When my uncle John Schlesinger was preparing the script for his film Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1970, he went for a walk with his father. My grandfather, by then a retired pediatrician, asked John what his new film was about. John explained that it was about a gay Jewish doctor (Peter Finch) who loved a young man (Murray Head) who also loved a woman (Glenda Jackson).
My grandfather thought this over carefully, and said: “But John, did you really have to make him Jewish as well?” This is the kind of family we come from: loving, tolerant, encouraging, and very keen to be British, without drawing unnecessary attention to our non-British roots. The Schlesingers did their best to fit in. A shared love of Wagner’s operas (handed down by my great-grandfather, an Orthodox Jew; the other great-grandfather was a sec-ular man; he liked Brahms) is just about all that remains of our German-Jewish background. My grandparents were British in the way their parents were German, that is, very, but without ever taking it for granted.
John never fitted in, and that is partly what made him an artist. His earliest ambition was to be a cinema organist. He was mesmerized, as a child, by those glamorous figures, bathed in light, who would slowly descend into the orchestra pit when the main entertainment began. To be entertaining was an imperative with John. My earliest memories of him are of his doing conjuring tricks for us, or imitating sinister German accents, or impersonating the Queen of Holland. One also felt, from a very early age, that to arrest his attention one had to amuse him in return, which was not always easy. This extended to his professional life. He was a superb director of actors—Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Dustin Hoffman, and the list goes on—but could be hard on them too.
No good at sports, John was deeply unhappy at his private boarding school, which, like most such institutions, saw sportsmanship as the highest masculine virtue. His father hoped that school would make a man of him. Perhaps in a way it did. John once told me that his homosexual inclinations were the one thing that put him in the mainstream of school life.
John ran away from school once or twice, and felt a failure. What kept him going was the prospect of the holidays, when he would cast his brothers, sisters, and cousins in elaborate plays, performed for the whole family. He took this very seriously. Rehearsal schedules and costume designs were meticulously prepared. The other bright spot in his schooldays, apart from music, which he loved, was the gift of a 9.5 mm movie camera from his grandmother. An early work—heard about, but never seen by me—shows the school’s headmaster changing into his bathing costume.
John’s first proper film, The Black Legend, shot in 16 mm while he was a student at Oxford, and financed by his doting grandmother, was also a family affair. Made near the family home in Berkshire in 1948, this eighteenth-century tale of a couple being hanged on Inkpen Beacon for adultery already shows remarkable technical skill, as well as John’s taste for the macabre and hatred of intolerance. The famous movie critic Dilys Powell praised the film, which encouraged him to carry on. He was also an actor in student productions, and toured the US with the Oxford Players.
Like other Englishmen, John was called up for military service. But army life was not for him. He told the army board that he was “a Jew and proud of it,” which may not have unsettled the officers particularly but rather outraged my grandfather. He then proceeded to mislay his gun. Still haunted by a sense of failure, he found more congenial company in ENSA, the army’s entertainment division. He did conjuring tricks for the troops in Singapore.
Although a great mimic and raconteur, John was a competent rather than a fine actor. His roles varied from pantomime dames to villains in television episodes of Ivanhoe, played by Roger Moore, and he appeared as one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, directed by Lindsay Anderson. None of this was of great consequence, but he did get to see a superb director at work by appearing in Michael Powell’s Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955). He also had a small part as a German POW in The Battle of the River Plate (1956), for which he rehearsed his one line in German with his grandmother from Kassel, who happened to be the aunt of Franz Rosenzweig, the religious philosopher.
It was as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC that John began to find his true métier. In 1961, his brilliant, witty record of a day at Waterloo Station, entitled Terminus, won prizes and led to his first feature film, A Kind of Loving (1962). Adapted from a novel by Stan Barstow, it was a typical example of kitchen sink drama, then much in fashion. Fed up with stories about plummy people lounging around London drawing rooms, young, often leftist, directors, such as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, turned to working-class life in the industrial north of England.
This may not have been quite John’s scene; he was not particularly left-wing for a start. But his feeling of not fitting in, of being a failure, gave him a deep sympathy for losers, dreamers, and fantasists. Vic (Alan Bates), a young man trapped in a marriage with Ingrid (June Ritchie), is such a man, fighting against and then resigning himself to the constraints of living with his bride and her ghastly mother. A Kind of Loving is the first film I saw John shoot. All I can remember is Thora Hird, as the mother-in-law, telling Vic: “You’ve got to make your sacrifices.” Which, come to think of it, is rather typical for John’s concern with life’s limitations.
Billy, the main character in Billy Liar (1963), is a pure fantasist. A clerk at a provincial undertaker’s, Billy (Tom Courtenay) imagines himself to be everything he is not: an upper-class toff, a conquering general, a great dictator, a war hero. When, at the end of the film, he has to choose between escaping to London with Julie Christie or continuing his life as a dreamer in a dreary north country town, he chooses the latter. It is a choice John himself might not have made, but he understood it.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight), the would-be hustler of rich and beautiful New York women in Midnight Cowboy (1969), is a much raunchier, American version of Billy; a down-and-out country boy who lives much of his life in his somewhat junky fantasies, culled from TV, advertising, and the movies. I was once told by John that Gore Vidal, when asked to write the script, did not believe anyone would be interested in “some dumb cowboy.” But it was precisely the humanity of the born loser that interested John. What redeems this character is his love for another deadbeat, the limping Ratso (Dustin Hoffman). John used all his documentary skills to bring the underbelly of Manhattan, the world of (pre-Disney) 42nd Street hustlers and junkies, alive. He often said that a similar film could not be made in America today.
Much as John empathized in his films with street people, provincial dreamers, and other oddballs, his own life remained quite solidly anchored in his family. He had no children of his own but was attached to all of us. After my grandmother, a matriarch of the old school, died, he became, as it were, the patriarch who kept the family together. Annual celebrations revolved around him. His achievements allowed us to bask in vicarious glory. Movie stars would smile politely, as we were proudly presented as “my nephew” or “my niece.” It was to John that most of us went, when in trouble. His attentiveness to our problems was actually quite remarkable, especially since one was always aware that part of his mind, like Billy Liar’s or Joe Buck’s, was usually drifting off somewhere far away.
Family man and misfit; it was this combination that enabled him to look at life from the outside, while remaining on the inside. Perhaps a Jewish background, no matter how assimilated, allowed for a similarly off-center perspective on British society, which he regarded with great affection and almost constant irritation. He loved the English landscape, celebrated in his underrated adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), and cherished many British institutions, including the royal family. He shared with others of his generation an odd veneration for the Queen Mother. But he loathed the narrow horizons of English life, the attitude of “Oh, no, we couldn’t possibly do that. That’s not the way we do things here.”
What attracted him to America was precisely the opposite: its openness and enthusiasm. But John’s Britishness colored his view of the US too, sometimes to great comic effect—Joe Buck’s bus ride to New York in Midnight Cowboy—but a supercilious Eu-ropean disdain for America could sometimes make his satire go over the top, as in the great flop of his career, a screwball comedy about hucksterism in small-town Florida, entitled Honky-Tonk Freeway (1981).
Despite some notable American successes, I believe John’s best films were set in England. There he could be satirical without disdain. Just as Robert Altman’s acid views of America are tempered by love, John’s attachment to his native country stayed his heavy-handed tendencies. This shows in some of his late films, such as Cold Comfort Farm (1995), and especially in An Englishman Abroad (1983) and A Question of Attribution (1992), the two short films about Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, written by Alan Bennett for the BBC. John’s (and Bennett’s) take on the two gay Englishmen who spied for the Soviet Union is compassionate without being sentimental about what they did. In a way, Burgess and Blunt fit perfectly in John’s long line of misfits, very British even at the heart of the British establishment, and at the same time on the outside, dreaming of a fantasy world where they might be heroes: Billy Liars spying for Stalin.
John’s success with Bennett’s scripts showed how much he depended on good writers. He did not get on particularly well with Penelope Gilliatt, but his best film of all, in my opinion, is Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which she wrote in close cooperation with John. It is also his most personal work. There is a great deal of John in the doctor, who dutifully attends every family occasion, but might be found cruising for a pickup in Picadilly after the festivities are over.
What made this such a bold film, especially for its time, is the middle-class normality of the subjects’ lives. Audiences were used to seeing flamboyant queens fluttering their wrists and saying “ducky” or “darling,” or “she” when they meant “he,” but here was a nice doctor, without a trace of camp, kissing a young man on the mouth before planning a joint holiday to Italy. The extraordinary scene where Peter Finch speaks directly to the camera, and talks about having to share his lover with another person, is typical of John’s attitude to life. Whereas the woman in the triangle wishes to give up her lover, because she wants all or nothing, the doctor says half a loaf is still better than no loaf.
John made homosexual love look perfectly natural, and by doing so struck a bigger blow for emancipation than most demonstrations could ever achieve. If he had regrets at the end of his life, I think it was that he did not take this theme further. When he was recovering from a severe stroke, I asked him whether his illness had made him think differently of his life and work. Yes, he whispered, it had. It was about his films. He wished he had done more on “sexuality.”
John was not by nature a joiner of political parties or movements. He was not especially interested in politics. In his life, as in his films, he was a humanist. His favorite directors—Satyajit Ray, de Sica, Truffaut—were rather like him, often funny, somewhat pessimistic, but always humane. Unlike Lindsay Anderson, or Kenneth Tynan, or other angry young men of the 1950s, John didn’t see art as a tool of politics. Tolerance, not revolution is what he pleaded for. This did not make him especially popular with radical gay activists, or indeed with some of the more “engaged” artists of his generation. He was a misfit even there.
What interested him most was relationships, between men and women, or men and men, or parents and children, and how people cope with their limitations. This made him a brilliant observer. Nothing escaped his sharp eye for the quirkiest nuances of human behavior. On the top of his form, this made him one of the great directors of our time. In private, it made him more than an uncle; more an example, which we will never match, but always cherish.