John Schlesinger Biography

Born John Richard Schlesinger, February 16, 1926, in London, England; died of complications from a stroke, July 25, 2003, in Palm Springs, CA. Director and actor. Known for such films as Midnight Cowboy, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and Darling, John Schlesinger was a brave, honest, and sometimes controversial director who won an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy and was nominated for several other awards throughout his career. He started out as an actor, before he found his place in the world of directing where "his stylish, groundbreaking films will be remembered for their riveting displays of all–too–human emotions," David Ansen wrote in Newsweek.

Schlesinger was born in London to a father who was a pediatrician and an amateur musician and a mother who was also a musician. His father played the cello and his mother played the violin; they both encouraged his interest in the arts. Schlesinger himself played the piano, but he originally wanted to be an architect, although that plan went by the wayside when he was given a camera at the age of ten. He served with the Royal Engineers during World War II where he made an amateur film, Horrors. After he left the military he attended Balliol College at Oxford University where he studied English Literature. There he made experimental films, many of which he won awards for, and was even elected president of the university's drama society, with whom he toured America. After graduation he started his career as a British stage and film actor before he was hired by the BBC as a freelance documentarian.

A Kind of Loving was the film that established Schlesinger as a mainstream movie director. The movie, starring Alan Bates, is about a man who realizes how unprepared he is for children when he marries his girlfriend because she gets pregnant. A Kind of Loving won the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear Award in 1962. He next made 1963's Billy Liar, a film about a man who avoids responsibility by daydreaming. His next film, Darling, helped actress Julie Christie rise to stardom in 1965 when she won an Oscar for her performance as a model who becomes disillusioned with her life.

In 1969 Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director for what was probably his best–known work, Midnight Cowboy. The film starred Jon Voight as Joe Buck (a role that is said to have made Voigt's career) and Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo. The movie, about a man from Texas becoming a prostitute in order to survive in New York, was rated X for its adult themes and content, but it won the Oscar for Best Picture, and was nominated for six others. It also won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is the only X–rated film to receive the best picture award. "The film's homosexual theme was regarded as scandalous, but the tale was embraced by critics and Hollywood despite its shocking sequences," wrote . The film was later re–rated to R, without cuts, because audiences had become more accepting of such issues in movies.

He went on to direct such films as 1967's Far From the Madding Crowd, based on the Thomas Hardy novel, and 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman, which was based on the true story of a CIA employee and his drug dealer friend who become spies for the Soviet Union. In 1971, his film Sunday, Bloody Sunday, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best director, was released. It was a groundbreaking movie about a man, played by Murray Head, who is in love with both an older woman (Glenda Jackson) and a young male doctor (Peter Finch). According to the Times of London, "A passionate kiss between Finch and Murray Head signaled one of the cinema's first mature treatments of homosexuality and enabled Schlesinger, himself gay, 'to express myself publicly.'" It was the first movie to deal with homosexuality as normal, rather than horrible or funny.

Schlesinger also directed such greats as 1975's The Day of the Locust, based on Nathanael West's account of young actors trying to make it in Hollywood, 1976's Marathon Man, a thriller starring Laurence Olivier as a Nazi war criminal and Dustin Hoffman as the innocent man Olivier tortures for information, and 1979's Yanks, about American soldiers stationed in Britain during World War II. Another memorable film by Schlesinger was 1995's Cold Comfort Farm, done for BBC Films. The movie is about a young orphan who moves in with an odd country family and then proceeds to clean up all their problems. Daily Variety called the film a "small–scale triumph." In 2000 he completed the last film he would direct, The Next Best Thing, a movie about a straight woman who decides to have a child with her gay friend, which starred Madonna and Rupert Everett.

When he was not making films, Schlesinger also directed theater, opera, and British television productions, as well as a Paul McCartney music video. He was also one of the eight directors who made the 1972 Munich Olympic film Visions of Eight. When asked what he wanted in his life, wrote that Schlesinger said in 1970, "I'm only interested in one thing—that is tolerance.… It's important to get people to care a little for someone else. That's why I'm more interested in the failures of this world than the successes." He spent his career fighting those limitations and stretching the minds of audiences around the world. While he did it he led actors that were unknown into the spotlight. Schlesinger's films "were beacons for actors, who gave some of their finest performances in his work," wrote Mel Gussow in the New York Times.

Schlesinger suffered a stroke in December of 2000 and his health never fully returned. He was so ill in 2002 that he was unable to attend the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards ceremony even though he was being given a lifetime achievement award. Schlesinger was in and out of the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs for 90 days before he died of complications from a stroke on July 25, 2003; he was 77. Schlesinger is survived by his brother, Roger; his sister, Hilary; and his life partner of 35 years, Michael Childers. It is generally agreed that Schlesinger made a great contribution to world cinema, and as Hoffman was quoted as saying in United Press International, "Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet, 'We will never see the likes of him again.'"

Sources: , (July 25, 2003); Daily Variety, July 28, 2003, p. 6; Entertainment Weekly, August 8, 2003, p. 19; Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 25, 2003; Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2003, p. B22; Newsweek, August 4, 2003, p. 12; New York Times, July 26, 2003, p. A15; Times (London), (July 26, 2003); United Press International, July 28, 2003; Washington Post, July 26, 2003, p. B7.

Catherine V. Donaldson

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