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John Schlesinger, 77; 'an Actors' Director,' Oscar Winner for 'Midnight Cowboy'

July 26, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

John Schlesinger, the British director who first gained acclaim in the 1960s with films such as "Billy Liar" and "Darling" and capped the decade by winning a best director Oscar for "Midnight Cowboy," his first American film, died Friday. He was 77.

Schlesinger had suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2000. He had been in and out of Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs over the last 90 days. He was admitted again Monday and was taken off life support Thursday.

In a feature film directing career that began in 1962 with "A Kind of Loving," starring a relatively unknown Alan Bates, and ended in 2000 with "The Next Best Thing," starring Madonna and Rupert Everett, Schlesinger amassed a relatively short but diverse filmography of 19 movies.

His best-known works, which range from the offbeat to the commercial and which met with varying degrees of success in a long career with its share of ups and downs, include "Far From the Madding Crowd," "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," "The Day of the Locust," "Marathon Man," "Yanks," "The Falcon and the Snowman" and "Pacific Heights."

Over the years between film assignments, Schlesinger directed theater, opera and British television productions, including "An Englishman Abroad," an award-winning 1983 BBC production starring Bates as British spy Guy Burgess.

Schlesinger, whose directing credits included a Paul McCartney music video, also was one of eight directors who contributed to the official 1972 Munich Olympics movie "Visions of Eight," for which he covered the marathon in the track and field competition.


A Career Maker

A former British stage and film actor who began making documentary movies in the 1950s, Schlesinger earned a reputation as an actors' director.

He guided Julie Christie to Oscar-winning stardom in "Darling," the 1965 drama about a beautiful, disillusioned London model, which earned him a best director Oscar nomination.

And perhaps most memorably, in the 1969 film "Midnight Cowboy," he directed Jon Voight in his career-making role as Joe Buck, the naive, pretty-boy Texas dishwasher who moves to New York City to become a gigolo and befriends Dustin Hoffman's tubercular, gimpy con man from the Bronx, Ratso Rizzo.

"Midnight Cowboy," based on James Leo Herlihy's novel and rated X by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for its adult themes and content, was one of Schlesinger's greatest commercial and critical successes.

Not only did Schlesinger win an Academy Award for his direction, but the movie won Oscars for best picture, the only X-rated film to receive the award, and for Waldo Salt's screenplay.

"It had an enormous impact," Richard Schickel, Time magazine film critic and film historian, told the Los Angeles Times this week. "It was extremely well performed and sort of unblinking in terms of its view of an ugly side of urban life: It was tough-minded, but, of course, went pretty sentimental at the end."

The movie, Schickel said, "was very much part of that '60s era -- an era where studios really didn't know what the public wanted, so they were very open to all kinds of stuff, and somebody like Schlesinger could come along and they'd say, 'OK, let's take a shot at that.' "

As a director, Schickel said, Schlesinger "was all over the map. But the movies of his highest period, whether 'Far From the Madding Crowd' or 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday,' partook of that spirit -- the spirit of 'Let's try that.' I think Schlesinger was probably well matched to the spirit of that age."

In 1994, when "Midnight Cowboy" was rereleased, Schlesinger told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was happy to see that the movie had held up.

"The great thing about 'Midnight Cowboy,' " he said, "is that we didn't question what we were doing; we just did it with a total feeling of confidence and freedom. We didn't think, 'Oh, we're being very groundbreaking on this.' I just made the film the way I wanted to. I'd made a sufficient number of films by then to feel confident and free to tackle a subject, and I didn't question it.

"There's a lot to be said for ignorance, you know."

Friends on Friday recalled a man who was extremely cultured, impeccably polite, and had a brilliant, cutting sense of humor.

"The picture I have of John is candles on a beautifully lit table and his teaching me about wine and cheese," said Shirley MacLaine, who knew Schlesinger for many years and played an eccentric piano teacher in his 1988 drama "Madame Sousatzka."

"For me, it was the wittiest, most mischievous acting-directing I've had," MacLaine said Friday. "I think people call him an actors' director because he brought things out in people that maybe they didn't know were there: their own mischievousness and their own wit."

In a statement Friday, Christie said: "Everyone who ever worked with John loved him. His contribution to cinema and particularly British cinema is enormous, and his work will live on in the shape of his wonderful films."

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