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Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies

Audrey pays tribute to Stanley Donen - who directed Audrey in Funny Face, Charade and Two for the Road.

HOW I wish that early in my career someone had warned me, "Now, one day people will be asking you for anecdotes about the films you made."

If only that had been the case, then I might have started keeping a little diary and filling it with personal observations about some of the extraordinary people with whom I've worked and the times we shared. Most useful of all, especially as I gaze in absolute horror at these blank pieces of paper before me, I could be relying on this sadly nonexistent private journal instead of my own shaky memory.

That minor confession out of the way, I can easily state that no matter how long the passage of time, or how great the physical distance between us, there is one person whose very name makes me smile in total delight whenever I think of him. And that's Stanley Donen.

Stanley has been an important part of my life for more than thirty-five years. I think of Stanley first as a friend and then as "a famous film director." Of course, there are other great, well-known filmmakers, but take my word, there is only one Stanley Donen. Stanley is a master moviemaker. His knowledge of film is boundless, from his clever camera technique and choreographic grace, to his finely tuned musical ear, to his exquisite taste in color design and story sense. Most important, in my estimation, is that he combines these remarkable professional talents with an extraordinary amount of sensitivity and patience, and, above all else, a tremendous sense of humor.

As a director, Stanley has time and again generously provided insecure actors such as myself the reassurance and courage they need to give him their absolute best. I should know. I have had the good fortune to make three pictures with Stanley-Funny Face, Charade, and Two for the Road.

Only for Stanley would I have jumped into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim. Only for Stanley would I have climbed behind the wheel of a sports car without knowing how to drive. And only for Stanley would I have shown the nerve to dance with Fred Astaire.

That last feat, accomplished while making Funny Face, was some experience, and I'll never forget the morning I was to meet Fred for the first time. We were to begin rehearsals at the studio in Hollywood, and I remember being so shaken that I threw up my breakfast. Stanley, himself having been a dancer, was remarkably encouraging, but on that particular day I was so ready to crumble that no words of comfort from anyone could have sufficed. And Fred, perhaps, was nervous too, over how he was going to get on with me. Well, unlucky fellow, he had every right to worry, because sure enough, as soon as we started on the rehearsal stage, the worst that could have happened did. I was tripping all over Fred's feet. I could barely walk, let alone dance with him. I'm sure he and Stanley were silently thinking to themselves: My God, what are we going to do with this clumsy girl? But if they did, they never let me in on it. Fred, always the gentleman, only said, "That's marvelous, but let's try it again." And so we did. (It was a tiny bit better that time.) And again. (Better still, but nowhere up to his standard, I could tell.) And again, until finally, long hours later, under the quiet, ever watchful eye of Stanley and Fred himself, I was dancing with Fred Astaire. Imagine-dancing with Fred Astaire!

Another marvelous leading man Stanley introduced me to was Cary Grant, although, I must confess, I very much doubt if I left him with the best first impression. Cary and I had never met before we did Charade, so there we all were in Paris, about to have dinner at some terribly smart bistro. As it was early spring, Cary, who always dressed impeccably, was wearing an exquisite light-tan suit. I know I was thrilled to meet him, and I must have been terribly excited, because not ten seconds after we started chatting I made some gesture with my hand and managed to knock an entire bottle of red wine all over poor Cary and his beautiful suit. He remained cool. I on the other hand, was horrified. Here we'd only just been introduced! If I somehow could have managed to crawl under the table and escape without ever having to see him again, I happily would have. Instead I attempted my best under the circumstances. I apologized and apologized. Stanley, though I could hardly look at him, diplomatically concealed his acute embarrassment, while Cary, still dripping wine, nonchalantly removed his jacket and pretended, very convincingly, that the stain would simply go away. But in the back of my mind I wondered, After what I've just done, how could I ever face this man again, let alone make a movie with him? (Cary solved my situation like the true gallant he was. The next day he sent over a tin of caviar and a card telling me not to worry about the suit or anything. Then, wouldn't you know, in the movie Stanley had me mess up Cary once more, this time by "accidentally" flinging a scoop of ice cream on him.)

Two for the Road happens to contain one of my favorite scenes in all my movies. That business about changing outfits in the car. That's something I've done in real life. Also that incident about sneaking food into the hotel because the dining room's so expensive, only to find out later that the meals would have been included in the price of the stay. That's happened too. As for the picture itself, I must confess to having been uncertain about taking on the role, but it was Stanley who, through sheer persistence, convinced me to accept it. Freddie Raphael had done a brilliant script, perhaps one that was slightly ahead of its time. It was extremely sophisticated, both in its exploration of the various stages of the man's and woman's infatuation with one another and in the way the story played itself out backward and forward in time. I can't help but think that if the movie were to come out today, it might be more successful than it was. But who really knows about these things?

As for Stanley himself, the record speaks for itself He was a boy wonder at M-G-M. He made On the Town when he was only in his twenties, and then he went on to direct so many memorable pictures. He made Indiscreet with Cary and Ingrid Bergman, a super movie. And those brilliant musicals, like Singin' in the Rain that one is everybody's favorite, isn't it?-and Seven Brides for Seven Brotbers, which was tremendously successful. Not bad for a kid.

Professionally, I can tell you, Stanley works not only with the precision of a dancer, which is his training, but with the experienced eye of an artist who knows exactly what he wishes to capture and convey. That's what gives his pictures their special look and feel, and what makes him a master moviemaker.

Not that I mean to make him sound totally serious. Far from it. When you're with Stanley, be prepared to fall on the floor giggling. He himself has the greatest laugh. In Paris while we were making Funny Face, we had a running gag, using Anglo-Franco terms in the wrong way. For example, when the light would come on in airplanes and alert us to stop smoking, it would read "Ne pas fumer." That's when we'd all look at each other and say, "It's time to stop fuming." Once, Stanley, who at the time was still perfecting his French, was photographing Fred and me floating down the stream on the little raft at the end of the picture. Stanley wanted to dress up the scene by having us followed by a flock of swans as the picture faded out-only the swan wrangler, as we called him, was late with his cue. And so, with the camera rolling, a desperately frantic Stanley started yelling at the top of his lungs, Les singes! Les singes! What he meant to say was, "Les cygnes!" or swans. Instead he was calling out for monkeys.

And that even without the benefit of a secret little diary-is what I so happily remember when I think about my life and times with Stanley Donen. We worked hard and we laughed hard.

One last "diary" entry, if you will indulge me. Rather early on in Funny Face, I got to sing - in my own voice, thank you very much - a tender and wistful song by George and Ira Gershwin, called "How Long Has This Been Going On?" Of course, it had to do with love. In the case of the impressive film legacy of Stanley Donen, which also has a very great deal to do with love, "this" has been going on for fifty years. Dear Stanley, what I wouldn't give to see it go on another fifty, at least.

Tolochenaz, Switzerland
September 1992

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