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.