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Schlesinger: A Twisted Soul Fascination

Frank J. Avella's June 2007 Film
Column And Some Other Stuff


“I suppose I was fortunate to begun making films when I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, when things were opening up, when for a brief, brilliant period films actually took chances, asked questions, probed under the surface of things, dared to have unhappy endings.” These are the words of one of the most underrated film directors of the 60s and 70s, John Schlesinger.

Although British by birth, Schlesinger came to Hollywood in the late 60’s and was part of the group of mavericks who shoved the old guard aside and showed them that a new sensibility was in town. And they were there to least until the early 80s when everything went to shit!

Schlesinger is an interesting career worth revisiting and the Film Society of Lincoln Center recently offered Twisted Souls: Four by Schlesinger where they showcased wonderful prints of Billy Liar, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday and, his masterwork, The Day of the Locust.

Billy Liar

The bittersweet and, ultimately tragic, Billy Liar (1963) was one of the films that first catapulted Schles into the ranks of directors-to-watch.

Billy (played by an extraordinary Tom Courtenay) lives in a rich and lively fantasy world (this way before inner worlds of characters were in vogue). Billy seemingly desires to leave his mundane and hopelessly ordinary existence. But when a beautiful young woman (the sublime Julie Christie) presents him with the opportunity to leave for London, Billy is too afraid to take the chance. He is a true tragic figure.

Midnight Cowboy

Shortly thereafter Schlesinger made Darling (1965) which received international acclaim. But it was with the groundbreaking Midnight Cowboy in 1969, that he sealed his filmmaker fate as one of the best. Cowboy broke all the rules set by old Hollywood presenting two seriously fucked up dudes trying to make their way in a nasty and criminal world. The indelible roles played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman have rightfully become iconic.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

One of the few openly gay directors working at the time, Schlesinger then took on the bisexual triangle in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). His exploration of love, or lack thereof, proved to be groundbreaking and the performances of Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch are searing.

The Day of the Locust

But John Schlesinger’s masterpiece would prove too much for even the Hollywood of the mid-seventies. When The Day of the Locust was released in 1975, many (including Sidney Lumet) accused Schlesinger of biting the hand that fed him (much like Billy Wilder was accused of same when he made the magnificent Sunset Boulevard in 1950). Shunned by the industry and the public (most had no clue what to make of the film and the studio had no idea how to market it), the film was hailed by some critics back then but has slowly gathered an appreciation for being among the most potent of the 1970s--which is saying a lot because that was the decade where cinema was able to thrive.

Locust’s chilling, insightful and scathing look at Hollywood and what the search for the dream does to people cut a fatal wound, not just to the movie industry but to the bullshit American dream that politicos have been shouting about for centuries. Schlesinger managed to capture the tone and spirit of the fascinating Nathanael West novella, while creating an original onscreen vision of what boredom and disappointment can beget.

The movie also featured extraordinary work by Karen Black, Donald Sutherland, William Atherton and Burgess Meredith.

The final reel of The Day of the Locust is one of the most powerful segments ever filmed and the culmination of all the rich themes in the motion picture.

After a few more gems (Marathon Man in 1976 and Yanks in 1979), Schlesinger’s career seemed to falter and he never did make another film to match the power of his 70s oeuvre.

It is very interesting to wonder whether the lackluster second half of the careers of some of the best directors of the 60s and 70s had more to do with the changing climate in the industry versus the auteurs actually losing their edge.

For many brilliant filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather in 972, The Godfather Part Two in 1974, Apocalypse Now in 1979), Alan J. Pakula (Klute in 1971, All the President’s Men in 1976, Sophie’s Choice In 1982), Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1969, Absence of Malice in 1981, Out of Africa in 1985) and the great Mr. Schlesinger, the late 60s and 70s were a time when personal films thrived and directors were able to explore the most shocking and daring subjects and ideas without really having to answer too much to a studio.

That all changed in the evil 80s, when everything became about the opening weekend box office and studios would not finance what they perceived as risky projects (and, of course, the new studio heads and producers knew little about motion pictures as an art form, they were in it strictly for the now-millions that could be made.) Plus the indie film movement didn’t really blossom until the mid-90s, when most of these giants of film were either dead or dead-tired of trying.

Now true there were many filmic geniuses who did manage to continue a career despite the Satanic trappings of the new competely-greed-driven Hollywood. One of the most successful, Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas), had a knack of making a picture of them and then making a picture for himself: He continues to do this even now and it’s finally resulted in his winning his very own Oscar (for The Departed just this year!)

Arguably, the most successful, Steven Spielberg, would stagger the industry with his box office prowess directing films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial but would make his best and most personal films later in life (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich).

Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park) and Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, Match Point) seemed to be the only ones who could continue to do what they wanted without worry (well, I’m sure there was worry but without giving too much of a shit is more like it!)

Even the amazing Sidney Lumet (Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) would make some great films in the 80s (Prince of the City, The Verdict, Running on Empty) but have an impossible time of it afterwards.

Hopefully, John Schlesinger is finally getting the recognition he deserves for being a filmic pioneer and pushing the envelope when it came to what worked onscreen. And as for his later work, two stand as testament to the fact that he never lost his edge: Madame Sousatzka in 1988 and Cold Comfort Farm in 1995. Maybe they aren’t classics, but they’re good films.


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