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Life All Around Him

May 25, 2006 By:
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Conversations With John Schlesinger is full of surprises.

The first of them is that the work has appeared as a paperback without a bit of fanfare accompanying it, as if the publisher, Random House, had second thoughts. The work is by Ian Buruma, who's no slouch among contemporary scribblers, having produced such estimable works as The Wages of Guilt and Anglomania, and who's a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. The Random House group of publishers has never seemed embarrassed to have him on its list before; in fact, it's tended to treat him as one of its stars. Paperback publication is no crime, of course, but the lack of promotion does seem odd.

The rest of the surprises are of a more pleasant nature. Buruma, as it turns out, is the late film director John Schlesinger's nephew, which was the reason, ostensibly, for partaking in this project. Those familiar with Schlesinger's major films - "Darling," "Midnight Cowboy," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Marathon Man" and "The Day of the Locust" - probably also know, or won't be surprised to discover, that the director was a British Jew and a gay man. These topics are discussed at length in Buruma's compelling series of interviews with his immensely talented uncle, who died in 2003.

As Buruma notes in his introduction: "John Schlesinger, born in London in 1926, was my mother's elder brother. My grandparents, the children of German-Jewish immigrants, were in many ways typical of their class in the north London Borough of Hampstead: cultivated, musical, comfortably well-off, and highly assimilated in their corner of British society. The arts were taken seriously. All their five children were required to play a musical instrument and, if possible, become very good at it. John played the piano but failed to shine. Perhaps his early childhood ambition to become a cinema organist came out of this. He was mesmerized by those glamorous figures, bathed in light, who rose from and then descended into the orchestra pit on a hydraulic lift before the main entertainment."

As Buruma explains, Schlesinger was the perfect bachelor uncle, willing, without much coaxing, to share amusing stories and jokes with younger family members, who thus felt included in a "conspiracy of fun." When the family would gather on holidays and weekends at Buruma's grandparents home in rural Berkshire, Schlesinger would amuse them with magic tricks, German accents and imitations of the queen of Holland.

In his lengthy introduction, Buruma sketches in a biography of his uncle that provides the appropriate context for the interviews that follow. According to the writer, Schlesinger received a typical upper-middle-class British education, and had to endure all the indignities that went along with it: "private boarding schools from the age of 8 and an endless regime of cold baths and games. No good at sports, John hated his time at an institution that prized sportsmanship as the highest masculine virtue. His father had hoped the school would make a man of him. Perhaps in a way it did. John told me that his homosexual inclinations were the one thing that put him in the mainstream of school life."

After his public schooling, Schlesinger spent two years in the army, for which, his nephew writes, he was just as unsuited as he was for life at his spartan boarding school. But he was saved in part by work in the entertainment division, where his skill at directing bawdy reviews, "featuring drag acts and the like," gave him some sense of being appreciated. His first real taste of serious theater did not come until his time at Oxford University, where he read English literature at Balliol College from 1947. According to Buruma, he was not necessarily cut out for scholarship, but he did get invaluable theatrical exposure as both actor and director as a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society.

At Oxford, Schlesinger also made his first film, "Black Legend" in 1948, using money culled from family and friends, who were in turn used as cast members in a tale based on a 17th-century case of adultery and murder. Buruma notes that it was "already shot through with John's dark sense of humor."

Making a Name for Himself

After university, Schlesinger set out as an actor, but with only modest success, as his nephew puts it, doing mostly small parts in movies for British TV. He then made a few short films, documentaries, and one of them - "Terminus" in 1961, about a day at Waterloo Station - went on to win the Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival. Buruma calls the work "the true launching pad" of his uncle's career, since the following year he was asked by producer Joseph Janni to direct "A Kind of Loving," which starred Alan Bates and won the Golden Bear in Berlin.

The film, like others of the period in Britain, meaning the mid-1950s and early '60s, centered on working-class characters. These works were often set in the industrial north of England, notes Buruma, and were generally tagged with the rubric "kitchen-sink drama." Buruma remarks that Schlesinger didn't imbue these dramas with the "leftist political convictions" of some of his uncle peers, directors like Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, but rather lent his films a "humanist" touch, "somewhat akin to the Italian neorealists." The writer says that this humanism was often dismissed by Schlesinger's colleagues "as wishy-washy bourgeois liberal." But Buruma identifies it as what gave "A Kind of Loving" and "Billy Liar," which appeared in 1963, "their staying power."

What followed was that string of memorable films, some of them done in England, some in America, that made Schlesinger's name, filled with some of the finest film actors of the time: Tom Courtney, Julie Christie, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Peter Finch, Glenda Jackson. Not that his career was problem free. "The Day of the Locust," which Schlesinger thought highly of, was generally attacked when it first appeared, but has since gained in reputation. After that point, he made some good films (a number of them for British TV), and some dreadful ones, especially in the 1990s, the last decade of his career.

Even critics who praised parts of his films or admired his directorial bravado often found something slick about his work, which I always thought was an unfair assessment. I would say that "Midnight Cowboy" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" are top-drawer works, especially the latter, which has fallen from sight and deserves so much better. The screenplay by Penelope Gilliatt was one of the best of its time; its themes were daring, and handled with wit and sensitivity, and Schlesinger, as always, worked brilliantly with his actors. To have made those two movies and all the memorable others is a considerable achievement indeed, especially under the exigencies that big-studio directors must deal with.

All of these matters are hashed over in the seven interviews, which are broken into time periods dealing with Schlesinger's artistic growth: Childhood, Getting Started, Breaking In, The British Films, Liberation, Hollywood Years and Toward the End. The interchange between uncle and nephew is tough when necessary, amusing, and sometimes moving, especially when Schlesinger faces the decline in his health, and offers an assessment of his life and work.

This book is not simply an attempt by a family member to rehabilitate a relative's overlooked accomplishments. It is fair in its judgment, without having the interviewer side too completely with his subject. These conversations present us with an artist who was a fascination to his nephew and, in the end, we come to see the man just as Buruma speaks of him:

"He would be there, listening, smiling, watching, and yet he wasn't always there. Not that much escaped his attention, or his gaze, but he had the art of taking everything in without necessarily listening. It was as if he soaked up life around him, almost by osmosis, like some watchful animal. If something struck him as particularly entertaining, he would snap it up like a juicy morsel for his private delectation, to be regurgitated at some later date, in a movie perhaps or simply as a story to be retold for the amusement of others. One always longed to be the producer of such juicy morsels. One seldom succeeded."

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