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The director who grasped the bigger picture

John Schlesinger in 1975 - Credit: Getty Images

TIM WALKER on the director John Schlesinger, a man with just the right sense of perspective.

John Schlesinger resided in one of those vast Christmas cake mansions in Kensington that signal to all the world its owner has achieved his wildest dreams. He couldn’t exactly claim to be a self-made man – dad had been a celebrated physician and mum a stockbroker’s daughter – but he’d made his name and his own fortune in the perilously insecure world of theatre and later film directing.

The year was 1990 and he had just made Pacific Heights, a taut, efficient psychological thriller starring Michael Keaton and Melanie Griffith that he knew very well wasn’t his best film, but he was conscientiously promoting all the same. He had the kettle boiled ready for my arrival and we shared a pot of herbal tea. These sort of interviews are normally conducted in hotel suites, but it was typical of Schlesinger that he should do it at his home as he was a man who couldn’t be bothered to hide anything at all about himself.

A guy was leaving as I was arriving and he gave him a kiss on the lips. Schlesinger had been out as a gay man long before homosexual acts had been legalised. He hadn’t felt the need to get married – as his fellow director Tony Richardson had – or show up a premieres with a woman on his arm. His daring, ground-breaking film Sunday Bloody Sunday – its gay protagonist played by Peter Finch had lived in a square just around the corner – he had called a “personal statement.”

He asked himself as he made Midnight Cowboy – about a male street hustler – how far he should go with it, and, even though it was the 1960s, he went pretty much all the way and it became the first and only X-rated film to win Best Picture in the Academy Awards, in addition to Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.

Schlesinger was a big man with a big personality and he seemed to see the world from a higher plain. He had a way of cutting through all the nonsense in his own life and in his work. He wanted people who watched his films – no matter what kind of films they were – to see what the characters were really like. At the National Theatre, during all the behind-the-scenes politicking in the 1970s, he had been enormously supportive to his fellow director Michael Blakemore when he’d dared to front up its director Sir Peter Hall about all the money he was making from his outside ventures.

Later he had sensed, too, the vulnerability of the National’s ousted director Laurence Olivier and put in a call to offer him the unlikely part of a Nazi dentist in the thriller Marathon Man. It set the great actor off on a new career path and led to him calling Schlesinger nothing less than the “restorer” of his life. It was typical of Schlesinger that he insisted Olivier’s character should be seen to scrupulously wash his hands before setting about torturing Dustin Hoffman in his dentist’s chair.

“It’s because that’s what a real dentist would have instinctively done and it’s that sort of detail that makes all the difference,” Schlesinger said. “Humanity with all of its absurd ironies has always fascinated me. I want people when they watch my films to see underneath the fingernails of the characters. I want them to see all the dirt.”

My own favourite Schlesinger film had been An Englishman Abroad which he’d made for the BBC. It recounted how the actress Coral Browne had befriended the spy Guy Burgess while appearing in a play in Moscow. Browne was a friend of his and he was desperately worried about her as she was, when we’d met, entering what turned out to be the final stages of her battle with cancer.

“Vincent Price and Coral Browne – if you were casting two people in a marriage, you couldn’t have come up with a couple who were any more fun,” he said. “I talked to Vinny last night and he was absolutely desolate. Two people so full of life facing death. I find it unbearable.”

Schlesinger died 13 years years later, at 77, survived by his partner of over 30 years, the photographer Michael Childers. I remember not so much an immensely accomplished director and a man of immense charm, but someone who, in terms of so many of the petty little things we all fret about, just didn’t care at all. He grasped the bigger picture. That allowed him an awesome freedom.

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