John Schlesinger is celebrated for his ability to elicit sensitive performances from his actors, a skill which draws on his own experience on the British stage in the 1950s. His style is also influenced by techniques he developed while directing TV documentaries--a period of his career characterized by extensive location shooting, tight production schedules and an emphasis on the role of editing in shaping narrative structure.
Schlesinger first became interested in film at the age of 11, when he received a 9.5 mm movie camera as a gift. While serving with the Royal Engineers during WWII he made an amateur film, "Horrors", and performed as a magician in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit. When he resumed his education in 1945 he immersed himself in the theater, joining the Oxford University Dramatic Society and soon becoming president of the Oxford Experimental Theatre Company. (He would continue to direct for the stage, in between movie assignments, throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.)
From 1952 to 1957, Schlesinger worked in England, Australia and New Zealand, appearing in five feature films, acting in nearly 20 plays with various repertory companies and performing on TV and radio. During this period, a chance meeting with director/producer Roy Boulting catalyzed his interest in photography and filmmaking and led to the creation, with theatrical agent Basil Appleby, of a 15-minute documentary, "Sunday in the Park" (1956). The film brought Schlesinger a series of documentary assignments for the BBC. After a stint as a second unit director, he was commissioned to make an industrial documentary of daily life in London's Waterloo Station. The poignant result, "Terminus" (1961), achieved nationwide commercial distribution and earned him a Venice Festival Gold Lion and a British Academy Award.
Motivated in part by the festival success of "Terminus", producer Joseph Janni offered Schlesinger his first shot at a feature film with "A Kind of Loving" (1962). The result was a critical and financial success which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival and propelled its director into the front rank of young British filmmakers. In "Billy Liar" (1963), Schlesinger continued to examine the themes of inarticulate ambition and frustrated tenderness he had explored in "A Kind of Loving". Both films showed the influence of the British Free Cinema movement, with its emphasis on the constraints and restrictions of working-class life. Schlesinger then moved into very different terrain with "Darling" (1965), a flashy satire of "swinging London" that certified its lead actress, Julie Christie, as an international star when she won the Academy Award for best actress.
"Midnight Cowboy" (1969) was perhaps Schlesinger's greatest success commercially and critically, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director and launching a long but rather turbulent Hollywood career for the director. Films such as "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" (1971), "The Day of the Locust" (1975) and "Marathon Man" (1976) all bear witness to Schlesinger's remarkable ability to weave meticulously observed, realistic backgrounds into his complex studies of human relationships.
Schlesinger's later films have included "The Believers" (1987), a gripping contemporary horror story starring Martin Sheen and Helen Shaver, "Madame Sousatzka" (1988), about a London piano teacher (Shirley MacLaine) and her gifted young student, "Pacific Heights" (1990), possibly the first thriller to weave its plot around the problems faced by landlords in their attempt to evict a bad tenant, and "The Innocent" (1993), an adaptation of Ian McEwan's Cold War psychological thriller. He directed "Cold Comfort Farm" for British TV (shown at film festivals in 1995), a period comedy about an orphan who take refuge with her cousins. Schlesinger also directed the minor revenge thriller "Eye for an Eye" (1996), which pitted Sally Field against Kiefer Sutherland, before tackling a major television adaptation of "The Tale of Sweeney Todd" (1998), a straight, non-musical version of the famed British folk tale starring Ben Kingsley as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
His final directotial outing was at the helm of the mild comedy "The Next Best Thing" (2000) which starred Madonna as a middle-aged woman whose biological clock has ticked so loud she conceives a baby with her gay pal (Rupert Everett) and then struggles to raise the child with him. Although a fairly minor work in his otherwise bold canon, it was appropriate that in his last film effort before his death in 2003, Schlesinger, who was gay, again tackled the issues of homosexual life and love that had characterized his keenest work.