John Schlesinger (1926–2003) represents something of an anomaly in postwar British film history. Neither a classicist like David Lean or Carol Reed nor a rebellious leftist like Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, or Lindsay Anderson, much of Schlesinger’s success came from his forays into Hollywood—including the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust, and Marathon Man. (Appropriately, he died in Palm Springs.)
But at his core, Schlesinger remained solidly British. After acting in films like Michael Powell’s Oh…Rosalinda!!!, his first feature was A Kind of Loving (Alan Bates’s first starring role), the closest he would come to the kitchen sink realism that prevailed in British cinema in the early 1960s, trying to compete with the alien presence of American imports like Joseph Losey, Stanley Kubrick, and Richard Lester. Following Billy Liar, he directed Darling, which made Julie Christie one of the brightest of stars and won her an Oscar. In his attempt to deal with the “mod” scene, Schlesinger was fortunate to collaborate with Frederic Raphael, who two years later would write the equally exquisite Two for the Road for Stanley Donen, starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. Raphael also penned (typed?) the script for Schlesinger’s backward glance at England, the highly creditable adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, again with Christie and Peter Finch, who after 30 years in movies was finally coming into his own. Finch went on to star in the director’s gay-themed (and, once more, “mod”) Sunday Bloody Sunday (Schlesinger himself had a male partner for three decades and was up-front about his sexual orientation) and, of course, Sidney Lumet’s Network, which won the actor a posthumous Oscar. Meanwhile, after Midnight Cowboy, America beckoned. The 1960s had passed, and, although Schlesinger made several good films, it would be hard to argue that his best decade was not behind him.
Billy Liar was rather savagely attacked by Andrew Sarris upon its release. In The American Cinema, Sarris sums up his feelings by saying Schlesinger “lacks the directorial coherence to tie together his intermittent inspirations.” However, the dean of auteurist critics somewhat mitigates his review with two rather prophetic observations: that Schlesinger “is obviously a man to watch for future awards,” and that the director deserves enormous credit as the discoverer of “a poetic apparition professionally known as Julie Christie.” The critic went on to wax ecstatic about “the most beautiful actress on the screen today” in films like Darling and David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (which also stars Tom Courtenay.)
Personally, I like Billy Liar. Courtenay—coming off his startling debut in Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and about to make Losey’s masterpiece, King and Country (a centerpiece in next summer’s exhibition on The Great War)—and Christie remind us that, whatever Schlesinger’s flaws and inconsistencies are, he was a superb director of actors. The fantasy moments were in clear contrast to the social realism of others and of his own A Kind of Loving. There are lyrical passages very like the intermittent street scenes of the early French New Wave. Schlesinger seems to be saying that escape into fantasy is a viable way of dealing with the contemporary drabness of British life. What, after all, was the then-imminent arrival of the swinging scene embodied by miniskirts, the Beatles, and the Stones, if not fantasy? Writer Keith Waterhouse (who worked on A Kind of Loving and who later adapted his novel about Billy for a television series) had started in film with Brian Forbes’s Whistle Down the Wind, a film we showed recently which required its own level of suspension of disbelief. Or maybe I just like it because I have cat named Billy, although he has a rich fantasy life but never, ever lies.