Stanley Donen: State of Grace

Following a period of neglect, Stanley Donen's reputation is on the rise. The director with the most elegant touch of all talks about Singin' in the Rain, Funny Face, Indiscreet, Charade, Two for the Road, and Bedazzled.

One of the first things I notice in Stanley Donen's living room is a signed photograph from one of his best friends sitting on a bureau. Staring up at me, with a rumpled hat and a rueful smile, is Billy Wilder. Scribbled on the photo is this legend: "To Stanley. How soon it goes. One year: The ten best films. Next year: The hundred neediest cases. Shit."

Billy shares the table top with Cary Grant and Gene Kelly, among others, and his sarcasm is a raffish gong amid a room that's a cool pastel symphony of pinks and pearls, a room that looks as if Cyd Charisse should be dancing through it on her way to the swimming pool, trailing yards of gossamer silk, Gershwin melodies urging her on. This is a man who, at 27, was co-directing, with Kelly, Singin' in the Rain--almost universally regarded as the tip-top peak of the American film musical. He's not just one of the two great Golden Age MGM musical directors, but a master as well of blithe trickery, urbane comedy, and lightly ironic modern morality plays: On the Town,_ Royal Wedding_, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, The Pajama Game, Indiscreet, Damn Yankees, Charade, Arabesque, Two for the Road, Bedazzled, The Little Prince, Lucky Lady, and Movie Movie. In all his films, Donen's expertise is impeccable but casual, seamless but earthy. And a sly wink lies below each film's surface.

Like his friend Wilder, or Elia Kazan, or the late Orson Welles, or dozens of others in the past, violently ageist decade, Donen's been pretty much of a wasted resource over the last several years. Only one Donen movie has appeared recently--the sprightly, flawed, overly-zaftig sex comedy Blame It on Rio (a Larry Gelbart Americanization of Claude Berri's One Wild Moment). But Donen's low profile is not for any want of energy. He produced the Academy Awards in '86, which featured a "Follies"-like tribute, starring MGM musical stars; then, a year later, he directed a great musical production number with Sandahl Bergman and Bruce Willis on a particularly memorable "Moonlighting" episode. Currently, he's working on two feature scripts with Ronald (The Dresser) Harwood and Frederic (Two for the Road) Raphael. He's also far sharper on current events, modern fumbles and foibles and new movies than most buffs half his age. Among his current favorite moviemakers are contemporary Blake Edwards (especially for 10, Victor/Victoria and S.O.B.), and two from younger generations: Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen (he calls Woody "the great American filmmaker"). And, though he walked out of Batman after fifteen minutes, he cites Jack Nicholson as his favorite current actor.

So, Stanley Donen and I settle down in this witty-palatial room, all sea-shells and Hockneys and high, light ceilings, in the Bel-Air showplace that he shared for 10 years with ex-wife Yvette Mimieux. Our talk is occasionally interrupted by phone calls, from which I swear I can hear the ominous word, "bottom line." And Donen begins disarmingly to bare his life and opinions, just like a guy who never had to look back over his shoulder at anyone. Maybe he doesn't.

Michael Wilmington: What was it like growing up in Columbia, South Carolina?

Stanley Donen: I'm Jewish--which is peculiar in South Carolina. In New York, if you were born a Jew, you were in the majority--or at least you felt like you were. In South Carolina, you were a true ethnic minority.

MW: When did you start dancing?

SD: I started dancing when I saw Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, at approximately nine years old. Fred Astaire influenced me, more than anything, to be in "show business." I never had a clue before that. My father worked for a chain and every summer he would be called back to the main office in New York, and I would go and study dancing there: mostly tap dancing. I was never a terrific dancer, so I started choreography early on. I never had a passion to perform.

MW: What was it like when you finally directed Astaire, your first idol?

SD: It was the most unexpected and thrilling thing that ever happened to me, because, at nine years old, I saw this guy who caused an explosion inside me, and now I was going to direct him. When you ask Baryshnikov or Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine who's the great dancer of the 20th century, they all say Fred Astaire. So, how did I feel? Thrilled!

MW: You worked together on seven films with Gene Kelly, in addition to three which you two co-directed. How did you meet him?

SD: I met him in 1940 on my first job, in "Pal Joey." He was the star. I was 16 years old, one of four male dancers behind him; Van Johnson was another. There were thousands of people, and I just came to an open call; I auditioned and got the job. I suspect I was hired because I had such a thick Southern accent that when John O'Hara, Dick Rodgers, Larry Hart, and George Abbott heard me, it made them laugh. That's what made me stand out.

Gene and I didn't particularly hit it off on that show. The next show I was in, "Best Foot Forward," was also directed by Abbott; he made me the assistant to the choreographer--who only lasted a week. And so Abbott asked Gene--who was still in "Pal Joey"--if he would choreograph "Best Foot Forward." Gene came over and said: "Well, gee, Stanley, you could be my assistant." That's how we really got to know each other.

Then he went to Hollywood-- and I went into a third Abbott show, "Beat the Band." The war was on; I decided to come to Hollywood to see if I could get a job in the movies. Just like Singin' in the Rain: guy shows up with a suitcase, looks up at the signs.

Gene telephoned me one day and said: "I've just agreed to be in a film called Cover Girl at Columbia. Would you like to come be my assistant?" So, I went to Columbia--and I got to direct Gene's big number, the "Alter Ego Ballet," where he dances with another image of himself. The director, Charles Vidor, said "It can't be done," but it was my idea and I knew you could do it if the dancing was worked out to the split second, to pre-recorded tracks. Of course, you needed somebody like Gene, who could hit marks like that: he had to hit exact marks on the same beat, with the camera in exactly the same place. First we shot one take, then Gene switched places and we shot another, and when the film was joined he appeared to be partners with his own alter-ego. If you look at it now, it's not like a computer. But it's close enough.

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