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Stanley Donen: Just Dancin' and Singin' of His Reign

Oscars: The auteur-choreographer, who just received a special Academy Award, reflects on his earlier years.

March 25, 1998|JOHN ANDERSON | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — "Cary Grant was sitting like this, as he often did," Stanley Donen says, arms splayed, palms up. "The camera was low, and I told him, 'Cary, your hands, do something with your hands.' 'What's the matter with my hands?' he said. 'Well, they look enormous,' I told him. And he started putting his hands here, and putting them there and tucking them under his arms. And he just went mad."

It's a little difficult imagining Grant, that epitome of poise (and star of Donen's "Indiscreet" and "Charade"), in a state of physical discomfit. And equally strange to picture Donen--auteur-choreographer of some of the more fluid moments in American movies--directing a scene of less than consummate grace.

This is, after all, the man who was behind "Singin' in the Rain," not just Hollywood's greatest musical but one of its best-ever movies. The man who introduced the MGM extravaganza to the great outdoors in "On the Town," introduced lumberjacks to choreography in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," introduced Audrey Hepburn to Albert Finney in "Two for the Road."

But any signs of awkwardness had long vanished by Monday night when Donen was honored with an Oscar for lifetime achievement. The 73-year-old director reacted with his customary charm and wit as he sang, tap-danced and provided one of the evening's genuinely special moments.

The academy's gesture was both long overdue and rife with irony; he had never been nominated for an Oscar before.

"What can we say? That's the way it worked," Donen said recently in his Manhattan apartment.

"I don't think there's any collusion that goes on. Everyone's very secretive about who they're going to vote for; they don't want to offend anybody. 'Do you think the academy doesn't want to give whoever-it-is an award?' No, they couldn't be less interested. It's a popularity poll."

The lifetime achievement Oscar is often viewed as apology for past sins of omission; Hitchcock, ever a bridesmaid, got one.

"They've given it to some pretty awesome people," Donen says. "Like Fellini. And Charlie Chaplin. It doesn't feel like an apology to me."

Donen produced the 1986 Oscars show, which saw John Huston, Akira Kurosawa and Billy Wilder present the best picture award--extravagant gestures being a hallmark of the Donen style. As are color, motion and a sense of unbridled joy--see "Funny Face" if you haven't lately.

It makes one wonder what Donen sees as his own legacy.

"People keep telling me--like you are now--that it's the musicals. I always get a little uptight about that. Not that I don't love the musicals and loved making them and love watching them. But I angrily forced my way out of making only musicals because I didn't want to make only musicals."

Although he had to become a producer to make the films he wanted--"Indiscreet" (1958) was the first--he seems to take it all in stride.

"I had problems making the movies I wanted to make, but I got them made," he says. "But it's not only Hollywood that's different today; the whole world is different.

"But the other basic reason pictures are different is that in the '30s, '40s, up through the '50s anyway, the pictures were made by the men who actually owned the studios. They--the Warners, the L.B. Mayers, the Zanucks, the Harry Cohns--were trying not only to make money, which was coming to them anyway, but to establish that they had some good qualities to bring to a community. Because the people in Los Angeles, other than the movie people, didn't like those men. They thought of them as hucksters, money-grubbers."

They were also Jews, of course, which Donen doesn't quite say--although being a Jew in a less-than-welcoming clime is something he knows something about. Born in Columbia, S.C., in 1924, he spent his earliest years in a place, as he later told biographer Stephen Silverman, that he hated growing up in.

"I couldn't wait to get out. It was difficult being a Jew in South Carolina," he says. And not just Jewish, but a boy who wanted to dance. "That made me even stranger," Donen concedes.

At 16, Donen lit out for Broadway, where he danced; met his future collaborator, Gene Kelly; performed in the original "Pal Joey" (by which time Kelly had become a star); became a choreographer for MGM; and, at age 19, choreographed "Cover Girl," in which Kelly does the famous dance with himself.

At age 20, he had Kelly partnered with Jerry the cartoon mouse in "Anchors Aweigh." In 1949, he and Kelly directed "On the Town," which broke all the rules of MGM musicals by filming Frank Sinatra, Kelly and Jules Munshin not on a sound stage but in New York itself. Donen was all of 25.

With Kelly, of course, Donen had a directing partnership that produced three wonderful movies: "On the Town," "Singin' in the Rain" and "It's Always Fair Weather."

"He was difficult, yeah, sure," Donen says of Kelly. "You know, I try to explain to people what one of the problems is about so-called directing. The word itself is difficult for people to comprehend--The Director--because it means different things to different people.

"But the very least it means is that you are working with a group of others and putting your finger right onto the place that's most serious to them. Which is the middle of their art. That's what you're touching all the time, and that makes for complications."

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