February 16, 1926, is the birthdate of the British filmmaker John Schlesinger, whose best movies – which included “Billy Liar,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – raised critical expectations from him to such a high level that many evaluations of his career seem to focus less on his triumphs than on the disappointment caused by his artistic failures.
John Richard Schlesinger was born in London to two parents of German-Jewish descent, Bernard Edward Schlesinger, a pediatrician, and the former Winifred Henrietta Regensburg. He grew up in a middle-class Hampstead home, receiving his first movie camera at age 11, and was educated at private boarding schools.
In 1946, he was drafted into the Royal Engineers, before being transferred, after an injury, to an entertainment unit, where he performed for troops as a magician. That was followed by matriculation at Balliol College, Oxford (1947-50), where Schlesinger studied English, and spent much of his time acting in student productions. He also made two amateur films, with financing from his grandparents.
In the following years, Schlesinger continued acting, on stage, film and TV, but in the mid-1950s, he began directing short documentary films for the BBC programs “Tonight” and “Monitor.” After seeing his half-hour short “Terminus” (made for British Transport Films in 1960), the producer Joseph Janni told Schlesinger, “I’d like to discover you.”
Janni went on to produce six of Schlesinger’s features, including his first four: “A Kind of Loving” (1962), “Billy Liar” (1963), “Darling” (1965) and “Far from the Madding Crowd” (1967). It was in these pictures that Schlesinger also began long-lasting professional collaborations with actors Alan Bates, Julie Christie and Peter Finch (all three appeared in the fourth of them).
“Midnight Cowboy,” from 1969, was Schlesinger’s first Hollywood production, and it won Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Direction. It also received an X rating (later reduced to R) for its (nongraphic) depiction of a naïve Texas boy (John Voight) arrived in New York to work as a “stud.” Playing opposite Voight was Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo, a down-on-his-luck grifter.
Although bold at the time for its homosexual theme, “Midnight Cowboy” was less sexually direct than the heartbreaking “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971), in which Finch played a Jewish doctor in London who becomes hopelessly fixated on a much younger man (Murray Head). Schlesinger, who was openly gay long before it was common to be so, described it as the “most personal of my films.”
One Schlesinger film project that never was distributed, for unclear reasons, is a 1967 documentary called “Israel: A Right to Exist.” Produced by James Bond coproducer Harry Saltzman and written by Wolf Mankowitz, the film brought Schlesinger to Israel for the first time, shortly after the Six-Day War. It disappeared from screens after a few showings.
Schlesinger kept busy directing throughout his career, and was sometimes criticized for being undiscriminating in the work he accepted after he moved to Hollywood. Although his 1976 thriller “Marathon Man” with Hoffman and Laurence Olivier was a box-office success, and praised by some critics, he made a number of bombs, most notably the $24-million “Honky Tonk Freeway,” which was withdrawn from theaters a week after its release, in 1981.
Toward the end of his life, however, Schlesinger returned to British television, for which he made such highly regarded films as “An Question of Attribution” (about British art historian-traitor Anthony Blunt; 1992) and “Cold Comfort Farm,” a quirky comedy from 1995.
Schlesinger never recovered from a stroke he suffered in 2001, and died on July 23, 2003, in Palm Springs, California, aged 77. After cremation, his ashes were interred at London’s Liberal Jewish Cemetery.
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