was in love with actress Betsy Blair, Gene's wife. Gene and Betsy divorced in 1957 (after 17 years of marriage and b/c Betsy cheated on him), then Jeanne and Gene got married in 1960 (and stayed so until 1973, when she died). Stanley and Betsy never got it on, I guess. Betsy said about all this: "We were all very close and Gene once said that it was probably rather incestuous because Jeanne was in love with Gene, and I have to admit that I was aware of Stanley being in love with me, but I somehow thought that he was actually in love with both of us. I mean, he was in love with Gene's talent, it was Gene that was on screen, it's Gene that everybody sees.''. She also said in a 2003 interview:"How could I have left Gene, this wonderful man, after 16 years of marriage? To this day, I can't explain it. It had nothing to do with sex. It was freedom."
Jeanne looking at Gene, Stanley between them
Gene and Betsy