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Schlesinger, John (1926-2003)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Schlesinger, John (1926-2003)

John Richard Schlesinger was one of the brightest directorial hopes of early 1960s British cinema, when he was responsible for two of the classic 'Kitchen Sink' films. Later, he would become a strong exponent of the realist film renaissance in the US of the late '60s and '70s. A third phase in his career can be represented by his direction of TV-dramas in Britain from the '80s through the '90s. In all, he has been one of the most versatile of prominent British film directors.

Schlesinger was born in London on 16 February 1926 and educated at Oxford. He took a keen interest in amateur film-making, and played small roles in a number of films such as The Divided Heart (d. Charles Crichton, 1954) and The Battle of the River Plate (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1956). He was eventually hired by the BBC, where he directed several episodes of the arts programme, Monitor (1958-1964), including studies of Benjamin Britten (1958) and Georges Simenon (1959).

In 1961 he directed Terminus for British Transport Films, a drama-documentary about the life of Waterloo Station in London. It won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival and a BAFTA award for best short and on the strength of it, Schlesinger was chosen by producer Joseph Janni to direct an adaptation of Stan Barstow's novel A Kind of Loving. The film was shot by cinematographer Denys Coop and designed according to the then fashionable 'Kitchen Sink' style - naturalism, working class characters, north of England locations - with Alan Bates as the uncharacteristically low-key protagonist. A Kind of Loving (1962) proved to be one of the most successful - critically as well as commercially - British films of the early 1960s and was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1962.

Schlesinger and Janni followed up this success with Billy Liar (1963), an adaptation of a popular stage play by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, again with Denys Coop as cinematographer. A comedy, the film marked the transition from the naturalistic aesthetics of the 'Kitchen Sink' films towards new forms, foregrounding elements of fantasy and a freewheeling lifestyle - particularly in the character played by Julie Christie.

Schlesinger's third film, Darling (1965), entered 'Swinging London' territory wholeheartedly, depicting the life of a woman (Christie) whose sexual life gradually turns her into something of a commodity. In this film, arguably his finest British work, Schlesinger told a tragic story about affluence, promiscuity, and emptiness, and coaxed remarkable acting performances from Christie, Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey.

The success of Schlesinger's films enabled him to secure financial backing from MGM for a lavish adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), with Christie as the wilful Bathsheba Everdene and Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates as her three suitors. With its breathtaking location photography (by Nicolas Roeg), the film is now generally regarded as a classic, but at the time, its slow pace and convoluted story proved too demanding for American audiences and it failed to recover its $2.75 million costs.

It was in the US, nevertheless, that Schlesinger would reach his height of directorial fame with the hugely successful Midnight Cowboy (US, 1969), a film for which he won an Oscar for best direction (and a CBE in Britain). Returning to London to work with Joseph Janni, Schlesinger directed the unsettling drama Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), a powerful film which dealt openly with the themes of confused sexual identity in London at the end of the '60s.

The '70s saw Schlesinger's completion of his contribution to a great period in American cinema with two brilliant genre films: the Hollywood on Hollywood drama The Day of the Locust (US, 1975) after Nathanael West's novel, and the thriller Marathon Man (US, 1976), from a novel by William Goldman. Yanks (1979), a co-production between Janni and United Artists, with a script from Colin Welland, explored the impact of the American GI invasion of Britain in the latter days of the Second World War with impressive performances from Vanessa Redgrave, William Devane, Richard Gere and Lisa Eichhorn.

At the beginning of the '80s, Schlesinger was recruited by maverick producer Don Boyd for a daring attempt to make a British financed American blockbuster with a Florida setting and American actors such as Beau Bridges and William Devane. The $25 million budget of Honky Tonk Freeway, however, did not save the film from total disaster at the box-office.

Since this failure, Schlesinger has directed a number of films which have not enjoyed the fame and fortune of his earlier work, although his cherished project, Madame Sousatzka (1988), received some attention for Shirley MacLaine's performance as an eccentric piano teacher.

He has alternated between mainstream Hollywood films and more modest productions in Britain, often made for television, of which the most outstanding is An Englishman Abroad (BBC, 1983), scripted by Alan Bennett from a real life encounter in Moscow between the actress, Coral Browne, and the notorious British spy Guy Burgess. With Browne playing herself and Alan Bates as Burgess, it impressively demonstrated that Schlesinger (who has also become a distinguished opera and theatre director) had not lost the ability to direct intimate drama.

Brooker-Bowers, Nancy, John Schlesinger: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978) Hill, John, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963 (London: BFI, 1986).
Murphy, Robert, Sixties British Cinema (London: BFI, 1992)
Phillips, Gene D., John Schlesinger (Boston: Twayne, 1981)
Walker, Alexander, Hollywood, England (London: Harrap, 1986)
Walker, Alexander, National Heroes (London: Harrap, 1985)

Erik Hedling, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Billy Liar (1963)Billy Liar (1963)

Kitchen-sink realism meets airy fantasy in this much-loved Sixties comedy

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Julie Christie gives an Oscar-winning performance as an amoral socialite

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New Wave film about a man torn between desire and responsibility

Thumbnail image of Terminus (1961)Terminus (1961)

Celebrated study of 24 hours in the life of Waterloo Station

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Prime Minister John Major returns to his Brixton roots

Thumbnail image of Englishman Abroad, An (1983)Englishman Abroad, An (1983)

A real-life Moscow encounter between an actress and a spy

Thumbnail image of Question of Attribution, A (1991)Question of Attribution, A (1991)

Alan Bennett's sly portrait of KGB spy turned art expert Anthony Blunt

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