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What Do Superman, Lethal Weapon, and The Goonies Have in Common?

If there were a Hall of Fame for movie directors, the walls would be plastered with posters of recognizable faces like Spielberg, Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Welles. But who is that guy in the side hallway on the way to the bathroom? Why has the man who directed arguably the greatest buddy-cop movie (Lethal Weapon), the original superhero blockbuster (Superman), and the ultimate eighties kids pic (The Goonies) been relegated to such a stinky location? Read the name next to the placard. Still doesn’t help? Well, it’s time to learn about this guy.

His name is Richard Donner, and if you
haven’t heard of him you’re not alone. Donner’s fate seems destined to the dustbins of movie history, despite a track record as good as, if not better than, Jonathan Demme’s, M. Night Shyamalan’s, and Michael Bay’s. So what gives? Why the lack of respect for the man behind The Omen (a true horror classic), Ladyhawke (classic fantasy), and Scrooged (the funniest version of Dickens’s Christmas tale)?

Working against him, perhaps, is the fact that his career coincides
with those of Speilberg and Scorsese, which is the equivalent of being a great basketball player during the era of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Donner is the Isiah
Thomas of late-twentieth-century filmmaking, so to speak. He’s certainly no Dennis Rodman.

The guy lacks a big personality. He can’t compete with Tarantino’s
manic energy or Woody Allen’s endearing neuroses. Even Spielberg projects bigger-than-life nerd-dom, while Scorsese flaunts
a streetwise attitude with a funny accent. Even if you’re one of the hard-core movie fans
who does know who Donner is, you’d be hard-pressed to describe him in colorful terms. Not everyone shines in the spotlight, and, if you’re a director, how much does that matter?

What ultimately may have proved Donner’s undoing, however, is his lack of a signature style. There’s a sentimental through line to much of Spielberg’s work (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hook), a humorous irreverence in Allen’s oeuvre (Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), and an artful use of violence in Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Jackie Brown). But what do Maverick and Conspiracy Theory have in common, never mind The Omen and The Goonies? Not a whole lot. You won’t find a trace of the epic Superman in the nonstop fun of Lethal Weapon any more than you’d find the sardonic comedy of Scrooged in Ladyhawke. If you ask someone what a Donner movie is like, the only unifying response is, “Really good.” This is one case where versatility ended up being one man’s undoing.

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