It’s hard to classify a John Schlesinger film, which is probably why he was never as well known as some of his English contemporaries or the younger Americans inspired to make riskier, franker movies by seeing “Midnight Cowboy” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” What do those two films, arguably Schlesinger’s best, have in common with “Darling,” a quintessential document of swinging London, or with the apocalyptic vision of Hollywood in “Day of the Locust”? Or “Marathon Man”? Judging from the comments recorded by his nephew, historian Ian Buruma, in “Conversations With John Schlesinger,” the director himself wasn’t quite sure.
Schlesinger’s reluctance to make sweeping statements is part of what made him so distinctive a filmmaker: He observed his characters’ foibles and failures (they seldom triumphed) with an unsentimental humanism that set him apart.
“I’ve often faced this criticism–that if your leading man, say, does something that’s unsympathetic, you’re going to lose sympathy for him,” he remarks at one point, describing the studio’s appalled reaction to Jon Voigt as Joe Buck beating up an old man in “Midnight Cowboy.” “But I think what he does is totally human, understandable, and necessary for the film.”
Schlesinger wasn’t shocked by anything people did, and he asked audiences to share his empathy.
He was “the ideal bachelor uncle,” Buruma writes in his introduction, which engagingly sketches Schlesinger’s wit and charm as well as his career. The two men’s affection is apparent in their exchanges, even when the younger presses his uncle to be more analytical than he cares to be. Schlesinger gently downplays Buruma’s suggestions about the impact of being a Jew in London, or a homosexual before gay liberation, on his films, even though he admits, “the themes that I’ve chosen to do are very often about the outsider or compromise.”
His quiet admission of regrets about the commercial compromises he made in his later career (“Pacific Heights,” “The Next Best Thing”) exudes a sadness far more eloquent than any self-righteous ranting about the studio system.
Schlesinger died in 2003, after a stroke that cut short his conversations with Buruma. Somewhat abbreviated by this event, the resulting book has a modest, tentative quality that suits the nature of Schlesinger’s achievements as a director.