He made Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling and Gene Kelly sing in the rain. But Stanley Donen's later work was as dark as Caravaggio's. What changed?by Mark Cousins / November 23, 2008 / Leave a comment
In may this year, film director Stanley Donen sued Gap for $5m for using footage from his 1957 film Funny Face in an advert. Many people must have been surprised to learn he was still alive. Donen, who made Singin’ in the Rain, is firmly in Hollywood’s pantheon, responsible for its pre-modern burnish and joy. He made Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling, filmed Gene Kelly’s rapture as he skipped along a rain-drenched pavement, choreographed Cyd Charisse and Rita Hayworth, directed Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra, and modernised the American screen musical. In Empire magazine’s recent poll of the best 500 films of all time, three of Donen’s appeared: On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). They come from an age of enchantment, a time before Brando and the Method, Nixon and Watergate, 9/11 or YouTube. His honorary Oscar, presented to him by Martin Scorsese in 1998, was for the “grace, elegance and wit” of his body of work. Yet those who know Donen were not surprised by the writ. He was always famous for his short fuse—and his late work reveals as great a darkening of temperament as the last, penumbral paintings of Caravaggio.
Born in 1924 in South Carolina to Jewish parents, Donen was bullied at school. When, aged nine, he saw Fred Astaire dance in Flying Down to Rio, “something exploded inside me,” he later recalled. The explosion blasted him to Broadway, where he danced, and then MGM where, at the grand old age of 24, he co-directed his first full film with Gene Kelly, On the Town.
Then, aged 28, Donen found himself at the helm of the great utopian picture of its age, Singin’ in the Rain. Many of the situations and techniques of his later work are found in the film. The Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor-Debbie Reynolds friendship triangle would recur throughout his career, explicitly sexually in Lucky Lady’s threesome of Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds. And Singin’ in the Rain’s kaleidoscopic split-screens cropped up again in Funny Face, Indiscreet (where a split screen shows Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman talking to each other by phone), and a six-way image split in Damn Yankees.
A third signature hints at deeper ideas in Donen’s work. Near the beginning of Singin’ in the Rain, its story…