Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From White Socks to a Rhinestone Glove (with a Snake in the Grass in the Middle): The Fantastic Impact of Stanley Donen

Stanley Donen
How far can one movie director's influence really go? With choreographer-turned-director Stanley Donen, there is a whole different level of visual influence, the breadth of which people are not as aware of as they could (or should) be. Truth is, whatever generation in which we have lived (or are living) we have all been tremendously influenced by what Stanley Donen created in the 20th century.
Stanley Donen between takes for 'Two For The Road'
with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn
I feel fortunate when I think about Stanley Donen, and I think about him daily. The reason I feel 'lucky' is because he's still with us! The first time I stopped to consider this felt like a stroke of luck. Wow, Stanley Donen is a living legend and he's so full of life and energy. I saw him on TCM a few years ago talking to Robert Osborne about his films; I just couldn't believe his vitality. I thought about how great it would be to be like Stanley Donen, at his age after so many experiences. And what a legacy. 

I have to think about Stanley Donen on a daily basis, it can't be helped. I'm aware of his profound influence on so much of our 20th century pop culture favorites. His impact is unfathomable, its enormity too great to capture.
Albert Finney, Stanley Donen and Audrey Hepburn
on the set of 'Two For The Road'
I settled on a title for this piece quickly, despite the fact that there's so much to use as a measuring stick for Stanley Donen's influence on the way we visualize and interpret movies we watch, the dancing we enjoy, the music we hear. Even the clothes we wear. It would have been easier to write a series of blog posts on Stanley Donen than to try an all-encompassing one. So to break it down more easily, I figured the best way to illustrate Stanley Donen's influence would be to bring in Bob Fosse at the midway point of the vast benchmark for a stable and defined measure. So there's that. Might be the first time Fosse (also beloved, majorly influential, himself influenced by Donen, and sadly no longer with us) was brought in to add stability to any situation.
With Bob Fosse (left) and Debbie Reynolds
Stanley Donen directed 'On The Town', 'Royal Wedding', 'Singing In The Rain', 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers', 'Damn Yankees', 'Kiss Them For Me','The Pajama Game', 'The Grass Is Greener'. He directed 'Funny Face', and 'Indiscreet'. He directed 'Charade', 'Arabesque' 'Bedazzled', 'Two For The Road'. The gorgeous list just goes on and on. His films are also a sad reminder that the stars who appear and perform so beautifully in them (apart from Albert Finney, bless him, who made his most recent appearance in 'Skyfall') are no longer with us. We've lost Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Suzy Parker, Deborah Kerr, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook. We've lost Fosse. Yet Stanley Donen lives. And he gave them their very best moments on film. 
Fred Astaire, Stanley Donen (second from right) and Gene Kelly 
He gave us Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse (in 'Anchors Aweigh', a film he didn't direct.) The idea and the production of the groundbreaking sequence came from Stanley Donen. His work in creating it made way for every live action/animation film to follow. 
Gene Kelly and Jerry
He gave us the amazing Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in ROYAL WEDDING. That stunning (and painstakingly executed) visual trick still impresses today. It was also invented by Donen.
Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling in Royal Wedding
The great Gene Kelly (and company) in SINGING IN THE RAIN.
He gave us everything charming in FUNNY FACE. (Think Pink!) 
CHARADE. So much can be said for this one. I won't even try!
He gave us the beautifully unique (again, groundbreaking for its time) style of editing/storytelling in TWO FOR THE ROAD, the movie I've probably been most sentimental about in my life. Perhaps my all-time favorite. 
These days, it's a thrill when a filmmaker has made two or three movies I truly love in the span of his or her career. I can't count the number of Stanley Donen films I LOVE with all my heart. It's fair to say that Stanley Donen is the very last of the greats. 
Audrey Hepburn and Richard Avedon
with Stanley Donen and company
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Stanley Donen gave our greatest movie stars their greatest moments by which to remember them. That level of impact is unique for any entertainer. To this end, we can look at Stanley Donen's collaborations with Audrey Hepburn. He presented her at her most charming, flirtatious and playful in 'Charade'.
Stanley Donen gave us a look at Audrey Hepburn at her most natural, free, and beautiful in 'Two For The Road'. 
And back to topic, on point with the title of this blog post, Stanley Donen gave us Audrey Hepburn's most exuberant on-screen moment: dancing in 'Funny Face'. And here begins that 'benchmark' I mentioned earlier in the post.
Stanley Donen has described their collaboration in 'Funny Face': '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.”'
It is well-documented that Audrey Hepburn was amiable, both personally and professionally. Few (if any) people took issue with her. 
Aside from the rare account of friction with stars like Humphrey Bogart (who felt agitated while working with her) she was easy to work with and highly professional.
She was also smart (on point, one could say) in terms of what looked best on her, visually. She had a strong and defined perspective in matters pertaining to her own style and appearance. And she tended to be right. 
For Audrey Hepburn to go as far as she did––to insist, against her director's wishes, that she needed to wear black socks for her dance scene in 'Funny Face'––was atypical. She was obviously passionate about this issue, concerned with the way the line and 'uniformity' of her look would appear in the scene if she were to wear those white socks as Stanley Donen so adamantly instructed. 
She never agreed to it. But she finally (reluctantly) gave in. 
She was soon to discover as we all have, ever since, when watching the sequence, that when it comes right down to it––Stanley Donen was not only right about the white socks, YOU CANNOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF OF THEM THE ENTIRE TIME. 
Those white socks that Stanley Donen insisted upon actually make this memorable and influential dance sequence in 'Funny Face' what it is. 
This brilliant visual tactic, one Audrey Hepburn resisted (and perhaps a lesser director would have just melted and given in to her desperate pleas) would be used again by other dancing artists to equally memorable effect. 
Moving on to the next point in this Stanley Donen benchmark of influence (the midway point of reference) we have the fabulous Bob Fosse, himself a choreographer, of the highest order, turned director. 

Just like the man who was likely his greatest influence, Stanley Donen. 
There is a now famous clip on YouTube of Bob Fosse performing (wearing dance shoes with white spats, not unlike the visual effect of wearing black loafers with white socks) in 'The Little Prince' as the Snake In The Grass. Watch it here:
This scene has been referred to by some as containing 'first moonwalk'. Many have noted that Fosse's dancing style is the one from which Michael Jackson gained so much inspiration in his own career. 
The first moonwalk is highly debatable since there have been quite a few notable, earlier incarnations of the move prior to Michael Jackson's adopting it around the time of his Thriller album. 
What I find far more interesting (and this can actually blow your mind) is that this scene was directed by none other than... Stanley Donen!! 'The Little Prince' is a Stanley Donen film(!) Both he and Bob Fosse were great choreographers. Therefore: Wouldn't it be difficult to say where Stanley Donen's influence in this clip would begin––or end? 
So. Bob Fosse (and 'The Little Prince') influenced Michael Jackson. 

But Stanley Donen influenced Bob Fosse in order to create what influenced Michael Jackson. 

You do the math. 
Stanley Donen is the true source and core of inspiration here. 

I wouldn't hesitate to consider how much Audrey Hepburn's loose, modern, balletic dancing with white socks and black loafers in Stanley Donen's 'Funny Face' also influenced Michael Jackson's dancing and style. Again, that's 100% Stanley Donen. 

Michael Jackson was not once, but twice, deeply and heavily influenced by Stanley Donen.
Just have a look at the style of dress and the dancing that made him uber-famous around the time of Thriller. This was all Stanley Donen. 
Is your mind blown yet? Mine was. I want to know how no one has made this connection before? In researching, I didn't see anything connecting The King of Pop to Stanley Donen. Only to Bob Fosse. And now you know: Stanley Donen was behind that connection. It's about time we more credit to Stanley Donen where credit is due.
These are just some of a multitude of reasons why I can't help but think about and appreciate Stanley Donen –– for all of his contributions (even down to the way we dress) every day. He is one of my personal heroes  And he is certainly a living, walking, breathing legend to whom our entire culture of entertainment owes so much.
"But wait, there's more!" As exhaustive as Stanley Donen's massive imprint has been to expound upon here, I have to show my favorite video of Stanley Donen himself. In my opinion, this is the greatest Oscar speech of all time. (Yes... Of ALL time!)

5 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful post. I am so glad someone made the
    points about Stanley Donen. And yes, how lucky we are
    to have him still. Evidently working on a project with his
    partner Elaine May and the amazing and enduring
    Mike Nichols.~ ajd 3/21/14

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    1. Thank you, this post meant a lot to me, I'm glad you enjoyed it! We are indeed lucky to have Stanley Donen with us, still.

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    2. Would love to see this new project! Thanks for stopping by, aajer :)

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  2. Thanks for this very enriching and enjoyable post. Fascinating!

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    1. You're welcome, I'm so glad you found & enjoyed it!:)

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