Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger: The Authorised BiographyEdge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger: The Authorised Biography by William J. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"John Schlesinger is eulogized as the man who made Midnight Cowboy, but Sunday, Bloody Sunday is his masterpiece, [...]"

Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger (2005) transcends the biography genre: it is much more than a vacuous enumeration of stages of life and professional achievements of an artist. This authorized biography of the great British film director offers a moving tribute not only to the great master and his art but also to the loving and enduring relationship between him and his partner. True, the reader will find some name-dropping, tabloid-style gossip, and even some "Hollywood dirt" on the pages of this massive volume (over 500 pages - the longest book I have read in many years), but these snippets appear incidental to the main thrust of the story.

I need to disclaim that Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Midnight Cowboy (SBS and MC henceforth) are two of the best films I have seen in my life. In fact, depending on my mood, SBS might be the film that I love most of all, so the admiration for Schlesinger's work may have biased my reception of the biography.

I agree with all the praise the author heaps on MC, indeed a masterpiece, a "psychedelic trip [...] with its otherworldly, dreamlike feel", a film that reflects the "time of huge and tumultuous upheaval in American society," and - along with Easy Rider - heralds the 1970s, the best period in American cinema. MC signifies the beginning of the New Hollywood era, with its ambiguous messages, lack of old-style heroes, and candidness about sexual matters (MC is the only X-rated movie ever to win Academy Awards), including homosexuality. Yet to me MC ranks below the stellar regions of little-known SBS, a "piece of chamber music," a penetrating study of a unconventional love triangle, and "a monumentally beautiful" film.

In the biography non-linearly structured so that the stories of the director's creative path are framed by vignettes of "today" (2003) we read about the director's work on over 20 movies: in addition to MC and SBS I find at least three other outstanding works: Billy Liar that made a huge impression 50 years ago on the teenager that turned into me, Darling, a film that epitomizes the Swinging Sixties in London, and Marathon Man with the unforgettable "Is it safe?" torture scene. We learn that at least three Schlesinger's movies were colossal artistic and commercial flops. We also read about Mr. Schlesinger's acting career and his later opera and stage directing. His last years are revealed as well, the years when he could not or would not speak, after having suffered two strokes.

The author seems to emphasize Mr. Schlesinger's uncommon approach to his homosexuality. He was sometimes ostracized by the gay community about not "coming out" of a closet (anyway, not early enough). The author points out that the director had never been in the closet, that he had never done anything to hide his sexual preference. So why would he have to come out?

And finally there is the extraordinary love story between John Schlesinger and Michael Childers: real love story that included not just living together, not just wanting to spend all your time with your partner, but also wetting your lover's lips when he is dying.

Four and a quarter stars.

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