TCM Classic Film Fest: Stanley Donen on Hepburn, censors and more
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When director/producer Stanley Donen took home an honorary Oscar in 1998, “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation,” he turned on the charm at the Academy Awards, hoofing it up and singing “Cheek to Cheek.”
A former Broadway chorus dancer, he made his mark on Hollywood co-directing and choreographing musical classics with Gene Kelly — 1949’s “On the Town,” 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” and 1955’s “It’s Always Fair Weather.” Beginning with 1951’s “Royal Wedding” — best known as the film in which Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling — Donen also had great success as a solo director. He went on to helm 1954’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” with Jane Powell and Howard Keel; in 1957 he came out with both “Funny Face” with Astaire and Audrey Hepburn and “The Pajama Game,” starring Doris Day. In 1958 came the romantic comedy “Indiscreet,” with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and later the 1963 romantic thriller “Charade” (with Hepburn and Grant) and the 1967 romantic drama “Two for the Road” (with Hepburn and Albert Finney).
Donen, who turns 88 on Friday, is appearing three times at the Turner Classic Movies Festival in Hollywood this weekend for screenings of “Funny Face,” “Charade” and “Two for the Road.” We caught up with him recently.
The TCM Film Festival is screening all three movies you did with Audrey Hepburn. She is my favorite actress. I hope you had a great time working with her.
She was wonderful.... We only had one disagreement.... On “Funny Face,” there was a scene where she danced in a black slacks and top. She said [I want to wear] black socks and I said no, white socks. She said it will ruin [the uniformity]. You can’t have white socks. I made a test with her in the white socks and she kept saying black socks. We were right up to the moment of starting the sequence. I went into her dressing room and said, “Audrey. We are never going to agree — you will have to wear the white socks.” She said all right. When the rushes came in she wrote me a little note: “Dear Stanley, you were right about the socks.” She was glorious looking. She was a lovely, lovely person. We stayed friends.
I read that you became interested in dance when you saw Astaire in 1933’s “Flying Down to Rio.” In fact, you saw it countless times. I did. It made this huge impression on me. Fred Astaire was the whole reason that I became involved in movies and plays and, for lack of a better word, show business. My good friend [Bob] Fosse said to me once what we have to learn, we people who work in the movies, is show business is two words and that you have got to deal with both of them. It’s a show and it’s a business. They are both tough to deal with.
There were some pretty sexy scenes, at least for 1958, in “Indiscreet.”
I wanted to show Cary Grant in bed with Ingrid Bergman and the censors said you can’t have an unmarried man in bed with an unmarried woman. We won’t let that picture be distributed. So I came up with the idea of splitting the screen. She was in her bed and he was in his bed and the screen was split. It sort of looked like they were in bed [together]. She was pulling the covers up like he was literally touching her but he wasn’t.
You collaborated with the legendary Broadway director George Abbott on “The Pajama Game” and 1958’s “Damn Yankees.” Abbott had directed both these shows on Broadway. How did you handle directing duties?
He was the man who gave me my first jobs [on Broadway] — “Pal Joey,” “Best Foot Forward,” “Beat the Band.” He directed them all and he kept hiring me. I became an assistant choreographer on his shows and then when I was doing “Pajama Game,” he was the producer theoretically of the movie. We were in rehearsal and I would say ... “How did you do this, George? Remind me. What did you do here?” He said do whatever you want to do, you are directing the movie. After a week of rehearsals or something I said, “George, why don’t we co-direct the movie? This way you won’t have any feelings of shyness of answering me if you like it or don’t like it.” He said let me think about it. The next day he came back and said, “I’ll do it on one condition. I really don’t know anything about movies. I will say I co-directed if you say you co-produced.” I admired him. We were friends until he died.
You also directed the acclaimed British comic actress Kay Kendall (“Les Girls”) in her last film, 1960’s “Once More With Feeling,” which was released after her death of leukemia in 1959 when she was just 33. Was she as charming and funny off screen as she was on?
We had a great time. Rex Harrison, who was [her husband] was in “My Fair Lady” in London and we were filming in Paris, as I recall. Every day she had to call him in his dressing room or he would call her between Act I and Act II. I remember she talked to him on the phone while we were eating and he said to her, “Where are you? I hear all of this noise.” We were in a big, noisy restaurant. She said, “I am in a Christian Science Reading Room.”
Your honorary Oscar speech is one of the top 10 acceptances.
I am glad you think so. I can tell you how that happened. The president of the academy called me and said the board of directors voted you an honorary lifetime Oscar. I said this is wonderful. I hung up my phone and I called my friend Marshall Brickman [“Annie Hall’] and I said “Marshall, can I borrow your Oscar? They are going to give me an Oscar. I want to see what it feels like to actually have it in my hand.” He sent his Oscar and I picked it up pretending it had just been given to me. I looked at it and I started to sing, “Heaven, I’m in heaven” to myself alone in a room. It happened because that is what I felt at that moment — that’s what came out of me. I thought a lot about it later. I had weeks and weeks before [I received the award], but I couldn’t find anything I liked more than the impulse that I had.”
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— Susan King