His 1960 documentary, Terminus (1961), which was sponsored by British-Transport, won him a British Academy Award and the Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He made the transition to feature films in 1962, with the "kitchen sink" drama A Kind of Loving (1962), which got him noticed on both sides of the Atlantic. His next film, the Northern comedy Billy Liar (1963), was a success, and began his association with actress Julie Christie, who had a memorable turn in the film. Christie won the Best Actress Academy Award and international super-stardom and Schlesinger his first Oscar nomination as Best Director with his next film, the watershed Darling (1965), which dissected Swinging London. Subsequently, Schlesinger and Christie collaborated on Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel, in 1967. The movie was not a success with critics or at the box office at the time, though it's stature has grown over time. His next film, Midnight Cowboy (1969), earned him a place in cinema history, as it not only was a huge box office hit, it was widely acclaimed as a contemporary classic. It won the Oscar for Best Picture and garnered Schlesinger an Oscar for Best Director.
He has alternated between mainstream Hollywood films and more modest productions in Britain, often made for television, of which the most outstanding is An Englishman Abroad (BBC, 1983), scripted by Alan Bennett from a real life encounter in Moscow between the actress, Coral Browne, and the notorious British spy Guy Burgess. With Browne playing herself and Alan Bates as Burgess, it impressively demonstrated that Schlesinger (who has also become a distinguished opera and theatre director) had not lost the ability to direct intimate drama.
John Schlesinger both loved and hated what he did. Shooting a film was nearly always difficult and unpleasant. In some ways, "The Next Best Thing" was a walk in the park compared to making "The Falcon and the Snowman," shot on location under a brutally hot Mexican sun with a belligerent, uncooperative Sean Penn (ironically, about a year before Penn would marry Madonna).
At the beginning of the '80s, Schlesinger was recruited by maverick producer Don Boyd for a daring attempt to make a British financed American blockbuster with a Florida setting and American actors such as Beau Bridges and William Devane. The $25 million budget of Honky Tonk Freeway, however, did not save the film from total disaster at the box-office. Since this failure, Schlesinger has directed a number of films which have not enjoyed the fame and fortune of his earlier work, although his cherished project, Madame Sousatzka (1988), received some attention for Shirley MacLaine's performance as an eccentric piano teacher.
In 1972, John directed his only musical, "I and Albert," at the Piccadilly Theatre in London. He also directed three plays for the National Theatre: "Heartbreak House" (1975), "Julius Caesar" (1977), and "True West" (1981). In 1972, John contributed a segment of "Visions of Eight," a documentary by eight directors on the Munich Olympic Games. In 1970, John received a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) from the Queen.
When he was not making films, Schlesinger also directed theater, opera, and British television productions, as well as a Paul McCartney music video. He was also one of the eight directors who made the 1972 Munich Olympic film Visions of Eight. When asked what he wanted in his life, CNN.com wrote that Schlesinger said in 1970, "I'm only interested in one thing—that is tolerance.… 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." He spent his career fighting those limitations and stretching the minds of audiences around the world. While he did it he led actors that were unknown into the spotlight. Schlesinger's films "were beacons for actors, who gave some of their finest performances in his work," wrote Mel Gussow in the New York Times.
Schlesinger's artistic fulfillment increasingly came from directing for the stage and, specifically, opera. He directed William Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1964, and after his movie career faded, he directed plays, musicals and opera productions. After Laurence Olivier was eased out of the National Theatre in 1973, Schlesinger was named an associate director of the NT under Olivier's successor, Sir Peter Hall of the RSC. Schlesinger suffered a stroke in December 2000. His life partner, Michael Childers, took him off life support and he died the following day, July 24, 2003, in Palm Springs, Claifornia. He was 77 years old.
From the beginning, from the first little amateur films he turned out with his 9.5 mm camera, John Schlesinger wanted to be a storyteller. Though his methods would veer from the profound to the prosaic, his impulse was consistent: to use the medium of the cinema as might a bard or a minstrel, regaling his audiences like the magicians he had so admired in his youth. Kael would call his filmmaking style "mechanical," but in Schlesinger's best films there is a stunning precision to his mechanics: here is a master craftsman at work.
Schlesinger was born in London to a father who was a pediatrician and an amateur musician and a mother who was also a musician. His father played the cello and his mother played the violin; they both encouraged his interest in the arts. Schlesinger himself played the piano, but he originally wanted to be an architect, although that plan went by the wayside when he was given a camera at the age of ten. He served with the Royal Engineers during World War II where he made an amateur film, Horrors. After he left the military he attended Balliol College at Oxford University where he studied English Literature. There he made experimental films, many of which he won awards for, and was even elected president of the university's drama society, with whom he toured America. After graduation he started his career as a British stage and film actor before he was hired by the BBC as a freelance documentarian.
John Schlesinger was born February 16, 1926 in London, England. He worked as an actor before becoming a documentary director for BBC television. His feature films A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar depicted English urban life. The successful Darling mocked the jet set, and he followed it with Far from the Madding Crowd. His first American film, Midnight Cowboy, won him an Academy Award.