Saturday, January 13, 2007

On Donner, On Lester--Flying Superman II

The DVD is called Superman II: The Director's Cut, but of course it isn't. When director Richard Donner was filming the 1978 Superman, he was also filming scenes meant to be used in a sequel. But after the first movie was a huge hit, there was discord. Marlon Brando apparently wanted more money for the scenes he'd already shot, and the producers wouldn't pay him. Richard Donner was either fired from completing the sequel, or quit. Apparently some other actors, notably Gene Hackman, wouldn't work with another director, although he allowed (or had to allow) the scenes he'd shot to be used.

In any case, Richard Lester took over as director of the 1980 release version of Superman II. He also directed III, released in 1983. But fans remained curious about the scenes Donner shot that weren't used, and his vision for the sequel. When the Brando estate allowed his scenes to be used, it was possible for an approximation of the movie Donner would have made to be assembled.

So this isn't the "Director's cut," since Richard Lester is the director of record, and especially since Donner didn't shoot the rest of the film, and also didn't himself assemble this footage, or choose the shots used. He did however approve it, and he appears in a bonus track to introduce it, and to talk about it.

With a script by Mario Puzo, Donner created an American classic in the 1978 Superman. It was first of all a highly innovative movie in many ways. It was technically advanced. It was bigger than movies had been in a long time. And in the self-consciously hip, sophisticated 70s, it dared to be a kind of throwback, to an epic with a quality of innocence, leavened with humor that was ironic without being cynical. Gently ironic, perhaps--a movie that commented on the brittle and sometimes empty sophistication of modern life, and wasn't afraid to say that some old bedrock values could still soar. (It also played to the New York frustration with the city's crime in the late 70s.)

I attended one of the first screenings of Superman in New York for media and special guests. Everyone connected with movies wanted to see it. As I was on my way in to the second screening of the evening, I met director Brian DePalma coming out of the first, with someone I knew. Everybody talked about it for months. When I interviewed director Francois Truffaut later in the year, he talked about it. From those long, swooping big opening credits--the first time that had been done--to the film's lush photography and the scope of the production, everyone knew it had raised the bar on a certain kind of Hollywood film. Together with Star Wars and Close Encounters the year before, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture the year after, this movie and Superman II started the high adventure blockbusters that have become a staple of Hollywood ever since.

Superman remains a great movie. The mythic quality begins with the Krypton origins, and then becomes deeply American in the heartland vistas of the Smallville section, all setting up the 1930s American superhero confronting the modern Metropolis for the rest of the movie. The brittle, cynical, superficial city yearns for a hero, but instead of Dirty Harry or Rambo they get a guy with an open face, an innocent grin, who stands for truth, justice and the American Way in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 70s.

So I was interested to get the Donner version of Superman II from Netflix, which I did, and then took another look at the Lester version on DVD. There's no comparison.

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