John Schlesinger came out of documentary making and acting to direct a string of films, commencing with "A Kind of Loving," "Billy Liar" and "Darling," that rank high in the estimations of film history and stand as important witness to 20th-Century life in England. His "Midnight Cowboy," from a terrific script by Waldo Salt, became the first, and thus far the only, X-rated film to win an Academy Award. In it, Schlesinger cast an unblinking eye on the downside of urban American life.
In "Pacific Heights" (opening Friday), Schlesinger again casts an eye, still unblinking but rather more amused, on urban American life. It's a thriller, Schlesinger said the other afternoon, "a yuppie nightmare."
Michael Keaton, Batman on a radically different flight, is an unpaying and sociopathic tenant out to destroy Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith's American dream, embodied in a San Francisco Victorian.
"It was a bold move for Michael to do it," Schlesinger says, "but when I saw him in 'Clean and Sober,' I realized what a really good actor he is. The trick here was to avoid going over the top. We tried going way over the top and way below the top, and I hope we found a middle road that works. His experience as a comedian has stood him well."
The premise of the film was inspired by the actual experiences (slightly less melodramatic) scriptwriter Dan Pine and his wife had when they bought a house in San Francisco a few years ago.
"The nightmare," Schlesinger says, "will be familiar to anyone who aspires to have a house--especially one they can't really afford to keep. My house in London stretched me beyond measure.
"I was offered a documentary series. I was to be paid 50 pounds a week, not much even back then. But I didn't want to be tied up with a series. My father, who was a doctor and a very kind man, thought I was out of my mind. 'Look at all the wonderful people you'll meet,' he said, and I realized he was right. I also needed the money, such as it was. The series was 'The Valiant Years,' and I met Montgomery and all the others, although not Winston Churchill, who was too ill to participate. But I always thought of the fittings in my house as the Churchill curtains and cupboards."
Good scripts are never in long supply, and Schlesinger has in recent years turned some of his attention to directing opera. He directed a well-remarked production of "Tales of Hoffmann" in 1980. At the urging of conductor Herbert von Karajan, Schlesinger mounted a production of "Un Ballo in Maschera" at Salzburg. The conductor died only a week before the initial performance. Schlesinger has now been asked to return to Salzburg to revive the production and direct it for television.
With opera schedules requiring as much lead time as they do, Schlesinger already knows that in 1994 he will do his first production at the Metropolitan Opera, a 25th-anniversary performance by Placido Domingo in Verdi's "Otello," with James Levine conducting.
Schlesinger had made films in 9.5mm as a child, graduating to 16 when he returned to Oxford after army service. One of his films earned a rave review from critic Dilys Powell. But after Oxford he could find no regular work as a filmmaker, and so spent eight years as an actor. That period included a tour of New Zealand with the British Commonwealth Theatre Company, which had been assembled by the well-known mystery writer Ngaio Marsh. The tour, intended to circle the Commonwealth, died in New Zealand.
Eventually Schlesinger got back into documentaries, and one, about a Gypsy Italian opera company performing in east London, caught the eye of producer Joseph Yanni. It was for Yanni that Schlesinger did the remarkable string of features from "A Kind of Loving" through "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Yanks."
He remembers nostalgically and regretfully that "A Kind of Loving" had an 11-week shooting schedule but only cost 180,000 pounds and earned back the cost in Britain alone. Such good, small, cheap films that still get made in England, "My Beautiful Laundrette," for example, tend to get fine reviews and small audiences.
Schlesinger's hourlong television film, "An Englishman Abroad," about the English traitor Guy Burgess in exile in Moscow, became part of an evening of two one-act plays by Alan Bennett and Simon Callow. The other, about Sir Anthony Blunt, the curator of the Queen's Pictures, who proved to be himself a traitor, has now been scripted as a film, which Schlesinger may direct, and would love to.
Meanwhile, at the urging of his friends Vincent Price and Coral Brown, he will take a restorative cruise up the New England coast, having seen to the final prints and launching of his yuppie nightmare.