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Straight Mom. Gay Dad. A Forthright Director.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is 73 now, decades removed from his famous films like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “Marathon Man,” yet Oscar-winning British director John Schlesinger admits he is still unnerved at the prospect of subjecting his latest movie, “The Next Best Thing,” to preview test audiences for their post-production critique.

With four decades of filmmaking behind him, one of the sea changes in Hollywood that most alarms Schlesinger is the crucial role that marketing research now plays in the process.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 07, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 7, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Schlesinger award--Because of a copy editing error in a July 31 story on John Schlesinger, the year the director received an Outfest career achievement award was mistakenly reported. Schlesinger received the first Outfest career achievement award at the 1997 Outfest.

“I never previewed any film until ‘Marathon Man’ [in 1976],” Schlesinger recalled. “So, all my period of work that I look back on as my best--'Darling,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday,’ ‘Day of the Locust'--all of which had kind of controversial elements--I never previewed a film. [The old] United Artists never insisted on that.”

How preview audiences will respond to his latest film is anyone’s guess at this point. The film tells the story of Abbie (Madonna) and Robert (Rupert Everett), best of friends who decide to form a family after too many cocktails leads to an unexpected pregnancy. Complicating matters is that Everett’s character is gay.

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“If it’s controversial, so be it,” Schlesinger said with a shrug.

Some preview audiences, the director grouses, just “love being picked in order that they can turn into critics.”

“I went once to a preview of mine, which wasn’t good, and afterwards in a coffee shop--this was in New York--I saw some of the focus previewers come in and sit at the next table, not knowing who I was, boasting of the fact they could control the future of the movie and saying the way you can get onto the panel is this and blah, blah, blah,” he recalled. “So, I don’t think they can be trusted because one audience says one thing and the next audience says something else.”

Which brings him to “The Next Best Thing.”

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“I don’t know what is going to happen during the editing period and the previewing period,” he said. “I hate all that.”

“I think it’s scary for all of us,” echoed Madonna, who is working with the director for the first time. “I can’t imagine making a record and before I finish playing it, let [test audiences] dictate what I should do. It’s a horrifying thought that a movie has to pander to an audience and has to find an audience.”

Based on a Tom Ropelewski screenplay, the $20-million to $25-million film--produced for Paramount Pictures by Lakeshore Entertainment--completed principal photography last month in Los Angeles.

Schlesinger, a stocky, balding man with neatly trimmed white whiskers, concedes that there were rigorous debates early in the production over how to portray the characters.

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“There were many problems early on getting this off the ground,” the director recalled. “Disagreements about the script. It wasn’t that the producers resisted, but they wanted it told sort of in a different way.”

There was a question, for example, of how much of the gay character’s lifestyle should be shown.

“Nobody said, ‘We don’t want Rupert Everett’s character to be gay,’ ” Schlesinger said. “He was always gay. Perhaps it was a question of how much to show of that. I think it’s quite discreet, but also quite clear. . . . You know what his lifestyle is--the fact that he goes out on a date when he is the father.”

The plot thickens when Abbie meets a man (Benjamin Bratt) who bowls her off her feet.

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“It deals with the consequences of that and Rupert being somewhat left out in the cold until they threaten to take the child away and the child has become so much a part of his life,” Schlesinger explained. “He gives up everything for him.”

The son (played by newcomer Malcolm Stumpf) learns about his father’s sexual orientation from school friends.

“During a big New Year’s party, which [the parents] host in the garden, a bunch of children come in and one of the oldest girls says, ‘Well, who sleeps in here?’ ” Schlesinger explained. “And, Sam, the son, says, ‘My dad does.’ ‘Why doesn’t he sleep with your mother?’ [he is asked]. And, one of the children says, ‘Because he’s a faggot.’

“Sam doesn’t know what the word means and the other boy doesn’t know what it means either,” the director continued. “And one of the other children says, ‘It’s what my father says to people in traffic who block his way.’ So, there is some humor of that kind in the movie, which is very nice.”

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For the final weeks of filming, the cast and crew were ensconced in a cramped Mediterranean-style house adorned outside with bougainvillea in Silver Lake.

Directors his age often have difficulty finding studio projects in today’s youth-obsessed Hollywood, but Schlesinger was selected by Madonna because she felt he could bring sensitivity to the story.

“I just think he was suited to the subject matter,” she said. “I thought he could breathe some humanity into the characters and not stereotype them.”

Known as an actor’s director, Schlesinger once made a star out of a frightened young actress named Julie Christie in the 1965 film “Darling.” Christie went on to win an Oscar for playing the disillusioned model who joins the international jet set, breaking her boredom with one love affair after another, until she winds up with an Italian noble and an empty life.

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“John doesn’t need to make a star of me,” Madonna said, “but I adore what Julie did with him. That is absolutely part of the attraction. I worship Julie Christie and ‘Darling’ is one of my favorite movies of all time.”

Although Madonna won plaudits for her roles in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “A League of Their Own” and even received a Golden Globe Award for her role as Eva Peron in “Evita,” the singing star is still seeking acceptance as a film actress.

“She wants to establish herself as a performer,” Schlesinger said. How does a director do that? “I think you have to have a tight rein on actors,” he added, “but I get good performances by creating space.”

For all her pop diva brashness, Madonna the actress privately admits that she is a little intimidated working with Schlesinger and Everett.

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“When John wants to let loose his temper, he can,” she said. “But I think it’s kind of good; it snaps everybody back into place. He can be difficult, yes. He can scream and yell, but the great thing about John is that he never stays mad for long. You can tease him out of it in five minutes. Rupert has known him longer and, because he is British, he can handle John’s moods. . . . I just turn into Sally Field around them.”

While openly gay, Schlesinger has never been one to flaunt his lifestyle. Indeed, for years, his long relationship with an American photographer was little known outside show business.

“I’ve never felt I couldn’t live my life as I wanted to,” he said. “That doesn’t mean to say that one has to shout everything from the housetops. There were many years when I would never discuss it publicly, nor was I called upon to do so. . . . People knew--God knows, I lived with the same person 32 years on and off.”

But all that changed in January 1991 when Schlesinger joined a group of 18 film and theater professionals who identified themselves as homosexuals in signing a letter published in the Guardian. The letter supported a decision by prominent gay actor Ian McKellen to accept a British knighthood. The award had divided Britain’s gay community with supporters feeling it was a significant landmark in the history of the gay movement in Britain, while others were dismayed that McKellen would accept it from a Tory government that many gays believed had ostracized them.

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While in Italy promoting a film, reporters asked Schlesinger about the letter.

“I found myself for the first time, talking to foreign press about it,” he recalled.

Even now, he doesn’t know if he ever lost a directing assignment because of his public stance. “There was a time when I wondered whether people were going to turn around and say, ‘Well, what do you know about directing a heterosexual love scene?’ ”

His work and his forthrightness have been met with a new sense of gratitude by many in the gay community; at last year’s Outfest, Los Angeles’ gay and lesbian film festival, a clip retrospective of Schlesinger films was shown and the director walked onstage at the Orpheum Theater to accept a career achievement award.

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In recent years, Schlesinger has divided his talents between directing movies (“Pacific Heights,” “Cold Comfort Farm”), television (“Sweeney Todd”), plays and even operas (“The Tales of Hoffman” starring Placido Domingo).

Yet, Hollywood draws him back again and again, even though the ground beneath him is moving.

“Films are much more expensive than they used to be, and they are expensive to distribute,” he said. “Certainly, from a studio point of view, they are more reluctant to take risks.

“When I think of the freedom that I had to make ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday,’ ” he said with a sigh. “No interference at all.”

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