John Schlesinger’s career is interesting, firstly, because it covers half a century and therefore presents change and continuity in both his filmmaking and the society he has lived in over an adequately long period; and, secondly, because his corpus is big and complex enough to provide ample and significant information on the social and cultural conditions of his time. The cornerstones of Schlesinger’s oeuvre are a lifelong preoccupation with gender relations, particularly homosexuality, a distinctive intellectual middle-class outlook, an interest in other cultures and races, and a commitment to filmmaking as entertainment.
In 2001, shortly before being awarded a Bafta for directing Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes for the Los Angeles Opera, Schlesinger suffered a stroke at the age of 74. His fleeting appearance in The Next Best Thing (2000) may therefore have been his last one after half a century of occasional acting. Schlesinger has been an acclaimed director on both sides of the Atlantic and was honoured with the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for A Kind of Loving (1962) and a Best Director Academy Award for Midnight Cowboy (1969). Despite working extensively in the States, Schlesinger has always considered himself a British director. Indeed, his contribution to British cinema has been more pronounced, particularly with respect to both his early films, on which his reputation is based, and his documentary work for British television. Music, drama, literature and an interest in the arts has informed and infused his filmmaking throughout his life. In this sense he is very much a product of his British upbringing. He was born into an intellectual, middle-class London family. His mother Winifred was a musician and his father Bernard a paediatrician. They raised five children, of whom Schlesinger is the eldest. Although Jewish, he attended an Anglican boarding school. After serving in the army in World War II in England and the Far East, he studied English Literature and graduated from Oxford in 1950. During this time, he acted with the Oxford University Dramatic School, worked with the local Experimental Theatre Club, was a still photographer, and produced his first short, Black Legend (1948). The British-Transport sponsored cinema documentary Terminus (1961) was the culmination of his series of documentaries for BBC-TV between 1958-1961.
Schlesinger had his debut as a filmmaker as one of the Angry Young Men, who sought to bring to screen minority and working class issues in a Social Realist way and in a Free Cinema style. What A Kind of Loving and, for example, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karl Reisz, 1960) have in common is a distinctive middle-class outlook, that is, a certain lack of working-class authenticity; what distinguishes Schlesinger’s work is his sensitive, complex, open, and unprejudiced depiction of gender relations. In the second half of the 1960s, Schlesinger’s films, and often their elements, were part and parcel of the vibrant British youth-culture. A case in point is Julie Christie, who, wind-blown, capricious and independent, starring in Darling and Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), became the epitome of the swinging sixties British girl. With Midnight Cowboy Schlesinger joined the New Hollywood movement exemplified by films such as Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) and Medium Cool (Haskell Wixler, 1969). Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) was produced during the so-called declining years of British cinema and is, in comparison with Ken Russell’s wild, extraverted and disturbing The Devils from the same year, a quiet, introspective and harmonious film. Stylistically and ideologically, both Yanks (1979) and Madame Sousatzka (1988) are comparable to the new Heritage Film of the British film renaissance in the 1980s, which was founded on the critical and public success of films like Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981) and A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1986). Pacific Heights (1990) was very much a Melanie Griffith film, albeit with a surprisingly strong and dominant female character. To the same Hollywood tradition belongs The Next Best Thing (2000), a star-vehicle with Madonna and Rupert Everett; it is a mix of American family romance and gay-straight comedies such as One Fine Day (Michael Hofmann, 1996) and The Object of My Affection (Nicholas Hytner, 1998), respectively.
Comparing A Kind of Loving with The Next Best Thing, it is evident that Schlesinger’s depictions of gender relations (in terms of sexuality and family) have changed unevenly in the course of time, and unequally for the sexes. While for—at least heterosexual—women, sexuality has remained a source of frustration, men have increasingly displayed a considerable degree of contentment and fulfilment. Ingrid (June Ritchie), dominated by her possessive, sexually frustrated mother, tries desperately to keep alive Vic’s (Alan Bates) interest in her, and therefore consents to make love to him. Consequently she gets pregnant, gets married and is stuck in a marriage with a man who will sooner or later have other relationships. Similar to Ingrid, Abbie (Madonna) longs also for marriage and family life, but, unfortunately, the partner she chooses is not inclined to have sex with her. The result is an unhealthy ten-year-long sexual abstinence on her part before she ends up in the arms of Ben (Benjamin Bratt). By 2000, Schlesinger’s women seemed to have not been significantly better off than their sisters in the ’60s. In contrast, men in general, and homosexuals in particular, seem to have made better use of the Sexual Revolution. While Vic had to hide his bisexual inclinations and was trapped in a marriage, which the social norms of the day required, Robert (Rupert Everett) has had his share of lovers to the extent of boredom but he has, in this modern age, the liberty to refuse marriage to Abbie. Hence, his frustration does not reside in repressed sexuality but in the legal obstacles to parenthood in consequence of his homosexuality.
Next Best Thing not only demonstrates how unstable the institution of the family had become by the end of the century, but also how deeply ingrained family values still were. Abbie’s lifestyle is more or less typical for industrial societies in the late ’90s: people had babies, divorced, looked for new partners (gay, lesbian or straight), and remarried or did not. But, most importantly, Abbie only succeeds in court because she is a mother and a wife. Her boyfriend had died in a car accident when she was pregnant and Robert was willing to become the father of her unborn child. By giving Abbie custody of her son Sam (Malcolm Stumpf), eight years old by now, the film evinces the ideological significance of family as a social and political institution. Hence, Schlesinger’s films show that, as in the ’60s, society at the turn of the century still regards the traditional family as the key to prosperity, sexual mores and social order.
Schlesinger’s middle-class perspective is generally veiled by the fact that he has often sought artistic expression in analysing and representing subcultures, minorities or other discriminated social groups. Accordingly, Schlesinger depicts social reality primarily for the sake of making his protagonists’ psychological condition transparent in order to show their personal human drama. The derelict house in which Madame Sousatzka (Shirley MacLaine) and her neighbours reside in Schlesinger’s 1988 film is thus an expression of their personal fragility and social vulnerability rather than the film making a plea for better living conditions. Focusing on the individual rather than on the collective, Schlesinger’s view of society is basically horizontal; class struggle and social mobility are not an issue in his work. Negotiation, compromise, renunciation and acceptance of a certain degree of pain and frustration are the means by which the individual operates in society. While in the ’60s, Schlesinger seemed to have believed in some sort of collective negotiation by which a social equilibrium could be achieved, his later work offers a society where the individual is alone if she or he is not able to cope with the rapidly changing society.
Far From the Madding Crowd, set in the early 1870s, is a complex interplay of giving and taking: The elderly William Boldwood (Peter Finch) loses everything but his life because of his deep, almost pathological attraction to the beautiful, young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie). She, in turn, loses her beloved husband, the flashy Sergeant Troy, but gains shepherd Oak (Alan Bates) as her husband. Oak thus becomes a wealthy farmowner but has a wife who does not love him back. Whereas there is a certain symmetry of sacrifice and victory in this film, the life of Madame Sousatzka is one endless series of losses. Not only can’t she accept that it is in the nature of her profession as a piano teacher that her students move on and leave her, but she is also not able to establish relationships outside her work. Hence, despite her music she passes her lifetime in bitterness and isolation. In order to bring out the drama of her inner life, Schlesinger contrasts her with the young, sociable Asian-British pupil Manek (Navin Chowdhry). Hence Sousatzka, the relic of a conservative, dogmatic, eurocentric culture, is contrasted with Manek, the child of a liberal, pragmatic, multicultural society, where everything is possible if the individual has the necessary resources.
As with social organisation, Schlesinger has approached racial and cultural issues on an individual, rather than collective, level. For him, cultural diversity is a way to puzzle out mental landscapes and to define cultural identities by means of juxtaposition. Hence the bar mitzvah scene in Sunday Bloody Sunday depicts the proceedings in the synagogue, the religious implication of the rite, the strong bond of the male community and the feeling of exclusion for non-practising Jews with a great deal of sensitivity and knowledge. The party that follows is evidence of the tightly knit Jewish society, where everybody knows everybody else’s secrets. Middle-aged gay bachelor Dr. Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch) could not and would not accept the social restrictions and pressures of British Jewish society. But he appreciates his Jewish background as an element of his own cultural identity. In Yanks, the cultural clash of two nations (the USA and UK) is transposed to the encounter of two American GI on their way to the European front and two British girls in rural Britain during World War II. Interestingly, while in Sunday Bloody Sunday the Jewish culture is represented in an insightful, versatile and kind way, the characters in Yanks are boiled down to mere stereotypes. The Americans are represented as a hoard of aggressive, out-going, beer-drinking and gum-chewing cowboys, and the Britons as a bunch of traditionalist, repressed, tea-drinking and bike-riding country yokels. Particularly bad examples of their respective species are the constantly grinning officer John (William Devane), who courts and finally seduces Helen (Vanessa Redgrave), wife of a RAF-pilot and mother of two teenagers; and the pale, clumsy and slightly retarded British soldier Ken (Derek Thompson), who happens to be engaged to Jean (Lisa Eichhorn), who, in turn, is in love with Matt (Richard Gere), a respectable, dynamic and sexy young GI. Schlesinger’s strategy to break down national and cultural difference to an individual level was fortunate because conflicts became immediate, personal and comprehensible. However, sensitive socio-political issues, for instance racial tensions in the US army, were levelled and occasionally glossed over. Schlesinger’s depiction of stereotypes (unusual for him) may have been, on one hand, an expression of his own insecurity as a person who lived and worked in both cultures; on the other hand, it may also have been what the British and US producers required, in particular, easily identifiable characters for an international mass audience. However, it may also have had to do with Schlesinger’s wish to change his style. He came to believe that if a story were told in a simple and direct style, the impact would be bigger. (1)
Schlesinger produced a coherent body of work with a distinctive theme and style. All of his feature films for cinema have circled around one theme, namely “the problems of trying to face compromise in one’s life and relationships”. (2) A case in point is Robert in The Next Best Thing, who has to come to terms with the consequence of his homosexuality in a still considerably gay-hostile society. Schlesinger’s stories are told in a style that can be defined as classical Hollywood with occasional wild montage sequences. Some prominent characteristics of his work are, firstly, the music, carefully selected and often highly innovative; secondly, acting, making full use of the skills and resources of actors and actresses; and, finally, a distinctive set of recurrent motives, such as glass and liquids, spectacles, feet, dogs and fireworks. Although The Next Best Thing leaves a lot to be desired, the sequence where Robert and Abbie exuberantly dance is exceptionally eloquent and a kind of synthesis and summary of Schlesinger’s craftsmanship. A night of drinking and fooling around is depicted in a two-minute dance sequence. The effect is achieved by the transposition of cocktail glasses, fireworks and faces. Robert and Abbie, both attractive examples of their respective sex, dance in perfect harmony to the flowing rhythm of a carefully selected Irving Berlin song, an act that paradoxically emphases their sexual incompatibility. The music, bridging the on and off screen spheres gives the illusion that Fred Astaire’s warm baritone singing suggestively “Stepping out with my baby” comes out of Robert’s elegant, tanned, and half-naked body; a stylistic device which makes Abbie’s frustration comprehensible to the—at least heterosexual female—audience. (3) Everett visibly enjoys himself in doing the scene, and Schlesinger does not hold him back but lets him play first fiddle and thus prepares the terrain for the audience’s identification with Robert’s cause.
A recurrent motif in Schlesinger’s films is breaking glass or porcelain. Here, it is the insertion of a high-angle, slow motion shot of a falling and shattering vase. It serves to disturb the harmony of the sequence and to foreshadow Robert’s final breakdown. Moments of terror, violence or destruction, often gratuitous and in some instances even exploitative, are another element which firmly belongs to Schlesinger’s stylistic and narrative repertory. In Schlesinger’s oeuvre, style is a means to tell a story. There is no such thing as ‘art for art’s sake’. He wants to tell a story, to entertain, that is, to engage the attention of the viewer, to pose questions, and to give the audience a special experience. (4)
The fact that Schlesinger’s early films were more experimental and his later works have consciously become simpler and more direct has led to the misconception that his earlier works are of a higher quality. It is therefore not surprising that films like A Kind of Loving, Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Blood Sunday have entered the film canon. However, his later work shows an equally high degree of craftsmanship added by an eloquence and maturity his earlier films lack. From a cinema-historical point of view, his corpus is a rich source of social artefacts, which allows him to examine selected issues over a relatively long stretch of time. With respect to gender, Schlesinger’s films indicate the unequal progress of the sexes despite the sexual liberation, and society’s adherence to traditional family values. In general, society has become more individualistic, more liberal, multicultural, but harder to succeed in. And, finally, nationality is still a precarious issue, depending on the politics and economics of the day. Schlesinger has been—with the exception of gay politics—a rather apolitical filmmaker, who has preferred to concentrate on drama at the individual level. He has aimed to pose issues for discussion by entertaining his audience in the hope of offering new perspectives on old problems and by engaging the viewer both intellectually and emotionally. Schlesinger has accepted the dialectics of life and filmmaking and has produced an oeuvre with which he can be satisfied.
Black Legend (1948) UK, short, co-writer
The Starfish (1950) UK, short, co-writer
Sunday in the Park (1956) UK, short, co-writer
Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years (1958-61) UK, television documentary series
Monitor (1958-1961) UK, television series, documentaries
Terminus (1961) UK, documentary, also writer
A Kind of Loving (1962) UK, also co-writer
Billy Liar (1963) UK
Darling (1965) UK
Days in the Trees (1967) UK, part of Wednesday Play television series
Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) UK
Midnight Cowboy (1969) USA
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) UK
“The Longest” (1973) UK/West Germany, segment of Visions of Eight, also known as Olympiade München 1972
The Day of the Locust (1975), USA
Marathon Man (1976) USA
Yanks (1979) USA/UK/Germany, also known as Yanks – Gestern waren wir noch Freunde
Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) USA
Separate Tables (1983) USA, made for television
An Englishman Abroad (1983) UK, made for television
The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) USA, also producer
The Believers (1987) USA, also producer
Madame Sousatzka (1988) UK, also co-writer with Ruth Prawder Jhabvala
Pacific Heights (1990) USA, also actor (uncredited)
A Question of Attribution (1992) UK, made for television
The Innocent (1993), Germany/UK, also known as …und der Himmel steht still
Cold Comfort Farm (1995) UK
Eye for an Eye (1996) USA
The Tale of Sweeney Todd (1998) USA/Ireland, made for television
The Next Best Thing (2000) USA, also actor (uncredited), also known as The Red Curtain
Singlehanded (Roy Boulting, 1952) UK, as actor, also known as Sailor of the King
Nancy J. Brooker, John Schlesinger: A Guide to References and Resources, Prior Press, London, 1978
Tay Garnett, “John Schlesinger” in Directing, The Scarecrow Press, London 1996, pp. 228–233
Gene D. Phillips, John Schlesinger, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1981
Brian McFarlane, “John Schlesinger” in An Autobiography of British Cinema, Methuen, London, 1997, pp. 509–514
Richard Porton and Lee Ellickson, “Reflections of an Englishman Abroad”, Cineaste, 4, 1994, pp. 38–41
Claver Salizzato and John Schlesinger, John Schlesinger, Nuovo Italia, Florence, 1986
Articles in Senses of Cinema
A Life in the Edge
Victoria Price’s video review of The Next Best Thing for The Advocate.
The Next Best Thing
Review by Kevin Maher for Sight & Sound. A search on Schlesinger at the BFI website also reveals other related information.
The Next Best Thing
Excellent review of The Next Best Thing by Todd R. Ramlow, for Pop Matters.
John Schlesinger at Tomboy Films
Quite a comprehensive compilation of showreels, films, theatre, opera, awards and a biography. Useful particularly with respect to the list of awards. However it does not seem to have been updated since 1994.
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