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The Telegraph; July 26th 2003
John Schlesinger, who died yesterday aged 77, was one of Britain's most gifted, if erratic, film directors. Best known for Midnight Cowboy, for which he won three Academy awards, Schlesinger ranged from violent thrillers (Marathon Man, Pacific Heights) to gritty social drama (Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving) and from romantic epics (Far From the Madding Crowd) to quirky and perceptive human studies (An Englishman Abroad, A Question of Attribution). Schlesinger had deep respect for writers and actors, and the words "a John Schlesinger Film" reassured audiences that the story would be fluently told, and that performances would be excellent. But his films were often erratic in quality and genre. Some, such as Honky Tonk Freeway, were downright disasters and despite several commercial triumphs, he was never wholly able to dispel the doubts as to his lasting significance. A hallmark of his best work was the painstaking exploration of human frailty. He liked, as he put it, "to rub beneath the surface. I don't believe in characters in films who haven't got any failings." Though he spent much of his career in Hollywood, he remained one of the most British of filmmakers; but his insistence on displaying humanity with all its foibles meant that, after Midnight Cowboy, he was never very successful in America. He became a prominent critic of Hollywood directors who "consider it their duty to reassure audiences rather than to make them think. So everything is sanitised and made to look respectable - death, violence, terminal illness." Schlesinger's films, by contrast, were often notable for their disturbing and arresting images, such as the scene in Midnight Cowboy when Jon Voight (playing a male hustler) murders a client by forcing a telephone receiver down his throat, or the passionate embrace between two men in Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), a film which Schlesinger regarded as marking his "coming out" as a homosexual. John Richard Schlesinger was born on February 16 1926. The son of a successful London paediatrician, he had a tranquil, middle-class childhood. He grew up with an interest in theatre, magic and films and was given his first cine-camera at 11. At preparatory school, he experienced his first brush with censorship when he unwisely filmed the headmaster changing into swimming trunks during a school outing. He went on to Uppingham. In 1944, the day after his 18th birthday, Schlesinger followed his father into the Army and was expected to get a commission in the Royal Engineers. But he suffered from vertigo, caught rheumatic fever and broke his leg in training and was seconded to the Combined Services Unit along with Stanley Baxter, Kenneth Williams and the playwright Peter Nichols. He then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he made several short films and appeared in student theatre productions. After graduating he took character roles in films and stage roles with the Colchester Rep. Rejected for a television producers' course in 1956, he continued to make pictures independently. A brief documentary film of an afternoon in Hyde Park shown on the BBC led to full-time work as a director on the BBC's Monitor series. Some two dozen documentaries followed, on a vast range of subjects. His break into cinema came with the short film Terminus (1961), a study of the passengers flowing through Waterloo Station in the course of a day. The film took both a Golden Lion award and a British Academy award and led to Schlesinger's first feature, A Kind of Loving, in 1962. Adapted from Stan Barstow's novel of Northern family life, A Kind of Loving was notable for its frank realism. When the script was first submitted to the authorities for censorship it received 33 slashes of the blue pencil. A reference to characters attempting to buy condoms drew particularly savage admonishment. "You could be opening the floodgates," Schlesinger was told. "Soon everybody will be doing it." A taste for progressive material, a sympathy for ordinary lives and high-quality performances distinguished much of Schlesinger's early work, but he was not at heart a committed member of the 1960s school of social realism. He indicated the breadth of his ambitions with Billy Liar (1963), a ribald comedy featuring Tom Courtenay as an undertaker's clerk with extravagant fantasies. The modish Darling (1965) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), from Hardy's novel, both starring Julie Christie, were highly fashionable. Their success took Schlesinger to Hollywood. With the exception of Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), a tragedy constructed around an improbable middle-class, bisexual love-triangle, the collapse of the British film industry ensured that he stayed there for many years. Midnight Cowboy (1969), his first project in Hollywood, was a slippery, dazzling odyssey set in the gutters of New York, seen through the eyes of a would-be stud and a dying con-man, played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman respectively. It won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Schlesinger's ability to engineer powerful scenes and encourage memorable acting drew praise, but there were critical reservations about the stylistic glibness of the film. The Day of the Locust (1975) was a hyperbolic and financially disastrous adaptation of Nathaniel West's satire on Hollywood. Marathon Man (1976), an implausible and plodding thriller, gained notoriety principally through a scene in which unanaesthetised dentistry was administered as torture on Dustin Hoffman by a fugitive Nazi played by Sir Laurence Olivier. It was, by all accounts, a fair reflection of Olivier's feelings for the American. Yanks (1979), with Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave, was an over-long but compelling study of the social consequences of war-time romance between American troops and the women of a Lancashire town. Schlesinger's Hollywood bubble burst in 1979 with Honky Tonk Freeway, a dire comedy about an American mayor who paints his town pink to attract tourists. American film industry executives found it anti-American, the critics savaged it and the film was ditched by the distributing companies. The failure of Honky Tonk Freeway left Schlesinger demoralised and he returned to London and to the National Theatre to direct Sam Shepard's True West. Then he received a script from Alan Bennett centred round an improbable real-life encounter in 1950s Moscow between the actress Coral Brown and the traitor Guy Burgess. An Englishman Abroad (1983), starring Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Brown as herself, brought Schlesinger back to the BBC and was hailed by the critics as the "television event of the year". Schlesinger returned to form in the cinema with Madame Sousatzka (1988), an adaptation of a Bernice Rubens novel about the relationship between an ageing piano teacher (Shirley MacLaine) who nurtures an Indian boy (Navin Chowdhry) as her prodigy. More commercially successful was Pacific Heights (1991), a tense cautionary tale about an upwardly mobile couple (Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine) who rent their downstairs flat to a nightmare tenant. The Innocent (1994), an adaptation of Ian MacEwan's novel, tells the story of a naive young scientist (Campbell Scott) adrift in spy-ridden 1950s Berlin, who falls in love with a young German woman (Isabella Rossellini) with tragic consequences. In An Eye for an Eye (1996) Sally Field plays a woman who hears her 17-year-old daughter being raped and murdered over the telephone and hunts down the killer. Schlesinger remained a prolific director in other media. For television he teamed up again with Alan Bennett on A Question of Attribution, about the traitor and art connoisseur Anthony Blunt. He had further critical success with Cold Comfort Farm (1995), a television adaptation by Malcolm Bradbury of Stella Gibbons's novel. He continued working for the National Theatre and for major opera houses. Solti and Domingo rated him so highly that they asked him to direct operas for them, and his Les Contes d'Hoffman and Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House were notably successful. Schlesinger was a workaholic. He even relished making the television commercials that others regarded as a dull financial necessity. He also regularly directed party political broadcasts for the Conservative Party, and was responsible for "Coldharbour Lane to Downing Street", the broadcast made for the 1992 General Election in which John Major returned to his Brixton roots. Schlesinger regarded himself as a populist rather than an intellectual but his best work undoubtedly derived from scripts with complex characters and a solid emotional core. Though he tended to dwell on his failures, he was, at heart, aware of his strengths. "A director is an observer. I love watching people," he once said. "Don't ask me to read a book. But to sit on a sidewalk and watch people; it's like sitting there with a sketch-book." John Schlesinger suffered a stroke in 2000 from which he never fully recovered. He was removed from life support in hospital near his home in California on Thursday, with his companion of many years, the photographer Michael Childers, at his side.
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