He's the Rain Man
So when Martin Scorsese handed over the Oscar, Donen, having rehearsed "endlessly" (with the statuette pal Marshall Brickman won for cowriting 1977's Annie Hall), knew exactly what he would do. "Tonight, words seem inadequate," he said. "In musicals that's when we do a song." As the orchestra struck up "Cheek to Cheek," Donen cradled his Oscar to his beaming face and sang. When he concluded with a spry tap dance, the thoroughly charmed audience went nuts.
In a ceremony otherwise noted for Titanic egos, Donen contributed a memorable moment of grace. No surprise from the man who created some of the silver screen's most unforgettable images: Gene Kelly splashing through puddles in Singin' in the Rain; Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding and Audrey Hepburn at her most radiant in Funny Face and Two for the Road.
Donen's only Oscar now perches atop his black Blüthner piano—next to a cardboard cutout of Astaire—in his airy 25th-floor apartment high above New York City's Lincoln Center. Although Donen is often credited with revolutionizing movie musicals, his fame pales next to that of the stars whose photographs fill his home. "He has a director's ego, but he comes from an era when it wasn't 'Steven Spielberg presents,' it was 'MGM presents,' " says Stephen M. Silverman, whose biography of Donen, Dancing on the Ceiling, was published in 1996 (and who is an editor at PEOPLE Online). "Today we can go back and notice his touches. He's an amazing talent."
His own journey—from teenage hoofer to paragon of Hollywood style and sophistication—"was his best movie," says writer-director Larry Gelbart, a longtime friend. Born in Columbia, S.C., Donen, the son of dress-shop manager Mordecai Donen and his wife, Helen, wanted "to escape into the movies." At 9, he saw Flying Down to Rio, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He returned to watch it over and over. "My father used to come and get me after school," he says. "He'd walk into the theater when he closed his shop, look for me sitting there, take me by the hand and go home."
The Astaire-Rogers alchemy, Donen says, "made me want to be a part of that world." He began to take dance lessons and hurried through high school, graduating at 16 in 1940 and heading to New York City the next day. He quickly won a chorus role in Broadway's Pal Joey, starring Gene Kelly. In 1942, Donen followed Kelly, by then his mentor, to Hollywood. Rejected for war service because of high blood pressure, he served as an assistant choreographer on the 1944 film Cover Girl. Only 19, he directed one sequence, in which Kelly danced with a mirror image of himself.
Donen and Kelly then codirected two of Hollywood's most-loved musicals, On the Town (1949) and Singin' in the Rain (1952). But by 1955's It's Always Fair Weather, the relationship turned stormy. Donen had directed solo on such films as Royal Wedding—where he built a room in a rotating steel cylinder for Astaire's gravity-defying scene—and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. "At the time, Kelly's star was on the decline, while Stanley's was on the rise, and I should think that led to great tension," says Silverman.
Donen never soured, however, on romantic partnerships. His first marriage, to dancer Jeanne Coyne (who later wed Kelly in 1960), lasted from 1947 to 1951. After a romance with Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Love Is Better Than Ever in 1950, he tied the knot four more times: with actress Marion Marshall from 1952 to 1959, socialite Lady Adelle Beatty from 1960 to '71, actress Yvette Mimieux from 1972 to '82, and saleswoman Pam Braden from 1990 to '94. He has three sons: Peter, 44, an agent at William Morris, Josh, 42, a movie special-effects supervisor, and Mark, 36. "Marriage is a good idea," says Donen, despite his track record. "No one has come up with a better one."
In 1958, Donen relocated to London, which captivated him when he filmed the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman comedy Indiscreet that year. He and Lady Beatty, an Oklahoma-born divorcée, lived the jet-set life. He also found a lifelong friend and a new favored star in Audrey Hepburn. "I loved her so," he says.
After Donen returned to the U.S. in 1972, his films—including The Little Prince, Saturn 3 and 1984's Blame It on Rio, his last—fell far short of his previous heights. "Some of them I feel I've failed at," he admits. In 1990, he married Pam (at ex-wife Mimieux's L.A. home) two weeks after meeting her at a Beverly Hills clothing shop where she worked. "We had a lot of fun," says Pam, now 38. "I used to teach him the dances that I grew up with, like the Swim, the Jerk and the Mashed Potato." The two divorced in 1994—"I really wanted a child and he didn't," she says—but are still "the best of friends." Donen agrees: "We've had a great divorce."
Donen, who had quadruple heart-bypass surgery in November, says he intends to go on working. His last job was in 1993, when he stepped in at the helm of a flailing Broadway production of The Red Shoes (it still flopped). Says Gelbart: "When he started singing 'Cheek to Cheek'...what he was saying was, 'Hey, Hollywood, I'm alive and kicking.' "
As for recognition of his past accomplishments, Donen, who turned 74 in April, doesn't mind that his Oscar took a lifetime to achieve. "I'm actually glad it took so long, because I would have already enjoyed it and forgotten it," he says. "Instead, I'm enjoying it today."
Sue Miller in New York City