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How Director Stanley Donen Made Stars Like Gene Kelly and Audrey Hepburn Shine Their Brightest

Some directors make their presence felt in every frame of their films, while others operate in service of the stories and the stars.

There is no such thing as an egoless director, but Stanley Donen, who died at age 94, made every effort to efface himself from the picture in order to let a film’s assets shine to their full potential. But even in so doing, he left an undeniable signature on his work — films that radiate with color, and music, and some of the most inventive choreography until Bob Fosse came along in the late ’60s.

While his work hasn’t necessarily been studied to the degree that Hitchcock’s and Hawks’ have, it was Donen who made it possible for Gene Kelly to splash and tap around the lamppost in “Singin’ in the Rain,” he enabled Fred Astaire to dance up the walls and across the ceiling in “Royal Wedding,” and he allowed Audrey Hepburn to look as glamorous as she ever would, in Givenchy, in Paris, in “Funny Face.”

And then there is “Charade,” which may have been the perfect film for this then-future-critic to discover at age 12: It’s ersatz Hitchcock, a candy-colored imitation of the “North by Northwest” director’s most mainstream thrillers, pairing Hitch’s most debonair leading man, Cary Grant, with Audrey Hepburn. “Charade” doesn’t hold up to more sophisticated grown-up scrutiny (alas), but for young eyes, it’s all but ideal, and I never realized quite how tricky it must have been for Donen to pull off its featherweight charms until Jonathan Demme tried to remake it as “The Truth About Charlie” 39 years later.

Those films are treasures from an earlier time, sparkling pinwheels of song and dance and mostly-studio-based fantasy. (Though “Charade” made excellent use of the City of Lights, even “Funny Face,” with its whirlwind tour of actual Paris locations — Audrey with balloons in front of the Arc de Triomphe! Audrey wrapped in red chiffon before the Winged Victory in the Louvre! Audrey embracing life on the banks of the Seine! — was mostly shot back on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles.)

Today, audiences are too savvy, too cynical, and far too skeptical to fall for the sort of swoony, ebullient love stories Donen brought to the screen. A tendency toward “realism” — which I offset in quotation marks not to imply sarcasm, but to remind that so-called “verisimilitude” it itself a kind of artifice — has all but antiquated the escapist whimsy in which the director specialized. As a result, such Donen-indebted films as “La La Land” (with its single-shot dance numbers) and “The Artist” (virtually a scene-for-scene rip-off/homage to “Singin’ in the Rain”) feel all the more precious these days, reminders of a time when Hollywood whisked us away from reality, rather than rubbing our noses in it, so to speak.

That makes it all the more impressive that such a gifted dream-weaver as Donen would go on to direct what remains, for my money, the most entertaining and insightful examination of marriage ever put to screen: “Two for the Road.” Mind you, I did not see the movie until 45 years later — at a 2012 Turner Classic Movies Festival screening of the restoration, where Donen was present to introduce the film — so I can hardly pretend to imagine how it was received in 1967. (With her unique gift for condescension, Pauline Kael called it “a good try,” writing, “one wishes it well, one wishes it were better.”) Keep in mind, this was the same year that “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and In the Heat of the Night” competed for best picture — although Donen’s film is infinitely better than that year’s other nominee: “Doctor Doolittle.”

It’s hardly as raw as Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” from the year before, nor as dark as Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” (which plays similar games with its time-skipping chronology), but I’ve long admired the way the dazzlingly nonlinear “Two for the Road” manages to balance the heightened artifice of Donen’s classic-Hollywood style — pairing Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney on a dreamy cross-continental-Europe road trip — with piercing observations about how couples navigate the inevitable obstacles of adapting their lives to one another.

For many of his most celebrated early credits, Donen worked as a director for hire, partnering with others — Kelly on “On the Town” (Donen’s first credit, 70 years ago!), “Singin’ in the Rain” and “It’s Always Fair Weather,” then assisting George Abbott on “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” — to let their own personalities come through. But “Two for the Road” was a project Donen originated, approaching screenwriter Frederic Raphael about his desire to make a film that offered a perspective into the realities of marriage. As Donen explains on the film’s commentary track, “If you tell the truth about people getting married, unfortunately, they do not live happily ever after. If they are fortunate, they live together ever after.”

Recently, I have been reading Raphael’s account of his other imperfect-marriage opus, “Eyes Wide Shut.” The memoir, called “Eyes Wide Open,” brims with priceless insights into working with that other Stanley, Kubrick, who may as well have been Donen’s opposite in every way. Early in the book, the writer describes his first encounter with Donen: “I expected to meet an elderly egomaniac. I was greeted by a man not much older than myself who told me how great he though ‘Nothing but the Best’ was. ‘They all say it’s because of the director,’ Stanley said, ‘but I know it was the writer.’”

With that passage, I was reminded of what I admire most about Donen: He was a director who recognized that films are only as strong as their key ingredients: the script, the stars, and the contributions from their many collaborators — such as photographer Richard Avedon on “Funny Face,” or choreographers as gifted as Astaire and Kelly. Donen’s mission was to emphasize those assets, effectively getting out of their way so that audiences might connect with the story, the characters, and the sheer delight of a well-conceived dance number.

As he put it when accepting his honorary Oscar in 1998: “I’m going to let you in on the secret of being a good director. For the script you get Larry Gelbart, or Peter Stone, or Huyck and Katz, or Frederic Raphael — like that. If it”s a musical, for the songs you get George and Ira Gershwin, or Arthur Freed and Herb Brown, or Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green, or Alan Lerner and Fritz Loewe — like that. Then you cast Cary Grant, or Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman or Frank Sinatra — like that. When filming starts you show up and you stay the hell out of the way.”

Today, do we think of “Singin’ in the Rain” as a Stanley Donen movie, or do we simply celebrate it as the greatest movie musical ever made, as delightful a celebration of classic Hollywood as has ever been put to screen? Which reminds me: In an interview for Variety’s “The Movie That Changed My Life” anthology, sci-fi novelist Ray Bradbury described “Singin’ in the Rain” as a “great science-fiction musical,” explaining, “It is science-fiction because it is about the invention of sound and how that invention changed the history of Hollywood.” Bradbury was so enamored with the movie, and with Kelly in particular, that he went on to write “Something Wicked This Way Comes” as a screenplay in which he hoped Kelly would star. Donen directed so many of my favorite movies. How I wish he’d been the one to make that film!

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