Richard Donner, the filmmaker who took Superman to new heights with the beloved 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve, is the guest of honor at the 2011 Hero Complex Film Festival, which on June 11 will include both a screening of the original film as well as a rare theatrical presentation of “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.”
The onstage interview with Donner on June 11 will look back on the movie classic that promised to make the world “believe a man can fly” and in doing so created the modern cinema era of superhero films that is showing no signs of slowing down. Donner will also talk about the bittersweet achievements of “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut” — more on that in the story below — and reflection of the celluloid mythology he created with a stellar cast that included Reeve, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford as well as Jackie Cooper, who died this week. Donner will also touch on his other films, among them the “Lethal Weapon” movies, “The Goonies” and “The Omen.”
Tickets are now on sale for the Hero Complex Film Festival, which runs June 9-12 at the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood (soon to be renamed the Chinese 6 Theatre; the venue is set to change hands). Los Angeles Times staff writer Geoff Boucher, the creator and lead writer of the award-winning Hero Complex website, will conduct the onstage interviews.
In 2006, Boucher wrote about the “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” here’s that story to give a fuller context to the June 11 screening.
Originally published November 2006
For once, Superman failed to save the day — Lois Lane was dead, killed by the machinations of Lex Luthor, and the Man of Steel was left wailing in grief. But then the hero launched himself into the stratosphere and furiously circled the Earth until time itself reversed and he was given a second chance to make things right.
That’s the memorable climax of the 1978 blockbuster “Superman: The Movie,” and now it appears that the film’s director, Richard Donner, has pulled off the same kind of a trick — a miracle do-over that nobody saw coming. “Something was taken away from me and then I got a chance to go back and make it right, to make it the way I wanted it to be the first time around. How often does that happen in life? It’s amazing.”
The “dead Lois” in this case was Donner’s planned “Superman” sequel and (to hear his side of the story) the callous villains who snuffed it were producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. They fired Donner after he already had huge chunks of the second movie filmed and then brought in a new director, Richard Lester, who made a film that jettisoned plenty of Donner’s beloved material. “They cut out a bunch of Marlon Brando scenes,” Donner recalled incredulously. “Who does that?”
Ilya Salkind has a dramatically different point of view, of course, but more on that later. Regardless, the “Superman II” that did reach movie theaters in 1980 as a hybrid of Lester and Donner’s work was a strong commercial success and earned upbeat reviews. Still, for die-hard fans familiar with the backstage struggle, Donner’s stillborn project became the equivalent of “The Magnificent Ambersons” for superhero cinema.
But now (somebody cue the soaring music) the spinning silver of DVD has helped Donner turn back the clock. On Tuesday, “Superman II — The Richard Donner Cut” arrives in stores. Most DVDs labeled “director’s cut” are different only around the edges; this one goes in all new directions by lopping out huge chunks of the familiar theatrical version and weaving in “lost” scenes salvaged from the vaults.
There is even footage from screen tests shoehorned into the narrative to cover the script pages Donner never filmed. The most fascinating of them shows a skinny Christopher Reeve (it was before he bulked up for the role) as a tuxedoed Clark Kent in horn-rims, an outfit that makes him look like a nephew of Atticus Finch on prom night. In that scene, Lois Lane pulls out a .38 revolver and takes a shot at Clark to prove he’s Superman — it’s one of the new scenes that enhances the “His Girl Friday” vibe of the Lois and Clark relationship. “The Donner Cut” also has more menace, more Brando and more emphasis on father-and-son mythology.
That’s not to say that the movie is joyless. In this “Superman II,” Lois emerges from a Fortress of Solitude corridor with nothing on but Superman’s shirt. Donner laughed at the addition. “In that other version, she gets a kiss from Superman. C’mon. She figures out that Clark is Superman and that’s all she gets? Not in my movie.”
Here’s how one fan describes “The Donner Cut”: “To watch these scenes, to see Superman and Lois and that chemistry and the real menace of the villains, it’s the movie that we all wanted to see.” That’s the take of Bryan Singer, the director of “Superman Returns” (2006), which also arrives Tuesday on DVD. The Singer film’s retail arrival has inspired a flurry of Superman-related releases, but “The Donner Cut” is the one fans are riled up about. “This is the movie,” Singer said, “that we thought was gone forever.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always pretty. Today’s technology helped smooth out the re-edit, but there’s only so much that could be done and there are a few clunky spots. And for a casual moviegoer who hasn’t seen “Superman II” lately, they may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Aside from the gunplay scene and an opening sequence at the Daily Planet, plenty of the changes will fly right over the head of everyone except true believers. (A quick test: Does it make your heart beat faster to know that this time the bad guys destroy the Washington Monument, not Mt. Rushmore?)
What’s truly historic here is that Donner was given Warner Bros. resources and the blessing of his old foe, Ilya Salkind, to recut and reimagine a movie that was once a poisoned memory. Warner Bros. has even bundled it with the Reeve movies in a giant boxed set of “Superman” DVDs, giving Donner’s revisionism more credibility. One thing they didn’t give him was a paycheck.
“I didn’t negotiate it at the beginning of the talks to do all this, so they said it was too late once we were underway,” said Donner, whose next project is slated to be “Sam & George,” starring Mel Gibson. “In the old days, when there was honor, they would have taken care of me. It’s ridiculous and shows a lack of class.”
Warner Bros. execs say they are laying out big money for the re-edit, advertising, marketing, etc. But really, the most compelling subplot in all this is that Salkind will make more money off “The Donner Cut” than the man whose name is in the title.
“The Donner Cut” was premiered at the Directors Guild recently and the crowd cheered as much for their own memories as for what they saw on the screen, especially when the image was the late Reeve flying against a blue sky.
Kidder attended and wore a big smile most of the night, and after the credits rolled she said it had been a revelation to watch Reeve in the restored scenes, especially a wrenching exchange with Brando portraying the ghostly echo of Superman’s father.
“Finally, it shows what a great actor Chris was,” she said. “This is his best performance now, and I’m just so thankful that it can be seen.”
Kidder wasn’t the only Lois at the premiere. There was also Noel Neill of the old “Superman” television series. Marc McClure and Sam Huntington — two Jimmy Olsens — were on hand, as was Brandon Routh, who wore the cape this summer for Singer. The night also brought out a few super villains: Jack O’Halloran and Sarah Douglas, who played the Phantom Zone heavies opposite Reeve, and a short, shaggy Mexico City-born producer named Ilya Salkind.
“Yes, to hear them talk about me you would think that,” Salkind said after walking out of a post-screening panel discussion in which Kidder told the audience that “there was a lot of love that was missing” after Donner’s firing. “I heard enough,” Salkind said with a smile. After that, Salkind headed to Greenblatt’s Deli for a midnight sandwich. He said he had no regrets about the old days, but he says “The Donner Cut” isn’t the only example of revisionism underway.
“If the Lester movie was so bad, why were the reviews so good? Why did so many people go see it?” he asked. “Reviewers said it was better than the first one. And if the actors were so upset, why do Margot and Gene Hackman and the rest come back for the sequels?”
Lester and his “Superman II” did win over critics, with some of them specifically praising his flashes of broad humor. To Lester, the director of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” a super villain ravaging Metropolis with gales of super-breath seemed the perfect chance to toss in a sight gag about a fellow who chats away on the phone even as the booth he’s in skids down the street. In a 2000 interview, Lester explained that he didn’t share Donner’s vision of a grandiose, “David Leanish” epic; you could almost read his reason between the lines: Lawrence of Arabia didn’t have super-breath, now did he?
What happened is that the Salkinds, Ilya and his late father, Alexander, had come to Donner in 1976 and hired him to take the classic American myth of Superman and create an epic story that would be told over two films, a la “The Godfather,” and be shot somewhat simultaneously in part to save money on special effects and Brando’s high salary.
But Donner’s exacting pace and ambitions left the Salkinds fuming. In late 1977, work on “Superman II” was halted and all resources went into the first movie. When the first “Superman” became a firecracker success, Donner assumed that it assured his return; the Salkinds, though, saw it as the franchise security they needed to boot the irksome director.
Donner was heartbroken. Recently, sitting in his office, he nodded toward the “Superman” memorabilia on the walls and got misty chatting about the late Reeve and the golden career moment they shared together. “I just loved the kid, and I was really hurt and angry when the movie was taken away from me. I never saw the finished movie by the other director. What’s his name again?” Lester and Donner had been good friends before the switch but, like the Salkinds, Lester’s name is a reminder of an opportunity wrested away.
Donner has plenty on his resume — he directed “The Omen” and the “Lethal Weapon” movies, after all — but “Superman” was magic. “I wish Chris could have seen this. I wish Marlon could have seen it. But we finally made it right. Or at least we tried to.”
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