Interview with Stanley Donen

By CYNTHIA GRENIER  |  March 3, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, D.C., March 3 (UPI) -- The 25th floor of Lincoln Plaza overlooking Manhattan's Central Park is a long way from Los Angeles in more ways than just the geographic. So too is "Adult Entertainment," the play from "Singing in the Rain," the iconic film directed by Stanley Donen in 1952.

"Adult Entertainment," currently playing to sold out houses Off Broadway in the Variety Arts Theater on Third Avenue, is just that: definitely adult and wildly entertaining. As well it might be -- written by Elaine May, an icon in her own right, and directed with an immense zest and style by Donen.

Critics have been positively euphoric. John Simon, notoriously difficult to please, in New York magazine termed it "a true, generous-hearted comedy, generally hilarious and, at its peaks, uproarious," a judgment with which virtually all his confreres heartily concurred.

"Adult Entertainment" takes a group of four late-night cable-sex performers who on the death of their director, figures with aid of their late director's brother (Danny Aiello, wonderfully seething), they can continue on their own, producing their films by themselves. After all they argue, the can stay together, only working with one another, and "not having to get tested every two weeks." They bring in as writer-director their young cameraman, a Yale Drama School graduate, who promptly has the likes of Frosty Moons (May's daughter Jeanie Berlin), Heidi-the-Ho, Vixen Fox, and Jimbo J. (all first-rate) reading everything from Thornton Wilder to Kafka and Flaubert. Not although everything, as he warns them, "Don't read Harold Bloom or Wittgenstein until I tell you." The night this writer saw the play, that line brought down the house, which does tell you something about the general intellectual level of the audience. If viewed just right, you might consider the play as a comment on the very nature of art, but it may only come to you after some reflection.

The young director converts them to his impossible dream of making a porn film that could win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. He winds up weaving the legend of Daedalus with your late night cable erotic flick. They frolic in brief Grecian costumes on film created by Stanley Donen that fills the stage right up to the proscenium arch as the curtain falls.

Director Donen -- whose extensive filmography includes everything from such great film classics as "Funny Face," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, "Charade," "Two for the Road" to playful, dazzling music videos for MTV -- introduces film and hysterically funny send-ups of TV sex call-in shows into "Adult Entertainment."

Donen, black leather jacket, black beard, black-rimmed glasses folded into a chunky Courbusier black leather and steel-tubed chair, is stoically recovering from an antibiotic regimen following a nasty cold. His living room is comfortably and handsomely furnished with more Corbusier chairs and long divan, a Charles Eames chair and ottoman, a low glass coffee table laden with interesting ovoid stone shapes, vaguely reminiscent of Brancusi, and a number of Noguchi paper lights positioned here and there. A bright blue Matisse cutout print is ranged against one wall. On a bookshelf facing the windows overlooking Central Park discreetly stands the golden Oscar Donen received in 1997 "in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation."

He has been living in Manhattan for the last 11 or 12 years. "I'd sold my LA house, and was about to look at a high rise on Wilshire when I thought, 'I don't want this' and headed straight for Manhattan. It's fun here - there's always something to do."

Speaking of the video clips in "Adult Entertainment," Donen grimaces. "The videos are along the lines of Robin Byrd, a Manhattan specialty. (Byrd hosts a late night cable talk show where all her guests are porn performers.)

But I didn't want to have close-ups of genitalia as she does. It makes me uncomfortable. I can't help thinking this actress or actor feels about doing this thing -- exposing their self like that to an audience -- so I'd be thinking of the actor's reactions during the scene rather than what the scene was intended to convey."

Donen notes: "You know, we only had four weeks rehearsal, compared to Nora Ephron, a friend, who had 22 weeks in California for rehearsing her 'Imaginary Friends' (currently on Broadway). You know, we auditioned over, literally, 1,000 actresses before we found Linda Halaska for Heidi-the-Ho. I found Eric Elice for Jimbo J. though through his agent, my son Josh -- who's my agent as well -- who'd gotten him a job with the Walt Disney Company. Fortunately it's a flexible sort of job, so he can do the play. Originally we'd cast him as the director -- Eric's actually a graduate of the Yale Drama School, but then he read for Jimbo and was perfect."

As for the medium that brought him world fame, he says he really hasn't seen any films recently because of the play, but thinks the two he'd like to catch up on from all he's heard about from friends is the Pedro Almodovar "Talk to Her," and the heavily Academy-Award nominated "The Hours." The Directors' Guild had 80 films to view for the nominations, but Donen said, "I don't think I'm going to manage."

Indeed he has yet to see "The Truth About Charlie," a freewheeling re-make by Jonathan Demme of Donen's 1963 "Charade" starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. He says, "And I'm not planning to. The director's a very pleasant fellow though. They paid me a lot of money, which I like. I was also paid for the remake of "Bedazzled." Wryly he adds, "That lasted a weekend." People apparently have been wanting to do a remake of his 1967 "Two for the Road," but so far haven't been able to find a way to update it to the present day that works. "One suggestion," says Donen with a smile, "wanted the couple on motorcycles." He shakes his head.

In April, Donen turns 79, which seems not quite real given his energy, spirit and amazing total recall memory. He says quietly matter of fact, "All my friends and mentors are dead now. I was practically a baby when I started out. I was 16. They were all older, of course. How horrible if we were to keep on living forever." Then he recollects a man who directed a play at 102, dying at 108. The thought seems to brighten his mood.

"You remember John Gay's epitaph? (The 18th century author of "The Beggars' Opera.") 'Life's a jest; and all things show it. I thought so once; but now I know it' I think that's about right." On the way to the front door Donen suddenly recollects a script he's just been sent, "Adolf Hitler Superstar" and begins to recount the story line enthusiastically, standing in the foyer by the large framed black and white poster of Fred and Adele Astaire.

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