'Midnight Cowboy' director John Schlesinger dies

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The Independent Culture

John Schlesinger, the British film director who won an Oscar for the groundbreaking and controversial 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, died in Palm Springs yesterday, aged 77.

He suffered a stroke in December 2000 and his condition had deteriorated rapidly over the past few weeks. On Thursday he was taken off life support at the Desert Regional Medical Centre in Palm Springs, where he lived.

Schlesinger was one of Britain's most prolific and renowned film makers. He was both fêted and criticised for introducing homosexual themes into mainstream movies, and launched the careers of many household names, including Julie Christie and Kate Beckinsale. Christie said last night: "He was clever enough to see in this awkward, terrified creature something that perhaps would never have been seen if it wasn't for him."

Midnight Cowboy, his best-known work, starred Jon Voight as a naive Texan who turns to prostitution to survive in New York, and Dustin Hoffman as the ailing vagrant Ratso Rizzo. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three for best director, best actor and best adapted screenplay, from a novel by James Leo Herlihy. Hoffman said of Schlesinger's death: "Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet: 'We will never see the likes of him again.'"

In 1971 Schlesinger directed Sunday Bloody Sunday, which starred Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson as acquaintances who each share a love for the same young man. The director received another Oscar nomination for the film.

Schlesinger's films often depict their characters as lonely, disenchanted and sometimes forgotten. In 1975, he directed an adaptation of the Nathanael West novella The Day of the Locust, about aspiring young actors who find only disappointment in Hollywood.

The film maker, who was gay, said in 1970: "I'm only interested in one thing -tolerance. I'm terribly concerned about ... the limitation of freedom. That's why I'm more interested in the failures of this world than the successes."

Schlesinger first worked for the BBC, as a second unit director. He then made a documentary of daily life in London's Waterloo Station, called Terminus, in 1961. It received nationwide commercial distribution and earned him a Venice Festival Gold Lion and a British Academy Award.

Schlesinger made his feature film directorial debut with A Kind of Loving, starring Alan Bates, in 1962. His commercial success with Marathon Man in 1975 - again starring Hoffman - turned the director towards thrillers. In 1985, he made The Falcon and the Snowman, a tale of true-life espionage starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton.

Other notable successes includeCold Comfort Farm, (1995) about an orphan who moves in with her eccentric distant relatives, and Eye for an Eye, (1996) in which Sally Field plays a mother-turned-vigilante.