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Remembering Joel Schumacher: A Stylish Director Who Was Always Willing to Take Chances

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I’ll never forget the one time I got to talk to Joel Schumacher, the fluky, baroquely skilled, stylishly protean Hollywood filmmaker who died Monday at 80. It was June 1985, and I was one of the journalists attending the New York press junket for “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the post-teenage soap opera that already felt like a reunion of “The Breakfast Club.” The junket was buzzier than anyone had anticipated, because it coincided with the arrival of the latest issue of New York magazine, with its famous cover headline that christened the film’s stars “the Brat Pack.” (The studio knew the cover was coming, but not the headline. And you could feel…the branding power of it.)

At the time, I was still in the demo for “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and had a real soft spot for it. In hindsight, it’s a quintessential Schumacher movie: a little smart, a little sappy, more than a little in love with its glamorously questing and angst-ridden twentysomething characters. In its glossy ’80s-youth-market way, it was Schumacher’s bid for the A-list. When I interviewed him, he spoke of his wild past, of all the drugs he’d done (something that would become a theme of his interviews), and since this was still the epicenter of the AIDS era you could feel the new lease that the experience had given him; he talked like someone who honestly thought he was lucky to be alive. He exuded a warmth, and a captivating aura — the long hair, the face that glowed with the look of a sly wizard. When I asked Schumacher what his ambition was, he fixed me with a gaze of the most unguarded sincerity and said, “I want to be a really good director.”

I never stopped feeling the pulse of that desire at the heart of Schumacher’s films. He made movies that really worked (like “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “Falling Down”), movies that really didn’t (like “Batman & Robin” and “Dying Young”), and a handful of beguiling confections that never got the credit they deserved (like “Cousins” and “D.C. Cab” and “Flawless”). Yet there was never a glimmer of coarseness or cynicism to anything he did.

In each picture he directed, he tried for something, and it’s to his credit that he never let too much caution — or good taste — rein him in. The best of his films were animated by a fluky humanity — an unruly sympathy for outsiders, and a desire to see where their odysseys would take him. Schumacher, at his best, was a rhythmic visual craftsman who knew how to stage a commercial film so that it imprinted itself on your mind’s eye. Thirty years after seeing “Flatliners,” I can’t shake its burnished look of macabre fluorescence, and 40 years after Schumacher’s first film as a director, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” I still relish the contact high I got from the outlandish, gender-flipped spirit of its psychedelic design.

For a while after “St. Elmo’s Fire,” he became the go-to director for youth-culture fantasias. “The Lost Boys,” his 1987 night-world thriller, may not have invented the idea of vampires as cool delinquents (you’d have to trace that one back to Anne Rice’s novel “Interview with the Vampire,” in 1976), but by pushing it forward with a kind of luxurious music-video flair, Schumacher was the first to visualize it — he got there before “Buffy,” before “Twilight,” pioneering the mystique of monsters-as-hipsters. “Flatliners” was a different kind of living-dead fantasy, one that showcased the prospect of medical students pushing themselves to the edge of death as if pursuing the ultimate rush.

And if you want to see what a powerfully graphic visual imagination Schumacher possessed, look no further than “Falling Down.” Made in 1993, it’s a fever dream of a revenge thriller in which Michael Douglas plays a divorced, unemployed defense engineer — a white man at the end of his tether — who skulks across Los Angeles in a fit of rage. He’s a mad-as-hell everyman who’s like Frankenstein’s monster in a crewcut, tortoise-shell glasses, and shirtsleeves, the midday heat rising up around him in images that frame the city like a pressure cooker from hell. That his anger is so free-floating, stemming from a dozen different gripes, is the key to the film’s pop-art force: “Falling Down” feels like one of the first Hollywood expressions of an America that had begun falling apart.

When he was handed a conventional assignment, Schumacher had more than the chops to bring it off, as he proved in his highly compelling adaptations of two John Grisham novels, “The Client” and “A Time to Kill.” If he’d restricted himself to movies like that, he could probably have had an even more prestigious track record. But Schumacher was drawn, by temperament, to a certain chancy purplish high-flier extravagance.

That’s why, in 1995, he was given the keys to the Hollywood franchise kingdom, taking over the “Batman” series from director Tim Burton. He made two “Batman” films, and the first of them, “Batman Forever” (1995), is rather good. Schumacher directed it like a dark musical, weaving one lush set piece into the next, and it’s the first “Batman” film to squeeze a ripe drama out of treating every character onscreen — Val Kilmer’s Caped Crusader, Jim Carrey’s maniacal Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face — as a fellow asylum inmate. The movie, in every way, was a success.

But Schumacher’s follow-up sequel, “Batman & Robin,” was saddled with a star (George Clooney) who was not a Batman kind of dude, a villain (Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze) who was more leaden than icy-scary, and a bat-suit whose most talked-about feature (nipples!) was fixed upon with a fervor you could argue was nearly homophobic. By no standard was “Batman & Robin” a good movie, but its failure looms far too large in Schumacher’s legacy. So he made a mediocre franchise film! And tried to loosen up the vise of Batman’s midnight male gaze!

The Schumacher films I’ve always liked best have a shaggy deep-rooted empathy. If you watch “Flawless” (and I recommend that you do), you’ll see one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s finest performances, as a sad sack who lacks the money to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, and who winds up bonding with Robert De Niro, his stroke-victim neighbor. The premise is pure buddy comedy, but it’s a movie that works between the lines. I also think of the exuberant ’80s optimism that Schumacher brought to the urban grunge jamboree “D.C. Cab,” the swoon he brought to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the indelible creepiness he brought to “8mm.” Did he become a really good director? At his best, he did. That’s because he never stopped taking the chances that make you one.