February 16, 1926– John Schlesinger:
“Hollywood is an extraordinary kind of temporary place.“
It would be difficult to underestimate the influence that at least two of Schlesinger’s films have had on my life as a gay man. Midnight Cowboy (I was just 15 years old when I saw this X rated film) and pioneering Sunday Bloody Sunday (I was 17); both contained mind-blowing moments for me. Truly great films, they both have fascinating gay characters as well as homoerotic moments that lodged in my young mind and stayed there through my middle-age.
Creepy Trumpster, Jon Voight, was not yet crazy when he was so young and so simply luscious in Midnight Cowboy (1969). Murray Head is the poster boy for the sexy 1970’s male in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), with Glenda Jackson checking out Murray’s perfect physique as he showered, both made me consider how I really felt when I stood next to beautiful boys in the showers after gym class, wondering if any of them might notice or might be mine.
Sunday Bloody Sunday is an astonishing film, especially for its time. It is the first film I ever saw where a gay man was rather “normal” and sympathetic, and where male attraction seemed inevitable. The film asks: Is it better to share a lover than to have none at all? It is the story of two people, a gay middle-aged Jewish doctor played by the great Peter Finch and a 30-ish working woman, played by Jackson, who are romantically intertwined with a boyish artist played by Head who treats them both with a bit of ennui.
Schlesinger was well-reviewed as a director, and much celebrated in his lifetime, but history has not been as kind. He won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1969, and received nominations in 1965 and 1971, and he was still doing important work through the 1970s, but he made so many missteps in the 1980s and 1990s that when he, at last, made one last great feature film, it was mostly ignored.
He followed that up with a couple of the worst films he ever made, the dreadful thriller Eye For An Eye (1996) and the miserable Madonna/Rupert Everett vehicle, The Next Best Thing (2000). It must have seemed a good idea on paper. When his final credits rolled in 2003, he was remembered only with headlines such as: “Oscar Winning Director Dies”.
Schlesinger was a very important part of British filmmaking in the 1960s, directing the brilliant swinging London films: Darling (1965), Billy Liar (1963), A Kind Of Loving (1962), plus the beautiful, lush Far From The Madding Crowd (1967); each brilliant, with gorgeous production values and first-rate acting. Schlesinger then moved to Hollywood and made such thoughtful films as Day Of The Locust (1975) and Falcon And The Snowman (1985).
After that, his films rarely rose above mediocrity, but his last great film is truly a treasure and one my all-time favorites films. Technically, Cold Comfort Farm came out in 1995, and would have been Oscar eligible had it not played on television in Britain first. The film received good reviews but not much notice. Maybe it was a matter of timing. Cold Comfort Farm was riding the wave of popular Jane Austen film adaptations, although it is not Austen, and it is set in the early 1930s rather than the 19th century, but it is still a British costume comedy of manners. How much more would it get noticed today, now that Ian McKellen is known the world over for X-Men and those Lord Of The Rings films, and not just as the guy from the interesting Richard III? Or that Kate Beckinsale is now thought of as one of the world’s most beautiful women and a tough cookie, and not just the actor who was okay in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)?
Cold Comfort Farm is a divine peach of a film. Beckinsale (not wearing black leather jumpsuits) portrays a city girl who goes to live with her cousins in the country and perhaps discover herself as a writer. The collection of her very odd cousins includes the crazed matriarch, the earthy Seth (a yummy Rufus Sewell) and an enigmatic preacher father, played by McKellen in a fantastic and eccentric performance.
Openly gay producer/director/molester Bryan Singer told McKellen two years later while they were making Apt Pupil (1998) that he should watch this guy’s performance in Cold Comfort Farm to get some ideas on how to approach his role, not realizing he was talking to the very same actor. Add in some nutty, only slightly restrained performances by the great Eileen Atkins, Julia Margolyes, Joanna Lumley, and our dear Stephen Fry and you get a great cinematic mix of low humor and high style.
The film has a happy ending when a Hollywood producer enters the story, but the true happiness is that Schlesinger made one more excellent film, even if it was mostly ignored.
Schlesinger’s work with actors always received particular praise, and Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates are among those who gave some of their very best performances while working for him. He also occasionally directed plays and opera, and he did some especially good work for television. His television film An Englishman Abroad (1983) is the sort of quality product we expect nowadays on HBO or Netflix, so its accomplishment is especially outstanding for pre-streaming programming. He also worked occasionally as an actor, especially good in a television adaptation of David Leavitt‘s gay-themed novel, The Lost Language Of Cranes (1991).
Schlesinger survived a quadruple heart-bypass in 1998, but then he suffered a stroke in December 2000. In summer 2003, Schlesinger was taken off life-support in a hospital in Palm Springs by his partner of over 30 years, photographer Michael Childers. Schlesinger was gone on the following day. He was 77 years old when he left this sad old world.
My favorites of Schlesinger films:
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
Marathon Man (1976)
Madame Sousatzka (1988)
Cold Comfort Farm (1996)