Tuesday, October 22

The Directors: John Schlesinger

Gay, London-born John Schlesinger was a fixture of the British New Wave in the 1960s before he became famous in America.  That happened in 1969 when his first American film, Midnight Cowboy, caused a considerable stir while winding up winning Oscar's best picture and Schlesinger nabbing best director.  He would direct 17 films in all with his best work following immediately after Cowboy.  His output was slender and his acclaimed films even smaller, but he made his mark.  Those of us who followed his work did so with unbridled admiration.

He was born in 1929 to a musician mother and a pediatrician father.  Despite reading a great bio on him years ago, Edge of Midnight, I cannot remember anything about his childhood, so we'll quickly move along.  Unless it's Shirley Temple, who wants to spend a lot of time on celebrities' childhoods? 

After college he began dabbling in acting and while he performed in front of the camera quite a number of times, he knew from the beginning that he wanted to direct. For several years he directed documentaries for the BBC.  In 1961 he won a British Academy Award for his documentary Terminus and then moved easily into feature films. 

Those early films, the British New Wave, were also called kitchen sink drama because of their focus on the nitty-gritty of life, the minutia of everyday living. Almost always in black and white, they  were usually too angry and too grim for my tastes. I do not fault the director, however, for dabbling in this genre because he certainly did it well and it made him a force to reckon with in British cinema.

A Kind of Loving (1962) was Schlesinger's debut film and the first of multiple associations with Alan Bates who played a working-class bloke who unhappily marries a woman he gets pregnant. 

In 1963 he gave us Billy Liar, notable for its strong lead performance by the luminous Tom Courtenay and in her breakout role, Julie Christie.  If we owe Schlesinger anything beyond some damned good films, we owe him for Christie.  Billy had another last name but his penchant for bs got him a new moniker.  At one end he thought not being caught in a lie was the same as telling the truth and at the opposite end was how he hurt others with his untruths.  Christie portrayed a young woman he takes up with even though he is engaged to two others. 

Two years later he used Christie again to play an amoral tart in the acclaimed Darling.  She would go on to win numerous awards for the part, including the Oscar.  One thing one cannot accuse Schlesinger of is bringing a soft focus to his films or their characters.  Darling is about as in-your-face as things could get in 1965.   It showed Christie as a free-wheeling, sexual adventuress who changed men as often as she changed jobs and attitudes.  This fit in with Schlesinger's way of life as well.  Darling could certainly have been a gay-themed movie with a simple change of gender for the lead.  It didn't escape my notice that two gay actors, great favorites of mine, Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey, were hired for the roles of two of her boyfriends/conquests.

Next was the big-budgeted Far from the Madding Crowd, a lush, period-piece adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel centering on sex, love and marriage and again featuring Christie as the heroine and in this case it's a film about a woman trapped inside an unhappy marriage.  For one who loves period films featuring the English countryside, this is one not to miss.  Christie's suitors are Bates, Peter Finch and a very seductive Terrence Stamp.  It did not play  well in the U.S.  That title didn't help.  But history has been kinder and today it is certainly considered one of the director's essential films.

Then Schlesinger crossed the pond and steered us through the mean streets of New York and Midnight Cowboy.  Now the entire world would sit up and take notice.  There might have been opinions as wide as the Atlantic he crossed but Schlesinger in 1969 had everyone talking about this movie.  And why not?  It was about a sexy street hustler and his tagalong, crippled buddy as they make their way across the bad part of town.  What they see, what they say, how they say it, how they act, how they interact with each other and those they come across is some juicy material.  After a couple of hours with Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck, I wanted to go home and bathe and perhaps scrub myself as raw as my emotions were from seeing this hard-hitting film.  In 1969 it was audacious in its depiction of a naive male prostitute and a sleazy con artist who would fleece Bishop Fulton J. Sheen if they saw him crossing the street.

Jon Voight as Joe and Dustin Hoffman as Ratso both copped Oscar nominations for lead actor and both were immensely deserving.  I'm sure their jaws dropped when they heard John Wayne's name announced for his comedy performance in True Grit.  For his first American film, Schlesinger would wrestle the Oscar away from George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Costa-Gavras (Z) and Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?).

Next up was Sunday Bloody Sunday, my favorite of all of Schlesinger's films and a story based on a chapter from his own life.  It still had that New Wave feel to it, but it was in color, some people actually laughed and were upbeat and oh, ok, it was gay-themed.  To say the least.  Certifiably straight but randy Peter Finch returned to work for Schlesinger as a calm, steady and reflective doctor who works out of his home and has a love affair with Murray Head, a much younger bohemian artist, who, in turn, has a love affair of his own with Glenda Jackson, a rather understanding free-spirit.  All parties are aware of one another's existence although the Finch and Jackson characters barely know one another.

Certainly considered a ground-breaking film in 1971 (although The Boys in the Band got things rolling the year before), a threesome such as this one had never been addressed before on the screen.  Along with the requisite sex scenes, there was much to deal with in the areas of jealousy, temper tantrums and working out such an arrangement.

The big scene was most certainly the first kissing scene between Finch and Head... it was hard to hear the lip-smacking with all the gasping in the audience and the sounds of heels clicking as the pure of heart poured out the doors.

Can you imagine the 1930s sets and art direction in a film about a Hollywood art director in the 1930s?  If one is a lover of old Hollywood and/or films about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust is one that should go to the top of the list.  This has a look that is irresistible.  The art director, so besotted with a woman, tries to turn her into a movie star, paying scant attention to what she wants.  No one could have possibly played the part of this woman better than Karen Black.  The film sheds a light on all that is Hollywood with special emphasis on the star trip from all angles.  As anyone who has seen it could verify, there is a dark side here and I mean dark.  The ending leaves one feeling hurt and empty and exhausted.  With all these things going on, there is, as someone once said, a mushiness in the middle.  Something just doesn't come altogether and it kept it from being the great film it could have been, certainly wanted to be.  William Atherton as the hero of the piece just didn't click.  Too bad.  I like him, too.   Sometimes I got goosebumps watching The Day of the Locust.  I'll bet Schlesinger would have loved to have heard that.

Fine as some of these films were, they weren't big crowd-pleasers.  Most, in fact, could have slipped quietly into art houses and left with a few devoted fans.  But Schlesinger needed a big hit... or as I am given to saying... something with a car crash.  If the hero can run in and out of buildings chased by a gaggle of goons, so much the better.  Add more than a dollop of violence.  Mix in a couple of the world's best actors, one from today and one from yesteryear, and you've got Marathon Man.

Dustin Hoffman cleaned up from Midnight Cowboy to become Marathon Man.  It wasn't often that we got to see Laurence Olivier as a bad guy but all that changed here... a heinous villain he was, too.  As written by the prolific screenwriter and novelist, William Goldman (I recommend you imdb him and marvel at all his wonderful credits), a young graduate student unwittingly becomes involved with diamond smugglers in Manhattan... to his utter regret.  With Roy Scheider, William Devane, Marthe Keller and Fritz Weaver also in the cast, it is an exercise in pain and fear and suspense, experienced by both the protagonist and us audience members.  If one has seen this riveting thriller, you've not forgotten this scene:

It did become the rollicking success the director wanted and it may have been the only one of his films to claim that.  I wish Yanks would have caught a better wave than it did but it has my undying devotion.  I quite fancied the story of England during WWII and  the Americans housed there and involved with English lasses.  Three relationships highlighting degrees of conflict, prejudice, hardship and misunderstandings are played out against a wonderful period feel.  Some of the casting might have been wrong and there was an undeniably sugary feel to it that probably kept it from being more successful.

We could safely say Schlesinger's best work was between 1969 and 1979 and he is certainly known as a dynamic director of the 70s.  From here on out, his work was spotty at best.  I don't think there was another great or even really good film left in him.  Honky Tonk Freeway should be taken off his resumé.  Falling into the so-so category were The Innocent, The Believers, The Falcon and the Snowman, Madame Sousatzka and Pacific Heights, although the latter more than held my interest because I like suspenseful stories.

He took to directing TV movies, never the feather in the cap that one is looking for, although his Cold Comfort Farm received some deserved attention. 

In 1973 he began a relationship with Michael Childers, a photographer who would share Schlesinger's life until the latter's death 30 years later.  That same year Schlesinger became more involved in a life-long passion... opera.  He became associate director at London's Royal National Theater where he would helm several operas.  He would become a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the early 70s.

In 2000 he would direct his final film, The Next Best Thing, starring Rupert Everett and Madonna.  It wasn't bad actually, but certainly not on par with any of the director's best work.

One thing I always respected about John Schlesinger was that he was an out gay man and he loved being one.  He brought a gay sensibility to most of  his films, whether they were actually gay-themed or not.  His films often focused on people trying to make the best of what life dealt them, how they soldiered on, how they made their peace. 

He died in 2003 in Palm Springs, that gay mecca of desert dalliances, that he loved so much.

Review of The Counselor

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