Joel Schumacher, costume designer-turned-director of films including “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “The Lost Boys” and “Falling Down,” as well as two “Batman” films, died in New York City on Monday morning after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 80.
Schumacher brought his fashion background to directing a run of stylish films throughout the 1980s and 1990s that were not always critically acclaimed, but continue to be well-loved by audiences for capturing the feel of the era.
Schumacher was handed the reins of the “Batman” franchise when Tim Burton exited Warner Bros.’ Caped Crusader series after two enormously successful films. The first movie by Schumacher, “Batman Forever,” starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey and Nicole Kidman, grossed more than $300 million worldwide.
Schumacher’s second and last film in the franchise was 1997’s “Batman and Robin,” with George Clooney as Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as villain Mr. Freeze. For “Batman Forever,” the openly gay Schumacher introduced nipples to the costumes worn by Batman and Robin, leaning into the longstanding latent homoeroticism between the two characters. (In 2006, Clooney told Barbara Walters that he had played Batman as gay.)
Several years after the Batman debacle, Schumacher directed the feature adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Phantom of the Opera.” Despite tepid reviews, it received three Oscar noms.
In 1985 Schumacher struck gold with his third feature film, “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which he directed and co-wrote. Brat Packers including Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy as well as a young Demi Moore starred in the story of a bunch of Georgetown grads making their way through life and love. Even the theme song was a hit and is still played to evoke the era. The film offered a pretty smart take on the complexities of post-college life.
His next film was a big hit as well: horror comedy “The Lost Boys,” about a group of young vampires who dominate a small California town, starred Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim. It became a cult favorite, and a TV series adaptation has long been in the works.
Schumacher had a high-concept screenplay by Peter Filardi and an A-list cast — Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin — for the 1990 horror thriller “Flatliners,” about arrogant medical students experimenting with life and death, and the director hit it fairly big again, with a domestic cume of $61 million.
While those hits captured the era well, others during that period were misfires, such as the 1989 remake of the French hit “Cousin/Cousine” called “Cousins” and starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini and the sentimental “Dying Young,” starring Roberts and Campbell Scott.
But in 1993 he showed what he was capable of with the critically hailed “Falling Down,” starring Michael Douglas as a defense worker who’s lost it all and decides to take it out on whomever he comes across. The film played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
The New York Times said the film “exemplifies a quintessentially American kind of pop movie making that, with skill and wit, sends up stereotypical attitudes while also exploiting them with insidious effect. ‘Falling Down’ is glitzy, casually cruel, hip and grim. It’s sometimes very funny, and often nasty in the way it manipulates one’s darkest feelings.”
Schumacher’s next film was also a solid hit. “The Client,” based on a John Grisham novel, was a highly effective legal thriller that also boasted terrific rapport between Susan Sarandon’s lawyer and her 11-year-old client, a boy played by Brad Renfro who has witnessed a murder.
Between the two “Batman” films, Schumacher directed another Grisham adaptation, “A Time to Kill,” which sported a terrific cast (including Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and a career jump-starting turn by a young Matthew McConaughey) and, while not without its own weaknesses, asked important questions about race.
After the second “Batman” he made the much darker, smaller-scale thriller “8MM,” which followed a miscast Nicolas Cage as a family-man private detective in pursuit of those who made what appears to be a snuff film.
His next film, 1999’s “Flawless,” about a homophobic cop who’s suffered a stroke, played by Robert De Niro, and a drag-wearing Philip Seymour Hoffman, was formulaic — the odd couple who couldn’t be more different find out they have a lot in common — but it sported excellent performances by the leads and certainly had heart.
Switching gears dramatically, Schumacher made “Tigerland,” starring a young Colin Farrell in the story of young recruits preparing to go off to Vietnam. It had a gritty look, but while some critics saw an earnest quality, others saw cynicism.
Schumacher’s 2002 thriller “Phone Booth,” which reunited the director with Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland — and intriguingly trapped Farrell’s antihero in the title New York City phone booth for almost all of the film’s running time — had critics and audiences alike talking, even if the ending was a cop-out.
His other films included actioner “Bad Company,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock; “Veronica Guerin,” starring Cate Blanchett as a journalist crusading rather recklessly against the Irish drug trade; and Jim Carrey thriller “The Number 23” and “Trespass,” starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman.
Schumacher started out in showbiz as a costume designer, earning credits on 1972’s “Play It as It Lays,” Herbert Ross’ “The Last of Sheila” (1973), Paul Mazursky’s “Blume in Love (1973), Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” (1973) and “Interiors” (1978) and 1975 Neil Simon adaptation “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” He was also credited as the production designer on the 1974 TV horror film “Killer Bees.”
He also started to write screenplays, including 1976’s “Sparkle,” 1978 hit “Car Wash” and the adaptation for 1978 musical “The Wiz.”
Schumacher’s first directing assignments came in television: the 1974 telepic “Virginia Hill,” which he also co-wrote and starred Dyan Cannon, and the 1979 telepic “Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill,” which he also penned. He stepped into the feature arena with the 1981 sci-fi comedy “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” starring Lily Tomlin, followed in 1983 by “D.C. Cab,” an action-comedy vehicle for Mr. T that Schumacher also wrote.
Born in New York City, he studied at Parsons the New School for Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. He worked in the fashion industry, but decided to instead pursue a career in filmmaking. After moving to Los Angeles, he applied his fashion background to working first as a costume designer and worked in TV while earning an MFA from UCLA.
Schumacher directed a couple of episodes of “House of Cards” in 2013, and in 2015 he exec produced the series “Do Not Disturb: Hotel Horrors.”
Camerimage, the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography, awarded Schumacher a special award in 2010. He also received the Distinguished Collaborator Award at the Costume Designers Guild Awards in 2011.