We lost openly gay filmmaker Joel Schumacher on Monday, taken by cancer at 80 years old.
Schumacher started his career as costume designer before becoming a filmmaker. The style and swagger of his snazzy hit films betray the junkiness of much of his work. He was savvy about capitalizing on a craze, from disco films in the 1970s to superhero franchises in the 1990s, with his two Batman films: Batman And Robin (1997) and Batman Forever (1995). He was the man that added those rubber nipples to the caped crusader’s breastplate. Schumacher:
“I’m not embarrassed about anything I’ve done.”
His first big success as director was St Elmo’s Fire (1985) followed by The Lost Boys (1987), both with loads of of young stars known as “The Brat Pack”.
His 1990s work are flashy pop morsels that feature lots of big hair. He later gave us John Grisham adaptations: The Client (1994), smartly made with plenty of thrills and with solid performances from Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, and the not so great A Time To Kill (1996), which made Matthew McConaughey a leading man.
Schumacher’s true gift was finding future stars. He chose Julia Roberts for the supernatural thriller Flatliners (1990) and the tearjerker Dying Young (1991) while she was just starting her career. He had the good sense to feature 24-year-old Colin Farrell in the Vietnam War drama Tigerland (2000). He wrote that casting was like falling in love:
“Someone walks into your office and you go, ‘How did I live without this person?'”
For me, his most thought-provoking film is Falling Down (1993), which takes place one one sweltering day in Los Angeles, starring Michael Douglas (never better) as a white executive loser who believes he has been abandoned by the new multicultural America. The film’s moral ambiguity was not what anyone was used to from a Schumacher project; Warner Bros. brass did not want him to direct it, telling him: “You’re too nice to do this movie”.
His visual sense proved to be as sharp as ever. From the claustrophobic traffic jam in the opening sequence, followed by close-ups of innocuous details full of melancholy or menacing, he made the film his way and it made audiences satisfyingly uncomfortable.
Born in New York City, his mother raised him after his father died from pneumonia when Schumacher was four years old. As a child, he built his own puppet theatres and designed shop windows in his Long Island City neighborhood. He attended at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design. He sold men’s gloves at Macy’s, which led to a window display job at Saks Fifth Avenue.
He claimed that he spent the 1960s in dazed debauchery. He was drinking at nine years old, smoking at 10, having sex at 11 and doing drugs in his early teens. He claimed that his lifetime total of sexual partners was in the low five-figures:
“I was someone who went to a party when I was 11 and got home when I was 52.“
When his mother was dying in 1965, he began injecting liquid meth and took LSD thousands of times. Yet somehow, he managed to cofound the Manhattan boutique Paraphernalia and work as a designer for Revlon.
In 1970, he kicked his intravenous drug habit, burying his syringes in Central Park, and found work as a costume designer for films, including the deliriously funny Sleeper (1973) and the stark drama Interiors (1978), directed by his friend Woody Allen. He credited Allen with his next career move:
“Woody told me to write, so I wrote scripts on spec and they sold.”
He put a real emphasis on Black culture in his screenplays for Sparkle (1976) loosely based on the story of The Supremes, Car Wash (1976) and The Wiz (1978), in an adaptation of the all-black Broadway version of The Wizard Of Oz starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
His two films for television, Virginia Hill (1974) and Amateur Night At The Dixie Bar and Grill (1979), showed his talent for ensemble casts. Schumacher made his directing debut with The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), a melancholy comedy about consumerism starring Lily Tomlin, a sort of update of the science-fiction favorite The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). He returned to his music obsession with DC Cab (1983), which had a mostly black cast and fun disco soundtrack.
Not one to be stuck in any one genre, for the rest of his career, he moved breezily between such varied projects such as 8mm (1999), a sleazy thriller set in the porn industry, and Flawless (1999), a surprisingly moving buddy pic about the unlikely friendship between an ex-cop played by Robert De Niro and a drag queen portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
He used Farrell again in the full-throttle thriller Phone Booth (2002) and Veronica Guerin (2003), with Cate Blanchett as the murdered Irish journalist. He made the lush film version of The Phantom Of The Opera (2004). His last credits were as director on two episodes of the Netflix drama House Of Cards in 2013 for his friend David Fincher.
Schumacher was openly gay throughout most of his career. His gayness was purposely reflected in many of his films
Schumacher on mortality:
”I’m sort of in that school of that quote from Hamlet. ‘There’s more in heaven and earth, Horatio.’ If you live long enough you will definitely get to understand that the universe is a profound mystery and I didn’t create it. We’re on this mud ball rolling around and I don’t know where we are, and nobody knows where we are. I definitely believe that I’m not the highest form of intelligence in the universe. But I don’t like to use the word God because it’s so overused in the United States—not so much in Europe—but it’s become politicized and has this ugly meaning now. Like asking someone if they believe in God has become an attack—like if you don’t believe in Jesus you’re not one of us! I loathe the use of God or any kind of spirituality as a form of discrimination or separation because that’s a total misuse of it.”
Schumacher donated millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and progressive causes.
On his reputation as a loving director, he said:
”When people say that I am so giving to every single person on a movie set, I think it’s because I also need something from them. In many ways I’m still a poor, lonely kid with the whole neighborhood going on around him, and I’ve got to be a part of it. And the way to do that is to get people to like you.”