He’s not a name that many young filmmakers reference these days, but British director John Schlesinger quietly managed a career spanning five decades, with a small fistful of classics to his name. A former actor, Schlesinger moved into documentaries in the late 1950s, graduating to features soon after, and worked fairly prolifically until 2000’s “The Next Best Thing” (admittedly a rather ignominious end to a great career), a film released only a few months before he passed away from a stroke.
This week marks the ninth anniversary of his death, on July 25, 2003, and with the recent news that his “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is getting the Criterion treatment, it felt like a good time to push past the acclaimed Hollywood pictures that everyone knows — “Midnight Cowboy,” “Marathon Man” — and look at some of the director’s works that go less celebrated these days. A master visual storyteller, Schlesinger was able to speak volumes with his camera, reading between the lines of his scripts. The man who made Julie Christie a star worked with many of the same actors again and again and drew out naturalistic and nuanced performances while always putting character first, and as one of the few openly gay directors in Hollywood, was responsible for some of the most forward-thinking looks at sexuality of their era. Here are some of our favorites that you should seek out or rewatch in the run up to Criterion’s release of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in October.
“Billy Liar” (1963)
Having won the Golden Lion at Venice for the documentary “Terminus” and the Golden Bear at Berlin for his fiction debut “A Kind of Loving” in consecutive years, Schlesinger had a lot to live up to with his third film. Fortunately, he made “Billy Liar,” a seminal entry into the “British New Wave” movement that’s a little stranger and funnier than some of its contemporaries. Based on both the novel by Keith Waterhouse and the play by Waterhouse and Willis Hall, the film follows William “Billy” Fisher (Tom Courtenay, who’d taken over for Albert Finney in the West End run of the play), an undertaker’s clerk in a village in Yorkshire who also happens to be a compulsive liar, indulging in fantasies of fame and escape. Not so much Angry Young Man as Restless And Petulant Young Man, Billy’s engaged to two girls already, but falls in love with a third, the spontaneous, free-spirited Liz (Julie Christie in her breakout role, and making a strong claim for the title of most beautiful woman in the history of mankind), and starts to become more serious about his plans to go to London as a television screenwriter. The film’s a little more charming and light than some of its contemporaries in the British New Wave (feeling sometimes like a precursor to “The Graduate” — it’s no surprise that Dustin Hoffman has picked Courtenay for the lead in his upcoming directorial effort “Quartet“), but the sense of a changing era — buildings torn down around Billy, the face of his home about to change forever — haunts the film, and Billy certainly has the rebellious streak of the 1960s in him. It could be an unlikable part, but Courtenay, in a really marvelous performance, just about keeps us on his side. And when he fails to board the train to London with Liz at the end, still lying to her and, to a degree, himself, our heart doesn’t just break for him, but we also understand that he might be preparing to grow up, staying at home to fix the life he already has and not running away to find a new one. The film was forgotten in the U.S. for a long time, but a Criterion release has helped it to win the acclaim it’s long deserved.
Tom Courtenay may have been the star of “Billy Liar,” but Julie Christie walked away with the movie, just a-swinging her purse right onto that train to London where we pick her up (ostensibly) in “Darling.” It’s not the same character, but the same kind of character, one whom fascinated Schlesinger; the modern independent woman, sexually free and resisting against the norms of marriage but held back by a society that hasn’t quite evolved enough to contain her. Schlesinger and Christie achieved that symbiotic director-star relationship, where she was simply a natural extension of her persona and he captured it beautifully. Christie is magnetic as model Diana Scott, drifting to and from different men in swinging ’60s London, and she was deservedly rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar for the film. Schlesinger was nominated for Best Director, and he captures the unique energy of London at the time in stylish black and white, a smooth yet kinetic camera seeing all aspects of Diana’s world, never judging, but never shying away from some of the ugly truths in her often glamorous life. Diana ends up frozen in a prison of her own design, and the character at the end of the film is quite depressing compared to the free, careless pixie she once was, but Schlesinger makes it clear that it is society that truly imprisons Diana despite the choices she has to live with. “Darling” continued the world that was built in “Billy Liar” and Schlesinger proved his talent and absolute brilliance with a camera with his third feature.
“Far from the Madding Crowd” (1967)
After Julie Christie won her Oscar playing a free-spirited model of the moment in “Darling,” Schlesinger cast her in this period piece, an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel with decidedly modern themes of sex, love and marriage. Christie plays Bathsheba, a strong-willed independent woman who inherits a farm property and decides to run it herself. She refuses suitors like the earthy, rugged shepherd Gabriel (Alan Bates) and the older landowner Boldwood (Peter Finch, also great in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”) because she doesn’t truly love them and can’t bring herself to marry without love. She becomes entranced with the sexy, sly military man Troy (Terence Stamp) who seduces her, marries her and then no joke, fakes his own death and joins the circus in order to end their tempestuous union. It’s a gorgeous film, sumptuously depicting the rural English countryside, but Schlesinger’s camera does more than just capture its natural beauty; it interprets the material, commenting on it visually, and creating a subjective look into Bathsheba’s world (helped in no small part by the cinematography of Nicolas Roeg). Whether it’s a psychedelic sequence of Troy seducing her with his swordplay (stop sniggering at the back…) or a simple pan to a music box, it speaks volumes about Bathsheba’s station and her mental state. Schlesinger’s “Darling” ended up frozen on a magazine cover, stuck in a marriage in the modern world, and in ‘Madding Crowd,’ these themes come up again, the free woman trapped in the amber of a traditional marriage, love and sex much more complicated and fraught with danger than it seems. The director transplanted the persona of Christie he’s already helped establish to this period piece in order to make his comment about sex and marriage in modern times. She is a wild-haired, passionate sprite in this film, and fills it with her unique feminine power. Schlesinger clearly had a thing for strong women and it is no more clear than in “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Fingers crossed for a Blu-ray release of this gorgeous, underrated classic soon.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971)
While known as the infamous shooting incident of unarmed civilian Irish protesters by the British Army which spawned the famous U2 song, John Schlesinger got to the title first a year before with his controversial (and socially groundbreaking) love-triangle drama. Nominated for four Academy Awards — Actor, Actress, Director and Original Screenplay– Schlesinger has always been known for exploring the complexities of human relationships and with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” he helped usher in the then-taboo subject of bisexuality into the mainstream. Peter Finch stars (in a part originally intended for Alan Bates and played for the first two weeks of shooting by Ian Bannen, who was fired because of his nervousness about kissing another man) as a Jewish doctor who’s having an open relationship with the free-spirited bohemian and artist Bob Elkin (Murray Head). The problem for Finch’s Daniel Hirsh character is that Elkin is also in a commitment-free relationship with Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), and the psychological drama vacillates between the jealousies, insecurities and heartaches that occur when trying to navigate such a tricky triangle. Schlesinger wisely doesn’t editorialize either sexuality and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” could have essentially been a love story about any three individuals of any sexual orientation. Indeed, considering it’s forty years old, it’s remarkable that he was able to treat Finch’s character in such a matter-of-fact way, although obviously less so when you take the director’s own sexual leanings into account. We look forward to the Criterion edition in October a great deal, not least for another chance to keep a look out for a 14-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis, who makes his screen debut in the film.
“Cold Comfort Farm” (1995)
For the most part, Schlesinger lost his mojo a little after the 1970s; some decent films, like Cold War drama “The Falcon and the Snowman” followed, but little that deserved to sit alongside his very best work. However, the director did make some terrific TV dramas back in the U.K., most notably an adaptation of Alan Bennett‘s “A Question of Attribution” and “An Englishman Abroad,” and one little picture stands out in particular, in part because it got a theatrical release in the U.S. — 1995’s “Cold Comfort Farm.” Schlesinger had been a fan of Stella Gibbons‘ 1933 comic novel, a parody of writers like D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy (there are certainly echoes of ‘Madding Crowd’ in the film) for decades, and the BBC/Thames Television adaptation was perfectly timed, at a point at which Merchant-Ivory and their knock-offs dominated the industry. The plot could be from any one of those films: orphan Flora Poste (a then 21-year-old Kate Beckinsale, in one of her earliest roles) is left with only £100 a year for her upkeep, and hopes to find a place to live with relatives. As it turns out, the only available place is with the backwards Starkadders, who own the world’s most horrible farm out in the countryside. They’re a happy bunch, and the upbeat Flora sets out to fix their various problems, from the youngest son’s (Rufus Sewell) desire to be in the movies, to the deep depression of the mother (Eileen Atkins). It’s consistently and gloriously funny, even if you’re not familiar with the books that it’s teasing, and Schlesinger feels invigorated by the material; he brings an almost gothic atmosphere to the farm, and directs with the energy of a much younger man. It’s a deeply playful film, which extends to the cast, every one of whom seems to be having a blast, from Ian McKellen’s fire-and-brimstone preacher to Stephen Fry‘s lovestruck intellectual. Perhaps, most impressive in retrospect, is Beckinsale, who takes a tricky part and makes it soar; it’s hard to reconcile the promise shown here with the subsequent career of kicking vampires in the face. A truly underrated gem.
– Katie Walsh, Oliver Lyttelton, RP