×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Conversations With John Schlesinger

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."

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.

Popular on Variety

More Reviews

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

  • Zombieland: Double Tap

    Film Review: 'Zombieland: Double Tap'

    The zombies have evolved in “Zombieland: Double Tap”; the comedy not so much. But that’s OK, because Ruben Fleischer’s 2009 breakout hit — which gobbled up $75.6 million in a genre fast approaching its pop-culture saturation point — was already a few steps ahead of the curve: Its central quartet actually knew they were living [...]

  • Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

    Film Review: 'Jay and Silent Bob Reboot'

    In a film culture overrun by Marvel epics, wild-stunt action flicks, and other grandiose juvenilia, it is often said that the mid-budget, script-driven movie for adults is becoming a thing of the past. But don’t tell that to Kevin Smith, whose “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” a shaggy antic throwaway that premiered Tuesday in the [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    Busan Film Review: 'To the Ends of the Earth'

    “To the Ends of the Earth,” the story of a young Japanese journalist’s experiences in Uzbekistan filming a report for a Japanese TV travel show, was originally commissioned to celebrate 25 years of cordial diplomatic relations between director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s hyper-developed island homeland and the less affluent, landlocked Central Asian nation. As such we might [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content