Obituary: John Schlesinger

Generous and energetic film director whose reputation was enhanced by Hollywood success but damaged by dire commercial flops

Asked what he did when not working, Noel Coward used to say: "I evade boredom." For film director John Schlesinger, who has died aged 77, the response was equally apt: "I couldn't bear the idea of not working," admitting that this attitude sometimes led to his acceptance of inferior projects. From his student days, he sought creative outlets, and even when wealthy and well into middle age, he never contemplated retiring. Although most famous for his movies - among them Midnight Cowboy, Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Marathon Man - he also worked in the theatre, the opera house, in television and as director of innumerable commercials.

Schlesinger's attitude to work made him impatient with fellow British directors, notably Lindsay Anderson (obituary, September 1 1994), whom he considered over-selective and unable (or, as he said, unwilling) to work regularly. In turn, some of his own, dire commercial films contributed to a decline in his reputation in the second half of his career.

Schlesinger was born in London, into a comfortably-off Jewish family (his father was a doctor), with whom he retained strong bonds. After school at Uppingham, he did his national service and even performed as a magician in the combined services entertainment unit. At Balliol College, Oxford (1947-50), he continued his filmmaking activities, having graduated from a childhood 9.5mm camera to 16mm. These amateur efforts included Black Legend (1948) and The Starfish (1950), co-made with Alan Cooke and utilising the good will and talents of friends and his supportive family.

In his 20s, he began his acting career in The Alchemist, with the Oxford Players, and toured in numerous plays, culminating, in 1955, with Mourning Becomes Electra, directed by Peter Hall. Much of Schlesinger's great skill with actors stemmed from these apprentice years, when he also acted in films, including the Boulting Brothers' Brothers In Law (1957), for Michael Powell in Oh! Rosalinda (1955) and as a German officer in Battle Of The River Plate (1956). On television, he was in episodes of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, where, ironically, his director was Lindsay Anderson.

These years were dilettante in comparison with the body of work that followed, but they provided a bedrock of experience that was compounded by technical experience gained in television, first as part of the famous BBC Tonight programme, under Donald Baverstock, then Alastair Milne. A year or two later, Schlesinger graduated to Monitor, where, guided by Huw Wheldon, he directed longer pieces, including features on the Cannes film festival, Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh (1959), Italian opera (1960) and a study of three painters (1961).

It was thanks to Edgar Anstey, a distinguished figure in the British documentary movement, that Schlesinger was given the 30-minute Terminus (1961) to direct - and it made his name as a director. Set on Waterloo station, in his hands it became far more than an observation piece, with a poignant story of a little boy lost and with elements of drama and realism that foreshadowed his subsequent work. Terminus won Schlesinger an award at the Venice film festival and recognition from Bafta.

In 1962, he made his first feature film, A Kind Of Loving, which remains one of the most attractive debuts in British cinema. As often in his career, talent blended with luck and astute associations. The British realist movement was in full swing, following the free cinema movement and the success of Room At The Top, and Schlesinger joined Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz in a series of films with working-class and regional backgrounds. It was not that he was overtly political, more that the adaptation of Stan Barstow's novel fitted neatly within the naturalistic works of the period.

Shot economically on location, the film has a wonderful freshness, combined with a dark humour and directness that engaged audiences. It was produced by Joseph Janni, to whom Schlesinger acknowledged a major debt, in the first of their six collaborations. In quick succession, they made Billy Liar (1963), Darling (1965) and Far From The Madding Crowd (1967). For A Kind Of Loving, Schlesinger gave Alan Bates his first star role as the young man who feels he has been trapped into marriage. That casting, too, began a lasting relationship.

Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who had adapted Barstow's novel, were also the creators of Billy Liar, a film that blended fantasy, comedy and social observation. This, and Darling, compounded Schlesinger's reputation, especially when the latter gained Julie Christie an Oscar as best actress. It looks dated now, but in the mid-60s it brilliantly captured the hedonism of the period and aspects of London life.

As a reaction to these sombre black and white films, Schlesinger and Janni moved to produce a big-budget version of Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd, adapted by Frederic Raphael and superbly shot in 70mm and colour by Nicolas Roeg. At 40, it moved Schlesinger into the ranks of international acceptance and the overtures of Hollywood. It also reunited him with Bates and Christie, and introduced him to Peter Finch. This loyalty to his fellow artists continued throughout his career, with the same composers, cameramen, editors and production designers all spanning decades of his work.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) was long in gestation, but, as Schlesinger's first American film, it proved the most significant of his career, bringing him many awards, including the 1970 Oscar for best director. Thanks also to an ongoing share of the profits, it ensured his fortune. Aspects of it have dated, but if the now coy attitude to the homosexual theme reflects little credit on a gay director, it struck a chord with audiences and critics, and its success enabled him to return home and, with Janni, to make his most personal work.

Based on his own experiences, Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971) starred Finch as a homosexual doctor in love with a young man who also shares his favours with a woman (Glenda Jackson). Set in the middle-class homes of Hampstead, this elegant work benefited from the heartbreaking sensibility of Finch's performance, and despite silly moments (the pot-smoking children) it remains Schlesinger's best film, alongside his debut and a later work for television - again with a gay theme - An Englishman Abroad (1983).

Yet in the early 1970s work was in short supply, and Schlesinger took on the direction of a segment of the film in celebration of the Olympics, Visions Of Eight (1972). Two years later came the ambitious, although critically reviled, Day Of The Locust (1974), from Nathanael West's scabrous portrait of Hollywood. A much-needed commercial comeback followed with the thriller Marathon Man (1976), starring Dustin Hoffman as the victim of the sadistic Nazi dentist (Laurence Olivier). It salvaged Schlesinger's box office reputation - and he was able to retain his large house in Los Angeles, a family home in the country and his immaculately decorated house off Kensington High Street.

Marathon Man's success was a welcome psychological boost, since the 1970s witnessed some of Schlesinger's more spectacular theatrical flops. His only musical, I And Albert, was, in his own words: "A fairly horrendous experience." It lasted only days. A 1975 production of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House for the National Theatre fared better, but a couple of years later came a calamitous production of Julius Caesar for Peter Hall, also at the National. In the 1980s, Schlesinger abandoned the theatre for the opera house: first, at Covent Garden with Tales Of Hoffman (which was also filmed) and finally, in 1989, directing A Masked Ball at the Salzburg festival.

Between his schedules, he also found time to make dozens of commercials: for Black Magic chocolates, Danish bacon, coffee and numerous other products. However, feature films remained his central occupation, and he was reunited with Janni for Yanks (1979), a story of American soldiers in Britain during the second world war. It was followed by his greatest flop, from which his cinema career never fully recovered, the American-made comedy Honky Tonk Freeway. It cost $24m, in 1981 an unheard-of amount for an inherently small-scale film, and was withdrawn a week after release.

Sensibly, Schlesinger now moved into television, a medium he had previously resisted as too ephemeral, and directed a decent version of Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables and the memorable An Englishman Abroad (both 1983). But the lure of Hollywood and full-scale movies re-beckoned and the result was the political thriller The Falcon And The Snowman (1985), followed by a dismal piece of hokum shot in Canada, The Believers (1987), which Schlesinger co-produced. It failed critically and commercially.

Worse was to come with an adaptation of Bernice Ruben's novel Madame Sousatzka (1988), starring Shirley Maclaine. A return to the thriller genre with Pacific Heights (1990) had its moments, thanks to Michael Keaton's over-the-top performance as a lodger from hell and Schlesinger's guest appearance, and he took a larger role as Derek in the television play based on a gay novel, The Lost Language Of Cranes (1991).

He then directed, for BBC television, A Question Of Attribution (1992), with James Fox as Sir Anthony Blunt in an encounter with the Queen (Prunella Scales), and the following year took over direction of Ian McEwan's The Innocent. Schlesinger enjoyed far greater acclaim for his stylish version of Cold Comfort Farm, made in 1995. It was a surprise hit in the US, where he allegedly paid for prints to allow it a theatrical release. His next film, the revenge thriller An Eye For An Eye (1996), was notable only for surface tension and an electrifying performance by Kiefer Sutherland as a rapist.

In 1995, Schlesinger made a good interviewee in the definitive documentary about gay cinema, The Celluloid Closet. After playing a doctor in the television play The Twilight Of The Golds (1997), he directed a genuine oddity, financed by American television, The Tale Of Sweeney Todd (1998). This attempted a straight telling of the story of the demon barber; premiered at the Chichester film festival, it disappeared into Sky television.

Two years later, a serio-comedy, The Next Best Thing, with Madonna and Rupert Everett, emerged to lethal notices. Despite a sympathetic gay theme, one critic noted that it confirmed the slump in Schlesinger's career and indicated a willingness to accept inferior material, rather than face - at 75 - inactivity.

An extraordinary aspect of Schlesinger's personality was his boundless energy and enthusiasm for projects: when I arranged an NFT retrospective with him, he agreed to supply all his early material, off-cuts from films and his own 35mm copies, which were always provided as part of his contract. At the same time, he was assisting a less experienced director, who was having some problems at the NT, with a new play starring a formidable American actor. He devoted hours to the production, and such stories of advice and help were quite usual.

In return, it should be said, he demanded the same level of fastidious professionalism from collaborators, and a hallmark of his work is the outstanding quality of his fellow workers.

· John Richard Schlesinger, film director, born February 16 1926; died July 25 2003


Brian Baxter

The GuardianTramp

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