John Schlesinger & The Great Question MarkTuesday, April 03, 2012
Guest Blog by writer John Lekich
John Schlesinger and the Great Question Mark.
|John Schlesinger, October 1988 - Alex W-H|
Whenever anybody asks me what’s wrong with movies today, I say. “Watch Midnight Cowboy and get back to me. We’ll talk.”
Directed by the late John Schlesinger and released in 1969, The Internet Movie Database describes the plot of Midnight Cowboy as well as anybody. “A naïve male prostitute (Jon Voight) and his sickly friend (Dustin Hoffman) struggle to survive in New York City.” The film won a slew of Oscars – including best picture and best director – as well as paving the road for any number of meaningfully offbeat films throughout the seventies.
A good argument could be made that Midnight Cowboy is the grittiest, riskiest and – oddly enough – the most tenderhearted film ever produced by a mainstream Hollywood studio. One thing is certain. It would never get made today.
It remains a fine example of what we’ll call “a question mark film.” This in honour of Schlesinger, who said: “I like making films that have question marks in them. ” You can interpret this statement in a number of ways. None of which go well with the kind of mainstream movies that are being made today. Movies that seem to supply all the answers before the opening credits are finished.
Thanks to Alex, I’ve been thinking about Schlesinger lately. Alex mentioned watching Julie Christie in Darling. (Schlesinger directing his favourite actress to an Oscar winning performance.) I started mulling over all the great movies Schlesinger made in his career. Day of the Locust, Far From the Madding Crowd. Sunday, Bloody Sunday. And Marathon Man - a first rate thriller featuring a scene in a dentist office that rivals the scariest horror film.
Like Robert Altman - another great director who flourished in the seventies - Schlesinger’s career seems to lose momentum during the eighties. Some critics point to 1981’s misguided Honky Tonk Freeway – one of Schlesinger’s rare missteps - by way of explanation. But I think it was mostly because question mark films were being devoured by sequels featuring man-eating sharks.
I take solace in the fact that, like Altman, Schlesinger continued to find meaningful ways to do good work until his death in 2003. Stage, television and a lovely little film with Shirley MacLaine called Madame Sousatzka. All projects that thankfully featured his trademark fascination with question marks.
Addendum: Whenever Rosemary and I watch a good film on TCM or rent one I always like to find out more about it. I have three references. I first go to the NY Times film database and in particular I like to read the old reviews by the wonderfully-named Boseley Crowther who was critic there from 1940 to 1967. My second reference is a tattered Pauleine Kael - 5001 Nights at the Movies. My third is an impulse to phone John Lekich. Lekich, in this age of easy-reference Google & Wikipedia, always has information that is personal and endearing. After seeing Julie Christie in Darling I resisted my instant urge to phone Lekich but I did email him asking him to write something about Schlesinger. He did!
More guest blogs by John Lekich: