I think people call him an actors' director because he brought things out in people that maybe they didn't know were there: their own mischieviousness and their own wit.
— Shirley MacLaine
John Richard Schlesinger (February 16, 1926 — July 25, 2003) was a celebrated British film director who changed the world of cinema with his first American film, the groundbreaking Midnight Cowboy. Though his relatively short filmography comprises only nineteen movies, they cover a wide spectrum of styles and genres over a career spanning forty years. Schlesinger's immense talents graced not only the silver screen, but the stages of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, as well as television in the UK and the US. One of Hollywood's few openly gay directors, his 1971 film Sunday, Bloody Sunday was one of the first to deal realistically with ideas of gay love and relationships.
Born in London as the son of a Jewish pediatrician, Schlesinger's father played the cello and his mother played the violin. Not surprisingly, they both encouraged his interest in the arts, and as a child he became an accomplished pianist and an amateur magician. "The mixture of spoof, technical dexterity and audience control of the illusionist closely parallels the craft of the filmmaker," he told Film Comment in 1969. "My interest in magic... may well have been the first glimmering of my ambition to translate images and illusions of life onto the screen." Schlesinger's parents gave him a home movie camera when he was 11, and years later while he was serving with the Royal Engineers during World War II, he made his first amateur film. He also performed his magic act in the Combined Services Unit. After his discharge from the Army, he studied English literature at Balliol College, University of Oxford, where he joined the Oxford Dramatic Society, became president of the Experimental Theatre Club, and toured America in Shakespearean plays with the ODS his senior year. Throughout much of the 1950s, Schlesinger worked in the UK and the Antipodes, acting in nearly twenty plays with assorted repertory companies, as well as performing on radio, television, and in five feature films.
Schlesinger's amateur filmmaking continued while he was at Oxford, and eventually resulted in a 15-minute documentary in 1956 entitled Sunday in the Park. Based on the quality of this work, the BBC assigned him to do a series of documentaries for television. In 1961, he was commissioned to make a documentary on daily life in London's Waterloo Station. Considered to be his first feature-length film, Terminus was given nationwide theatrical distribution and earned a Venice Festival Gold Lion and British Academy Award. Schlesinger joined the ranks of Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Karl Reisz and other social-realist directors of the British New Cinema the following year with A Kind of Loving, his acclaimed comedy-drama about a couple who are forced to marry when the young woman becomes pregnant. It won the Golden Bear Award at the 1962 Berlin International Film Festival.
Schlesinger's career as a director really started to gel with his next picture, 1963's Billy Liar, featuring the perfectly cast Tom Courtenay in what is widely regarded as a quintessential 1960s British comedy. He directed Julie Christie to Oscar-winning stardom in Darling, the 1965 drama about a beautiful, disillusioned London model, which earned him a best director Oscar nomination and a reputation as an actor's director. Then came his masterpiece, 1969's Midnight Cowboy, where he directed Jon Voight in his career-making role as Joe Buck, the naive, pretty-boy Texas dishwasher who moves to New York City to become a gigolo and befriends Dustin Hoffman's tubercular, gimpy con man from the Bronx, Ratso Rizzo.
Midnight Cowboy, based on James Leo Herlihy's novel and rated X by the MPAA for its adult themes and content, was one of Schlesinger's greatest commercial and critical successes. Not only did he win an Academy Award for direction, but the movie won Oscars for best picture — the only X-rated film to ever receive the award — and for Waldo Salt's screenplay. "It had an enormous impact," according to Richard Schickel, Time Magazine film critic and film historian. "It was extremely well performed and sort of unblinking in terms of its view of an ugly side of urban life: It was tough-minded, but, of course, went pretty sentimental at the end. (Midnight Cowboy) was very much part of that '60s era — an era where studios really didn't know what the public wanted, so they were open to all kinds of stuff, and somebody like Schlesinger could come along and they'd say 'OK, let's take a shot at that.'" As a director, Schickel said, Schlesinger "was all over the map. But the movies of his highest period, whether Far From the Madding Crowd or Sunday, Bloody Sunday, partook of that spirit — the spirit of 'Let's try that.' I think Schlesinger was probably well matched to the spirit of that age."
The great success of Midnight Cowboy allowed Schlesinger to make what has been described as his most personal film, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, the 1971 drama about a family doctor (Peter Finch) and a divorced working woman (Glenda Jackson) who are both having an affair with the same man (Murray Head). The film earned Schlesinger another Oscar nomination as director. The movie was the first to ever deal with homosexuality as neither "hysterical nor funny," as Schlesinger once put it. It also features one of the first romantic screen kisses between a gay couple. "One of the things that makes John so important as an artist is that he was really the first director to deal with ideas of gay life and gay love in a way that was truly ahead of its time," said William J. Mann, who had Schlesinger's cooperation in a biography he is writing of the director (Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger, due out in mid-2004). Mann: "Sunday, Bloody Sunday, is a revolutionary film. John took the character of Peter Finch in that movie and made him the equal of the character played by Glenda Jackson. What he was doing was saying that gay love is the same as all love. Up until that point in movies, we'd seen gay characters portrayed as victims or murderers, and here we have Peter Finch playing a noble character with whom the audience sympathizes. The gayness is incidental to the plot, in that the story is about relationships. That was truly radical in 1971, and John just put it right out there. He wasn't making this hard-edged statement; he didn't hit people over the head with it. He made it very natural, and indeed, that's how he lived his life too."
In the years that followed, Schlesinger branched out into other areas of interest, directing theatre, opera, a music video for Paul McCartney, and British television productions, including 1983's "An Englishman Abroad," an award-winning BBC drama featuring Alan Bates as British spy Guy Burgess. He was one of eight directors who contributed to the official 1972 Munich Olympics movie Visions of Eight, covering the marathon in the track and field competition. During the 1970s and 1980s, Schlesinger directed a number of other memorable films which met with varying degrees of commerical and critical success, including The Day of the Locust, Marathon Man, Yanks, The Falcon and the Snowman, and Madame Sousatzka, which he co-wrote with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Bernice Rubens. His final film, 2000's The Next Best Thing, starring Madonna and openly gay actor Rupert Everett, offers a "politically correct" take on parental responsibilities and the dynamics of how we define families.
Schlesinger suffered a debilitating stroke in December of 2000, and his health declined steadily thereafter. He died at the age of 77 in Palm Springs, California, with his life partner of 36 years, photographer Michael Childers, at his side.
Selected Filmography (Director)
- Terminus (1961)
- A Kind of Loving (1962)
- Billy Liar (1963)
- Darling (1965)
- Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)
- Midnight Cowboy (1969)
- Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971)
- Visions of Eight (1973) (segment "The Longest")
- The Day of the Locust (1975)
- Marathon Man (1976)
- Yanks (1979)
- Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)
- The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
- The Believers (1987)
- Madame Sousatzka (1988)
- Pacific Heights (1990)
- The Innocent (1993)
- Eye for an Eye (1996)
- The Next Best Thing (2000)
The Los Angeles Times, obituary section. July 26, 2003