Helmer Schlesinger dies

Brit director won Oscar for 'Cowboy'

This article was updated on July 27, 2003.

John Schlesinger, the Oscar-winning director of 1969 best pic “Midnight Cowboy” as well as “Darling” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” died Friday at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. He was 77.

The 77-year-old filmmaker had a debilitating stroke in December 2000, and his condition had deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. He was taken off life support Thursday.

The British director enjoyed a long and somewhat erratic career, working both in Britain and the U.S. In his early years, he worked onstage and directed documentaries, then switched to narrative features.

While his early films, such as “Billy Liar,” were about working-class Brits, he quickly branched out. “Darling,” a witty look at changing morals in the 1960s, brought him international acclaim, which was furthered by the then-shocking “Midnight Cowboy.”

Along the way, he also tackled period epics (the beautiful and underrated “Far From the Madding Crowd”), thrillers (“Marathon Man”) and comedies (“Honky Tonk Freeway”).

Starting in the 1980s, he did stellar TV work, including “Separate Tables,” “An Englishman Abroad” and later “Cold Comfort Farm” (latter was released theatrically in the U.S.). All of his work displayed meticulous craftsmanship and compassion.

Pix with heart

He brought insight and humor into his studies of the British class system and the inconsistent yearnings of the human heart. Schlesinger treated his characters with respect, bringing sympathy to even minor characters and making personal dramas such as “Cowboy” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” heartbreaking.

While he pushed the boundaries of what could be depicted onscreen, as in those two films, “moralists” were cut short because the overall effects of the films were so touching and emotional.

On Friday, Julie Christie — who worked with him four times and won a best-actress Oscar for “Darling” — described the director as a “lovely, funny, generous, mischievous man.

“His contribution to cinema and particularly British cinema is enormous,” she added. Citing “Bloody Sunday,” Christie said, “What John has done is to break taboos in the form of beautiful films.”

Whenever Schlesinger stumbled, it was usually in a project in which he was simply a director for hire. His career included its share of disappointments, such as big-budget comedy “Honky Tonk Freeway,” so-so thrillers such as “Pacific Heights” and star vehicles like Madonna’s “The Next Best Thing,” his final pic.

Banned in St. Edmund’s

Born in London, John Richard Schlesinger started making films at the age of 10. A year later, his first film was banned by St. Edmund’s School because Schlesinger had photographed the headmaster changing his clothes under a beach towel. While attending the Uppingham School, he planned on a career in architecture, only to be sidelined by rheumatic fever.

In 1943, Schlesinger was drafted into the British Army. For a time, he labored as a draftsman in Singapore and was later transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment unit, where he performed a magic act and helped put on revue sketches.

In 1947, he entered Balliol College at Oxford to study English literature and was named president of the Experimental Theater Club of Oxford’s dramatic society. He also won prizes for his experimental films, beating such classmates as Tony Richardson.

After graduation, Schlesinger worked as an actor, touring Australia and New Zealand and appearing in films by John and Roy Boulting such as “Singlehanded” in 1953 and “Brothers in Law” in ’56. He complained he was too often typecast as a German (usually a villain), owing to his German-Jewish ancestry.

Drawn to directing

But his passion was directing, as evidenced by his shorts “The Starfish” in 1952 and “The Innocent Eye” in 1958. The BBC invited him to join the staff of its documentary program “Monitor.” Based on his work “The Valiant Years,” about Winston Churchill, he was able to direct his first commercial project in 1960. “Terminus,” about a day in the life of a railway depot, won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as a British Academy Award.

His next project was “The Class,” about drama students.

In 1962, Schlesinger directed his first feature, “A Kind of Loving,” a working-class drama starring Alan Bates. It copped the Golden Bear Award at Berlin. “Billy Liar” followed, and the film starring Tom Courtenay and Christie was a hit in the U.S.

Christie was the star of Schlesinger’s next project, the 1965 “Darling,” which brought Schlesinger his first Oscar directing nom.

Legit work

Between films, he worked in British legit, staging the comedy “No Why,” Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens” for the Royal Shakespeare Co. and Marguerite Duras’ “A Day in the Trees.”

Christie was again the star of Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” His first American film, 1969 tale of a male hustler “Midnight Cowboy,” was a smash and won picture, director and screenplay Oscars. Pic was daringly X-rated for the time, but it later was re-rated R, without cuts, due to changing audience acceptance of such material.

Back at home, he directed the insightful 1971 “Sunday Bloody Sunday” with Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch. It brought Schlesinger another director Oscar nomination.

After directing “The Longest” episode of the Olympics docu “Visions of Eight,” he tackled Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust.” His next American film, 1976’s “Marathon Man,” was a big commercial success.

But neither the British-made “Yanks” (1979) nor the disastrous comedy “Honky Tonk Freeway” (1981) found much favor with critics or audiences.

Small screen success

The best of his later work was done for television. The 1983 “Separate Tables” teamed him with Christie for the fourth time.

That same year, he helmed one of his best works, “An Englishman Abroad,” starring Bates and Coral Browne and based upon the actress’s encounter with English spy Guy Burgess in Russia.

In 1992, he helmed another British TV production, “A Question of Attribution,” starring James Fox and Prunella Scales, which, like “Englishman,” was written by Alan Bennett.

And his 1995 “Cold Comfort Farm,” for BBC Films, was a small-scale triumph. Three years later, he did “The Tale of Sweeney Todd,” an atmospheric, non-musical version of the story.

Other bigscreen works, meanwhile, were less interesting.

“The Falcon and the Snowman” (1987) was a tepid attempt despite stars Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. “Madame Sousatzka” (1988), directed in Britain from a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and starring Shirley MacLaine, was interesting but not a commercial hit. “The Believers,” in 1989, was little seen.

In 1995, “The Innocent” quickly came and went. The next year, Schlesinger did American revenge thriller “Eye for an Eye,” starring Sally Field. His final film was 2000’s “The Next Best Thing,” which was ignored by audiences and lambasted by critics, many of whom blamed Madonna and Rupert Everett for the film rather than its writer or director.

Royal appreciation

In 1970, he was made CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II.

Schlesinger is survived by photographer Michael Childers, his companion of 36 years; his brother Roger; and his sister Hilary.

There will be a private memorial in London for family next week. Public memorials are planned for late September in Los Angeles and London.

Donations in Schlesinger’s memory may be made to Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif., or the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs.

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