John Schlesinger

Oscar-winning director of 'Midnight Cowboy' who brought a fresh approach and contemporary viewpoint to his films

Saturday 19 October 2013 05:13

John Richard Schlesinger, film director: born London 16 February 1926; CBE 1970; died Palm Springs, California 25 July 2003.

One of Britain's new wave of directors in the Sixties who brought a fresh approach and contemporary viewpoint to their films, John Schlesinger was among the most successful. He won an Academy Award for his direction of Midnight Cowboy in 1969, and his other hits included Darling, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Marathon Man and Yanks.

His handling of actors always received particular praise and such performers as Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates are among those who did some of their finest work for him. He also directed occasionally in the theatre and opera house, and did some notable work for television. His acclaimed television film An Englishman Abroad was described by the critic Pauline Kael as "the best hour's television I've ever seen".

Born in London in 1926, the son of a paediatrician, Schlesinger had his first taste of show business when he started entertaining troops with a magic act during his Second World War service. Afterwards, while acquiring a belated university education at Balliol College, Oxford, he acted in student plays and went on to play character roles in films including Oh, Rosalinda (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Brothers in Law (1957).

On the strength of several amateur films he made as a director (his first, Horror, was made in 1946), the BBC signed him to a contract in 1957, and the following year he made a documentary, Circus, for the first edition of the fondly remembered arts programme Monitor. Between 1958 and 1960 he made several films for Monitor, including Benjamin Britten, Innocent Eye and The Class, and they caught the eye of Edgar Anstey, then head of British Transport Films, who asked the director to make a film for them.

Schlesinger recalled, "I suggested a 'Day in the Life' kind of thing, which became Terminus." A 45-minute documentary that captured the daily drama of Waterloo Station during a 24-hour period, Terminus attracted a lot of attention and won first prize at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. "I remember the critics here in England being quite snide about it," said Schlesinger, "particularly after it won the Golden Lion at Venice, but I'm used to that from British film critics."

The Italian producer Joseph Janni, who was working for the Rank Organisation, was among those impressed by Terminus, and he hired Schlesinger to make some commercials and then his first feature film, A Kind of Loving. In a 1994 interview with the writer Brian McFarlane, Schlesinger said,

The atmosphere and subject matter in those days were set rather by the Royal Court Theatre - by Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne, and by Woodfall Films, who had made Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. When I read A Kind of Loving I thought it a particularly human story which I could tell well. I sent a card to Joe Janni saying would he please give me a chance to do it. What he gave me a chance to do first was a test of Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar. I knew the test was really for me as much as for Tom Courtenay, to see if I was any good with actors.

A Kind of Loving (1962) was an impressive début film, its theme of a marriage forced by the girl's pregnancy handled with truth and sensitivity. It remains one of the director's most accomplished films, and was beautifully acted by Alan Bates, June Ritchie and, as the heroine's monstrous mother, Thora Hird. "It was a film about compromise," said the director, "which is what many of my films are about."

A Kind of Loving won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and Schlesinger next directed Billy Liar (1963), with Tom Courtenay starring as the North Country fantasist played on stage by Albert Finney. A keenly observed mixture of comedy and drama, it was not a commercial hit but it had excellent performances from Courtenay and Mona Washbourne and made a star of Julie Christie, whose entrance, swinging down a drab northern street, is one of the most potent film moments of the decade. "John gives a lot of direction," said Christie. "He is an actor's director. Of course he was an actor himself. He knows what he wants and he is jolly well going to get it."

Christie was the star of Darling (1964), one of the director's most lauded, and also denigrated, films. Co-starring Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey, its cynical account of a superficial and selfish model who sleeps her way up the social ladder found a particular response in America, where it was considered a vividly accurate and daring depiction of "Swinging London". It won for Schlesinger the New York Critics' Award for best director of the year, and won Christie the Oscar as Best Actress, with the film and director receiving Oscar nominations.

The critic Pauline Kael was among those unimpressed, describing the film as "silly and badly thought out", adding, "Since the girl was empty and pushing at the beginning and is still empty at the end, all we can really feel is, 'Well, if she's going to be unhappy, rich is better.' "

Schlesinger himself later stated,

Darling is probably one of my least favourite films, heaped with honours though it was. I thought it was too pleased with itself . . . I think it's a dated film, it's of its time. The British critics, who were very unpleasant about it, were probably right. All I can say is that when it's being shown on television I leave the room.

Janni and Schlesinger chose their next project, Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, especially as a vehicle for Julie Christie. Photographed in Dorset by Nicholas Roeg, it co-starred Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and, as Gabriel Oak, Alan Bates, who had originally wanted to play the role of Sergeant Troy, which he thought would be more challenging. "John is someone I've always had an absolute rapport with," said the actor, who worked with Schlesinger several times. Said the director,

I love working with Alan. He is great fun and a good friend; it is one of my few actor friendships that has really endured, because working with actors is rather like a shipboard romance - you are all thrown together very closely for a short time, swear undying loyalty and love, then you're jolly glad when the thing's over.

Schlesinger's next film was the biggest commercial and critical success of his career and the film by which he will be best remembered, Midnight Cowboy (1969). The story of a country boy who goes to New York to make his fortune as a male prostitute, it was considered extremely daring for its time, but was so expertly crafted and acted that it captivated audiences all over the world. Made in New York, Florida and Texas, it was full of fascinating background detail with Schlesinger beautifully capturing what the New York Times critic Vincent Canby described as a "world of cafeterias and abandoned tenements, of desperate conjunctions in movie balconies and doorways, of ketchup and beans and canned heat". Its central relationship, between the would-be stud (Jon Voight) and his tubercular friend Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) was extraordinarily moving, and the film won Oscars as Best Film, Best Screenplay (Waldo Salt) and Best Director (Schlesinger).

Equally audacious and adult for its time was Schlesinger's next film, Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), the story of a middle-aged man and woman who are in love with the same young man. "It's the most personal of all my films," said the director.

I'm an openly gay director and I'd had a relationship with a much younger man that was funny and enjoyable. It didn't last long, just two years, but we're still great friends and at the end of it I thought, "There's a film in there."

The screenplay was written by the former critic Penelope Gilliatt.

We didn't like each other much. She was an intellectual snob and I resented that. There was a kind of tension between us but I think that, perhaps, out of that tension came a very good film.

Glenda Jackson said,

They sent me the script and I leapt at it. I don't think I had ever read a script of that intelligence and I wanted to work with Schlesinger . . . He treated the homosexual relationship in a way that was neither prurient nor supercilious. It is actually said in the film that it is entirely possible for men to love men in the way that other men love women.

Schlesinger also interpolated a personal note by making the character of Daniel (Peter Finch) Jewish and asking that a bar mitzvah scene be included:

I'm Jewish and I've been to that kind of bar mitzvah where I'm faced with that business of cousins asking when I'm going to get married because otherwise I'll be very lonely and all that shit, and I'd always wanted to use it.

The sequence was one of the most amusing in a film which the director felt had too little humour.

I think I cast the wrong person as the young man. Murray Head was good, but if I'd had my druthers I'd have cast

someone funnier who would have made them laugh so the audience could see why people were attracted to him.

Pauline Kael was on the director's side with this film, which she called "his finest work - perhaps a classic".

The idea of having eight distinguished directors film eight different views of the Munich Olympics in 1972 sounded fascinating, but of the starry line-up (including Ichikawa, Lelouch, Penn, Zetterling and Forman) only Schlesinger emerged with credit, his final section on the marathon being generally regarded as the only impressive section of the resulting film, Visions of Eight (1973).

The director worked with the writer Waldo Salt again on an adaptation of Nathanael West's novel of Hollywood in the Thirties, The Day of the Locust (1975), an ambitious attempt to bring the sprawling tale of film-industry underlings to the screen, but its impressive vision of a society in decline was marred by some grossly overblown sequences.

Marathon Man (1976), adapted from William Goldman's thriller about Nazis in New York, was also criticised for its overwrought atmosphere plus its excess of brutality, but it was a big hit at the box office and the scene in which Dustin Hoffman suffers torture by dentistry at the hands of Laurence Olivier has become a classic of sorts.

After several years in America, Schlesinger returned to Britain to make Yanks (1979). "While I was making Marathon Man," he related,

Colin Welland visited the set and told me that he wanted to write a screenplay about the Americans in Britain just before D-Day. It was an idea that immediately made me both very nostalgic and keen to go home to England to make another film.

His affection for the subject comes across in the film, and one of its stars, Vanessa Redgrave, spoke warmly of him afterwards"

John Schlesinger is a superb director. I love working with him. I loved that film too. Any John Schlesinger film is unlike any other. I mean, he is a great film-maker. I think one would call him an auteur.

Sadly, the director's subsequent films were extremely variable in quality and rarely successful at the box office. The frenetic and noisy comedy Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) was probably the director's worst film, and his version of The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), the true story of two affluent young Americans who decide to sell government secrets to Russia, was a disappointment, but The Believers (1987) was a truly unsettling account of a father and son who become involved in a cult that believes in sacrificing children. The opening scene, in which the child sees his mother electrocuted in a kitchen mishap, was shocking.

Schlesinger's best cinema feature of the last 20 years was undoubtedly Madame Sousatzka (1988), in which Shirley McLaine played an eccentric music teacher who becomes involved with a talented pupil, his mother (played by the Indian star Shabana Azmi), and the inhabitants of the building in which she lives. With fine performances from a cast including Peggy Ashcroft, Twiggy and Navin Chowdhry, Schlesinger produced a work both amusing and moving. He later said that it was one of the four films of which he was fondest - the others being A Kind of Loving, Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Some of Schlesinger's best later work was done for television, notably his skilfully understated handling of An Englishman Abroad (1983), Alan Bennett's brilliantly scripted account of the true meeting between the actress Coral Browne (who played herself) and the exiled traitor Guy Burgess (played by Alan Bates) in Moscow. "I love Alan Bennett's work," said the director, "and he's great to work with; his ear for dialogue is absolutely extraordinary."

The 60-minute film has become a classic, and in 1995 the director had another television success with a playful version of Stella Gibbons's satire Cold Comfort Farm. Schlesinger also worked occasionally in the theatre and the opera house, where he staged The Tales of Hoffmann for Covent Garden and a production of Der Rosenkavalier which is still in their repertory, and his involvement in politics included making films for the Conservative Party, which he supported. But his first love was the cinema.

"I'd rather be making films for the big screen," he said in 1994,

but things have changed since I started. To make individualist films has become really difficult. Films are more expensive to make - and to sell - so people want to hedge their bets with stars who, they think, will put bottoms on seats. I think the energy level and the desire for the fight are difficult to sustain. I mean, I'm still working but not with any great ease.

Tom Vallance

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments