Where to begin with John Schlesinger

Sixty years after the release of his debut feature, the kitchen-sink classic A Kind of Loving, we plot a course through the career of John Schlesinger, the Oscar-winning British director of Billy Liar and Midnight Cowboy.

A Kind of Loving (1962)

Why this might not seem so easy 

Before John Schlesinger made a name for himself behind the camera, he spent much of the 1950s in front of it, playing bit parts in various British film and TV productions. Although he drifted away from his acting ambitions over the course of the decade (he’d already begun filmmaking – two of his shorts from that period are available to watch on BFI Player), his foundational knowledge in the craft would prove vital to his directing skill and help earn him the label ‘actor’s director’. 

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Fittingly for someone who also worked prolifically in theatre, Schlesinger’s directorial career can be split into three acts. The first was spent as a leading light of the British New Wave, helming kitchen sink classics such as A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963). His second saw a transition to Hollywood, where the huge success of Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976) established him as a formidable international talent. That reputation was sullied by the catastrophic failure of Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), and he spent the two decades of his closing act on features of variable quality.

One of few openly gay directors working during the mid-20th century, Schlesinger tackled matters of sexuality in his films with unusual frankness for the era. Midnight Cowboy was the first X-rated movie to win best picture at the Academy Awards, and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) was groundbreaking in mainstream British cinema for portraying a kiss between male lovers, and featuring a bisexual protagonist. 

Some considered the progressiveness of Schlesinger’s vision shocking, but he was always more interested in exploring intricate inner landscapes than in being a provocateur. A powerful ability to paint richly empathetic portraits of characters in unconventional relationships would become his trademark.

The best place to start: A Kind of Loving

Schlesinger’s feature debut, A Kind of Loving (1962), immediately marked him out as a major talent. It follows Vic (Alan Bates), who harbours an intense crush on Ingrid (June Ritchie), his co-worker at a Manchester factory. The two swiftly get together, but Vic’s affection for Ingrid wavers, and the capriciousness of his love leaves her confused and insecure. Matters worsen when she becomes pregnant, and he marries her out of duty. Does a marriage that starts in such imperfect circumstances have a hope of surviving?

A Kind of Loving (1962) poster

Schlesinger’s film delves into the nuances of this tricky romance with compassionate honesty, bluntly acknowledging the considerable harm Vic’s immaturity causes (Ingrid’s pregnancy is a direct result of Vic being embarrassed to buy condoms from a female pharmacist) while never sentencing him to the status of outright villainhood. As would be true in all his best films, Schlesinger is far more interested in exploring than judging; the messy necessity of compromise was always more dramatically fertile ground for him than clear-cut moral binaries. 

His debut also established Schlesinger’s visceral, thematically vital feel for location. Whether it be rolling Dorset hills, the grimy streets of 70s New York City, or – as in A Kind of Loving – the stark industrial splendour of northern England, Schlesinger understood how his protagonists’ interiority was deeply connected to their environment. This would produce a parade of images as striking as they were expressive. 

While there’s a certain oppressiveness to the smoggy city that Vic and Ingrid call home, there’s beauty there too – an unpolished, weather-beaten kind of beauty, but one that carries with it an evocative weight in the lives of the characters. 

What to watch next

Although Schlesinger didn’t have a ‘troupe’ in the way of some directors, there were actors he particularly enjoyed working with, and Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) features three: Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Julie Christie. Christie plays Bathsheba Everdene, heroine of the sumptuous adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, who wins the hearts of a gentle shepherd (Bates), a refined farmer (Finch) and a roguish soldier (Terence Stamp). With the help of Nicolas Roeg (then a cinematographer), Schlesinger shoots Hardy’s Dorset with sensuous style, providing the narrative a stunning backdrop.

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

Schlesinger’s next – and first American –  movie was Midnight Cowboy (1969), the story of naive Texan Joe Buck (Jon Voight), who travels to NYC to make it rich hustling wealthy, lonely society ladies. While he discovers that life there is much harder than he anticipated, Joe finds unexpected consolation in his friendship with the sickly swindler Ratso (Dustin Hoffman). 

Though charges of homophobia have been levelled at the movie for the unflattering portrayals of Joe’s male clients and the horror he seems to experience while servicing them – the movie’s sex scenes are both frequent and frank – Schlesinger leaves the sexual preferences of Joe and Ratso intriguingly ambiguous. Whatever their orientation, the tenderness between the two men is beautifully played and deeply moving; a warm counterpoint to the cold streets of the city they spend their days and nights prowling.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

The director returned to Britain for Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), another tale of unconventional sexual dynamics, this time between three people: a recently-divorced woman (Glenda Jackson), a gay Jewish doctor (Peter Finch) and the younger man who’s in an open relationship with them both (Murray Head). In this partly autobiographical tale (Finch plays the directorial stand-in), Schlesinger traces the emotional journeys of Jackson and Finch’s characters with patience, empathy and no judgement.

Schlesinger re-teamed with Dustin Hoffman for Marathon Man (1976) – his first thriller, and the last film he’d make that would be both critically and commercially successful. Centring on a grad student who falls foul of Nazi war criminals in 1970s New York, it proved Schlesinger’s prowess at building tension to near-unbearable heights – the centrepiece being cinema’s most painful depiction of dentistry…

Where not to start

While Schlesinger managed the transition into thrillers with admirable skill, his foray into broad comedy was a disaster. Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) follows a sprawling cast of characters as they make their way across America to converge on the tiny town of Ticlaw, Florida, where the Mayor (William Devane) is determined to siphon tourists from the newly-built freeway by any means necessary.

Honky Tonk Freeway (1981)

Schlesinger’s usual deftness at drawing complex relationships and his knack for evocative location work deserted him entirely for Honky Tonk Freeway. It’s a movie that subjects the audience to a relentless fusillade of ‘comic’ vignettes without any discernible laughs, and paints the country that had become his professional base in broad, cartoonish strokes. Even the impressive cast (Devane, Beau Bridges, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Teri Garr) couldn’t salvage it. 

The film bombed at the box office and marked a sea change in the course of Schlesinger’s career: beforehand his movies were widely respected; afterwards, his output became a lot spottier. Though he still had quality work left in him – The Falcon and The Snowman (1985) and Cold Comfort Farm (1995) both earned critical plaudits – things were never quite the same for Schlesinger after he took that fateful road trip to Florida.

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