Monday, March 3, 2008

In Defense of: Richard Lester

On a very happy note, another very special Superman collection has been released by the fine folks at Film Score Monthly, in this case a limited edition box set containing the scores for all four Christopher Reeve films and the 1988 cartoon series.  It was another opportunity for director Richard Lester to speak about his experiences on the Superman films, but, unfortunately, as was the case with the 2006 DVD set, Lester chose not to participate.

Interestingly, while one of the documentaries on the Superman DVD box set contains a credit explaining that Lester could not be tracked down to contribute despite their efforts, he did grace The Onion with an insightful interview in late 2007.  Tellingly he gave the interviewer nothing when the topic of Superman II  and the Donner Cut was broached.  "I didn't know it was recut," Lester said. "I read about it once.  I've never seen it.  I don't know anything about it."  I respect Lester's desire to not get into a schoolyard fight with another director, but I wish that he would say some words in his defense. 

As a fan of most of the Reeve Superman films, even III, as well as Lester's oeuvre, I've really hoped to hear him speak about his experiences on the first three films.  I'm sure I am not the only one to cringe every time I read some insipid message on a fan site, disparaging the work of "Dickie Lester" on Superman II and Superman III.  It's amazing to me how much of a beating Lester has taken in the last few years as the cries for a  Donner Cut of Superman II have risen from the fans and then been graciously answered by Warner Home Video.  In the process, Donner has been lionized while Lester is subjected to countless cheap shots from people who seem to have no knowledge of the man's career before he "ruined" the Superman franchise.  

I love Donner's original Superman: The Movie and I enjoy much of his contributions to Superman II, however I really dislike the, frankly, childish attitude he displays on the commentary for his Superman II cut--he will not acknowledge Lester by name--I think he claims to have forgotten it--and is generally quite condescending and smirky whenever the subject of Lester arises.  I think that Donner was the better choice for the Superman franchise, but I think Lester did a more than commendable job on both Superman II  and III.  On its own, I believe the latter to be a smart and consistently entertaining comic book film.  I even like Richard Pryor in this film--he still cracks me up with lines like the one he offers the woman who gives him the botched Kryptonite, "What the hell am I afraid of?  I'm from Earth." The film's chief offense, of course, was that it came after Superman and Superman II, which were so effectively serious and mythic in tone. However, I admire Lester and screenwriters David and Leslie Newman for attempting a new approach to the material by injecting a little social realism into the proceedings and introducing the charming and lovely Lana Lang (very nicely essayed by Annette O'Toole) who actually falls for Clark over Superman.

In previous years, Lester was more forthcoming about his Superman experiences.  In Andrew Yule's career-spanning The Man Who "Framed" the Beatles, Lester makes clear that he was heavily pursued by the Salkinds to direct first, Superman: The Movie, which he declined, and then Superman II, which he also declined more than once.  Most tellingly, and rarely ever repeated afterwards, he says that Guy Hamilton,  who was originally slated to direct the first film, was brought onto Superman II and then departed before Lester was brought back on.  Another similar story says that Donner refused the Salkinds first, Hamilton was offered the job, and then Warner Bros. nixed Hamilton in favor of Lester.  At any rate, Lester ultimately decided to finish the job.  

As for his contributions to the first film, as uncredited producer, most accounts have credited him with suggesting that production be halted on Superman II so that the crew could properly address the technical problems afflicting the first film and ensure that it was finished as close to the original schedule as possible.  Secondly, in tandem with this development, Lester is commonly credited with suggesting that the filmmakers steal the original ending for Superman II and insert it at the end of Superman: The Movie.  However, on their commentary track for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz take full credit for these developments.

As to their relationship on the first film, Donner says that at first he was wary of Lester on set, but was soon assured by Lester that he was no threat.  "From then on," Donner said, "it was a pleasure. The guy was a big help and I really liked him." Throughout the production of the first film, Lester went out of his way to deflect credit and avoid publicity, notably snapping at a journalist who noticed a chair with his name on it and tried to get a story out of it.  To the idea of receiving a production credit, Lester told producer Spengler, "It would be unfair to you because you really did produce the movie, and although I helped all I could I wouldn't dream of taking a producer's credit.  And it might start raising questions in people's minds about Donner.  And this is Donner's film." 

Known for his knack for "getting away with it," that is shooting quickly and efficiently, Lester was thrown for a loop when he saw the slower pace at which Donner worked.  This is one place in the narrative where Lester takes something of a shot at Donner.  He relates the story of a scene with Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine on a mountain road designed to last forty seconds of screen time, which was being rehearsed as dark clouds approached the filming area.  

Writes Yule, "Unwilling to shoot until the light was perfect, Donner decided to wait until the cloud had passed.  Instead a ferocious storm broke out that lasted for three solid days, during which nothing was shot.  Lester was stunned.  He knew he would have had five takes in the can before the first cloud had reached them, and if for any reason he was still unhappy he would have shot a couple in cloud."

As for the quality of the two Superman IIs, I love having the Donner Cut, but I can say that it has certainly not supplanted the Lester Cut as my version of choice.  I think that had Donner had a chance to properly finish the film in 1979, it very well would have been a different story. As it is, the performances, from Margot Kidder and especially Reeve,  are more mature in the Lester Cut. I realize it is blasphemous to say in the Superman fan community, but I really think the de-powering scene with Susannah York is more effective than the one with Marlon Brando primarily because Reeve's Superman, as written in the Donner Cut, comes off as petulant and whiny, not the Superman we have seen up until that point in either film.  In the Lester Cut, when he tells his mother that he loves Lois, it is simple and to the point, but it very much communicates the gravity of the moment and has always moved me.  As for the scene when Clark reveals his true identity, the Donner Cut gives us a screen test of an intriguing scene, but which, obviously does not have the spit and polish of its Lester counterpart. More importantly, the Lester interpretation, complete with pink bear, is appropriately tender and convincing thanks to the superb interplay of Reeve and Kidder, and writing which is consistent with the characters as we have known them up until then.  

I'm quite sure Donner would have re-conceived and re-shot these scenes differently if he'd had the chance.  As presently constituted, his scenes have an inconsistent feel, which, I think, is due to the fact that the actors, particularly Reeve, had not yet perfected their interpretations of their characters.  As has been amply documented, most of these scenes were shot in a crunch to accommodate the schedules of stars Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman.  As for the much-discussed endings, I think Donner and his editor Michael Thau really should have bitten the bullet and used Lester's ending complete with "memory-loss" kiss, a scene which once again features some of the best performances of Reeve and Kidder in the entire series.  But, including that scene would have been tantamount to admitting that Lester had actually done something right on the film.

Peter Tonguette has a couple of good essays on Lester online, including this one that focuses on the Superman films.

7 comments:

Bill Williams said...

In your blog you stated, "...however I really dislike the, frankly, childish attitude he displays on the commentary for his Superman II cut--he will not acknowledge Lester by name--I think he claims to have forgotten it--and is generally quite condescending and smirky whenever the subject of Lester arises."

The reason Donner refuses to acknowledge Lester to this day is because during Lester's tenure as uncredited associate producer on the first "Superman" film, Donner and Lester had become good friends, despite Lester essentially playing the go-between to Donner and the Salkinds. When Donner was unceremoniously fired via telegram by the Salkinds in the summer of 1979, and Lester was brought in, it created a sore spot in Donner's heart that he felt betrayed by Lester - and still does to this day - for taking what he had done and totally redoing it just for the money. That meant doing things on the cheap, whereas Donner went for the far more believable execution of the Mankiewicz script. How would you feel if your best friend stabbed you in the back, completed what you were working on, and took full credit for it? That is essentially how Donner felt.

Per your comment, "Another similar story says that Donner refused the Salkinds first, Hamilton was offered the job, and then Warner Bros. nixed Hamilton in favor of Lester," Donner never refused the Salkinds to complete filming on II; Donner went on record in 1981 stating that he would have gladly completed the film for no money whatsoever, but the Salkinds' telegram firing Donner in the summer of 1979 sealed Donner's fate of not completing the film until 25 years later. Early news reports in 1979 first stated that Lester would have simply finished where Donner had left off and the film would have still been credited "A Richard Donner Film," but if you compare the 1981 theatrical cut, the 1980's extended international broadcast (with a lot of extra Donner footage and some Lester outtakes restored), and the 2006 Donner Cut, then it would have been labeled "An Alan Smithee Film" ultimately.

Lester had been brought on board to rewrite the various scripts (along with an uncredited assist from the late George Macdonald Fraser) to piece together a simpler, serviceable script utilizing as little Donner footage as possible to gain sole directorial credit with the Directors' Guild of America. Many estimates place Lester's footage at some 60-65 percent between the final theatrical version and the extended TV broadcasts, while in the 2006 Donner Cut it is essentially some 17 percent to Donner's 83 percent.

Per your quote, "I realize it is blasphemous to say in the Superman fan community, but I really think the de-powering scene with Susannah York is more effective than the one with Marlon Brando primarily because Reeve's Superman, as written in the Donner Cut, comes off as petulant and whiny, not the Superman we have seen up until that point in either film," you must remember that I and II, as written by Mankiewicz, is essentially one complete story, a tale about fathers and sons. The relationship between Superman and Lara as seen in Lester's cut of II is a substitute because she was brought in so they wouldn't have to pay an extra fee to Brando for the use of his footage in II, and by that time Brando had already taken the Salkinds to court for ripping him off of certain percentage points of profits from both films. That's why the final version comes off a bit stilted, though I will give you credit, Christopher Reeve does have more of a sensitive portrayal as Superman in the Lester-filmed scenes.

Reeve and Margot Kidder did go on record later and admit that they too felt betrayed by Donner's firing and by Lester's completion of the picture. Both cited Donner as a stabilizing and encouraging force behind the scenes, keeping his fights with the Salkinds away from them and other cast members and crew, while both criticized the Salkinds for firing Donner and having Lester complete II as cheaply as possible, since Reeve and Kidder were among the lowest-paid actors on the project. It was Kidder's lawsuit against the Salkinds that resulted in her being written out of "Superman III" for the most part.

You comment, "As for the scene when Clark reveals his true identity, the Donner Cut gives us a screen test of an intriguing scene, but which, obviously does not have the spit and polish of its Lester counterpart." We must remember that Donner never shot the final version of the scene, only screen tests with Reeve and Kidder. Its roughness suggests something a bit sillier and a little sicker, had it been completed in its final form, but the edited scene in its screen test form gives only an idea of how the final version would have played out. I agree, the final version as Lester played it out does have a more sensitive portrayal.

Finally, per your comment, "I respect Lester's desire to not get into a schoolyard fight with another director, but I wish that he would say some words in his defense," it was not until 1998 when his cut of "Superman II" first aired on American Movie Classics that he claimed the movie was his, never giving any credit to Donner whatsoever. Read into it what you will.

Francis said...

I agree with the blogger: Lester is a huge director ("Robin and Marian" is one of my favourite movies)

The lack of ellegance of Donner in SII:Donner's cut special features is disgusting.

I always thought Lester destroyed the franchise and saw Superman II as a terrible movie, but when I saw Donner's cut, I realize how well composed was Lester's drama, and romantic comedy in opposition to Donner's.

Donner, in his cut, kept all elements I didn't like about theatrical cut (Planet Houston, aliens talking in space...), it took out what it was good (Lois and Clark chemical friendship, and all sophisticated humour between them) and even added more stupid stuff! (toilet jokes between Luthor, Otis, and Eve).

Having seen S III (a not so bad movie from a real bad script and briefing), you can say what it was good in Lester's job: The human element (His Clark is fantastic, and the relation between him and Lana is beautyful)

dbratt71 said...

Some thoughts. I agree with your assessment of Richard Donner's unwillingness to acknowledge Lester by name. Clearly the experience scarred Donner and he still feels the pain from all those years ago. It's too bad. His quarrel seemed to be with the Salkinds vs. Lester.
Superman II is clearly a lesser film in terms of quality (from the cinematography to the sound), and Superman III is just, awful goofy and dumb--it has about 30 watchable minutes (thanks to Chris Reeve's performance).

So the question is this: how much of that is the director's fault? Anytime a movie is lousy, the director is blamed. Not the writers, not the producers, not the art directors, not the cinematographer, not the editor, not the actors...the director. I'm not sure that people understand that even a great director can't completely save an abominable script (even Spielberg couldn't totally redeem War of the Worlds and Crystal Skull), laughable design, or poor performances from disinterested actors just taking their paycheck.

Lester's direction of the actors in Superman II was in some cases extremely good (Reeve was just as exceptional, Susannah York was also strong), and in some cases, less than good (I thought Margot Kidders performance was uneven, she had her good moments, but her reaction to seeing the fortress for the first time didn't work for me).

I have no doubt that Donner's filming/working pace was too slow for Lester's tastes (and clearly the Salkinds), but what he put on screen was superior to what ended up gracing cinemas when SII arrived. But how much of that was Lester and how much the Salkinds (who clearly cut some costs with the films music, at the very least), and how much the writers (super kiss? Really? Cellophane "S"? What?). I think that there is enough blame to go around. However, why throw blame around for what turned out to be a pretty darn good film? Roger Ebert liked it better than the first film (I disagree, but the man is one of the giants in his field).

Superman III is a different story...and a poor one at that.

Do I think Lester deserves the vilification that he receives for Superman fans? No, but the truth is he didn't put something on screen that held up to Donner's standards, and the third film was abyssmal. And, fair or not, the director gets the glory or takes the fall for projects that involve hundreds to thousands of people (ever read the end credits of a movie?)

That said, as excited as I was to see the Donner Cut of SII, I was pretty disappointed. The pace was slow, the scenes of Jor-El were interesting, but not terrific, and Reeve hadn't nailed the part yet. And the ending didn't work because it felt so derivative. Clearly had Donner been allowed to stay, the film would have been very different from the Lester Cut, or even his own official Cut these many years later.

I think Lester gets a bad rap, but I get why it happens. If Superman III hadn't happened, the fans may have forgiven him the inadequecies of SII, but it did, and they haven't.

Ned Merrill said...

Bill,

Thanks for extensive comments. I appreciate Donner's soreness, but it was over thirty years ago and there is ample evidence to show that all sides (Salkinds, Donner, Warner Bros., Lester) deserve some share of blame for how things went down.

Francis,

I agree that Lester is a major director of the 1960s and 70s. For me, his masterwork is PETULIA. It strikes me that Lester and Donner are such completely different filmmakers and it is strange to have them so often compared because of their paths crossing on SUPERMAN.

While Donner was the better director for the SUPERMAN franchise, Lester's best films are more significant, in an artistic and intellectual sense, than anything Donner has put to celluloid.

Dbratt,

Appreciate the well-thought out response. A lot of the problems with the perception of Lester might go away if he spoke a little bit about his involvement in the films. It seems that a lot of the scuttlebutt, i.e. "he only did these for the money," is speculative and a little presumptuous.

I still feel that SUPERMAN III is an entertaining, albeit very slight, comic book spectacle, if you are able to view it in a context separate from the first two films. I think it would have been far better with more emphasis placed on the Lana/Clark relationship and the conflict it causes within Superman/Clark, even though I do think Pryor is funny in this film.

dbratt71 said...

Hi Ned--I respect your opinion on Superman III and appreciate your perspective. It's a shame that the conflict between Donner and the Salkinds arose and intensified and that Superman fans have this nagging feeling of "What if?" All in all,however, we're pretty fortunate. Most super heroes' fans don't even get one, let alone two, pretty strong movies about their characters made (Daredevil, Elektra, Fantastic Four, arguably the Hulk), and even Spiderman and the X-men films dipped significantly in their third outings. Here's hoping that The Man of Steel adds to the number of terrific and entertaining Superman films (Superman Returns was uneven, for me. Things I liked, and things that made me scratch my mind and say, "Dear God, what were they thinking?)

PT Ryan said...

Great article and I agree with pretty much all of it. I think that with the Donner Cut now available, there is a renewed appreciation of the Lester version. I know I prefer Lester's myself, though I actually liked the extended tv version even better as a kid.

I agree that there is a pointless bloody-mindedness with the construction of the Donner Cut when it comes to Lester's footage. The East Houston scenes are cut down to virtually nothing, completely removing the depiction of the scale of Zod, Non and Ursa's power. Also, the Donner ending - as interesting as it is to view - makes no sense at all, and renders the entire film pointless. It also makes Clark's rematch with the bully seem mean-spirited on his part, as the bully presumably has no memory of their first encounter.

With all the cutting and pasting (and noticably less impressive new effects), it's inevitable that Donner's cut is less cohesive. And the anti-Lester fanboys have clearly never seen Robin and Marian, which deals with heroism in an impressively sober, sombre fashion.

Ned Merrill said...

pt ryan,

Thanks for the positive response. Good call on ROBIN AND MARIAN, which is readily available on DVD so there's no excuse for the anti-Lester camp to have missed it. In fact, the majority of Lester's stuff is available on DVD at this point.