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Director John Schlesinger Dies

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Director of Midnight Cowboy, The Falcon and the Snowman dies at 77:

    The British-born filmmaker had a debilitating stroke in December 2000, and his condition deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. He was taken off life support at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs on Thursday and died early Friday, hospital spokeswoman Eva Saltonstall said.

    ….Schlesinger broke ground with 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” which starred Jon Voight as a naive Texan who turns to prostitution to survive in New York and Dustin Hoffman as the scuzzy, ailing vagrant Ratso Rizzo.

    The film’s homosexual theme was regarded as scandalous, but the tale of underdogs trying to survive in a merciless metropolis was embraced by critics and Hollywood despite its shocking sequences.

    Based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy, “Midnight Cowboy” was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three – best director, best picture and best adapted screenplay. It was the only X-rated film ever to win the Oscar for best picture; reflecting changing standards, the rating was later lowered to an “R.”

    The stocky, baldheaded filmmaker – who was gay – said in 1970: “I’m only interested in one thing – that is tolerance. I’m terribly concerned about people and the limitation of freedom. It’s important to get people to care a little for someone else. That’s why I’m more interested in the failures of this world than the successes.”

    After “Midnight Cowboy” he explored homosexuality again in his next project with 1971’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which starred Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson as acquaintances who each reluctantly share a love for the same young man. The director received another Oscar nomination for the film.

    The characters in Schlesinger’s films often struggled with their place in the world, and he depicted them as lonely, disenchanted and sometimes forgotten. In 1975, he directed an adaptation of the Nathanael West novel “The Day of the Locust,” about young wannabe-stars who find only disappointment in Hollywood.

    Schlesinger himself felt an estrangement from his own success. “If I’ve ever had any commercial success, it’s been a total fluke. I wouldn’t have known ‘Midnight Cowboy’ would have done so well,” Schlesinger said in 1990.

    But he wasn’t above directing commercial films, like his 1975 thriller “Marathon Man.” That teamed him again with Hoffman, who played an innocent man tortured for information by Laurence Olivier, a hiding Nazi war criminal with a penchant for drilling teeth.

    That turned Schlesinger toward more thrillers, including the 1985 tale of true-life spy skullduggery “The Falcon and the Snowman,” starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton as two young Americans convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. [AP]

I remember seeing Midnight Cowboy for the first time in my teens and it was shocking and brutal. I had no idea life in the big city could be so meager and feral, and death by telephone seemed about as grim as it gets – there’s something about a non-traditional weapon that makes violence even more shocking.

The Falcon and the Snowman held special meaning for me and many people I knew: the perpetrators Boyce and Lee were from Palos Verdes, where my aunt, uncle and cousins lived, and the unnamed corporation of the the film where the real-life spying took place was in fact TRW, where I worked in the early ’80s, and where several members of my family work to this day. The acting by Hutton and Penn was great, and the creepy incrementalism of the action made the turn to the Dark Side believable and finally heartbreaking.

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