John Schlesinger was on a roll when he started filming Sunday Bloody Sunday in 1970. It was one of those rare times when a major film studio—United Artists, in this case—allowed him to make pretty much anything he wanted, even a sophisticated and very personal British movie about an openly gay Jewish doctor sharing his lover with a woman. Midnight Cowboy (1969)—a film, by the way, that almost everyone had tried to persuade him not to make—had been a huge critical and commercial success. Complete artistic freedom was his prize.
The film was written by Penelope Gilliatt. Her relations with Schlesinger were often fraught. But somehow, with all their creative and personal difficulties, the two of them ended up with a superb script that reflected a great deal of the director’s personal life.
I was staying with John, my uncle, at his house in London for part of the time he was making Sunday Bloody Sunday. As an extra in a bar mitzvah party, shot on location at the Café Royal, I saw him work at close range, laughing with his trusted film crew, blowing up on occasion at some instance of incompetence (an actor’s? his secretary’s? I can’t remember), framing scenes through his viewfinder, beaming with pleasure after a successful take. Creating tension on the set was not his usual style; he preferred to coax rather than bully—even though certain actors, male more often than female, bore the brunt of his frustration. In this case, Murray Head, young, a little callow, was in his sights.
John, to me, was both a figure of glamour, proudly introducing his nephews and nieces to movie stars, who politely feigned an interest, and an indulgent uncle who cared deeply about his family. There is, in fact, a great deal of John in Daniel Hirsh, the gay doctor in the film, played beautifully by Peter Finch. As though by osmosis, Finch even managed to sound a bit like him, the same deep voice speaking in perfectly articulated sentences.
Like Hirsh, John’s father, Bernard Schlesinger, was a medical doctor. After hearing John describe the film he wanted to make, on a country walk near my grandfather’s house in rural Berkshire, he exclaimed: “But John, do you really have to make him Jewish as well?” Yes, John insisted, he did.
The tension between Jewish family life, not traditionally friendly to homosexuality, and Hirsh’s gay private life is an essential part of the story—and of John’s own, although his sexual preferences were entirely accepted by his parents. Hirsh wants to feel at home in both worlds, and he shrugs with resigned good humor at the hints from various relatives that he should meet this or that nice Jewish woman and “settle down.” For Hirsh, attending his nephew’s bar mitzvah is as much a part of his life, as “normal,” as spending a weekend in and out of bed with his lover, the charming, egotistical artist Bob Elkin (Head). (The model for Elkin, by the way, was someone from John’s life whom I remember well. He was a theater actor and later had a successful career playing Nazis in soft-core porn movies in Rome.)
This sense of normality is the most radical aspect of the film. Gay characters in the movies had to that point almost always been depicted as deviants—criminals, tormented drunks, or limp-wristed, lisping creatures—allowing straight audiences to feel superior or comfortably amused. An upper-middle-class doctor and his boyfriend kissing on the lips, casually, affectionately, no different from any straight couple, was a much greater challenge.
I remember my uncle talking about the famous kiss scene between Peter Finch and Murray Head (both straight men, as it happens). He didn’t want it to be coy, and certainly not sleazy; the camera should be neither prurient nor primly looking away. The kiss was just a kiss between two loving people. And yet to film this natural act naturalistically was still so unusual that the camera operator could not bear to look at it, and asked John whether it was really necessary. Again, John had to insist that it was.
The depiction of a homosexual as an ordinary, professional adult, unburdened by morbid discretion or neurotic campiness, was a departure for John as well. Perhaps this had something to do with his own life; he had recently “settled down” himself, with an American photographer. There were gay characters, or homoerotic themes, in earlier films: the photographer (played by Roland Curram) in Darling (1965), for example, or the two main characters in Midnight Cowboy. But the former does conform to a certain stereotype: fun, a little swish, basically lonely. Midnight Cowboy can be seen as a celebration of male love, but there is no hint of sex between the aspiring hustler, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), and the Italian American vagrant, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). What sex there is in the film, gay or straight, is rather brutal. One gay boy (played by the young Bob Balaban) is almost assaulted by the hustler in the toilet of a cinema on Forty-second Street, and a gay man is mugged in his hotel room.
The change in John’s personal life coincided, of course, with changes around him. The Stonewall riots happened a year after Midnight Cowboy was made. In fact, that film’s bleak view of gay life in New York was criticized by activists for not being sufficiently progressive. But those critics did not necessarily warm to a genuinely radical film about a nice Jewish doctor, either. John was never an activist, but Sunday Bloody Sunday was certainly linked to the social changes of the late 1960s. His film, he often said, was his way of coming out, something that he always suspected did not do him any favors in Hollywood.
Although Sunday Bloody Sunday is his most personal film, many of his movies show his particular sensibility. Never drawn to heroes, John was fascinated instead by marginal characters whom some people might describe as failures. He was a dreamy child, profoundly unhappy during his boarding school days, and thus perhaps given to a vivid fantasy life. Most of his films revolve around dreamers of one kind or another. Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay) lies in his bed imagining himself as a war hero, or a revolutionary dictator, and dreams of escape to London with the adventurous young woman Liz (played by Julie Christie). Joe in Midnight Cowboy dreams of a life in New York City where all the women are panting for his sexual services.
But in the end, John’s cinematic fantasists come to accept life as it is. Instead of escaping to London with Liz, Billy opts to stay at home with his parents in his dreary Northern English town; Joe realizes that his friendship with Ratso is worth more than all his imaginary ladies in New York. None of these characters are judged harshly. Billy is not shown to be a failure, and Joe, an almost archetypical loser in the big city, ends up being a wiser man. John once told me that he saw these dreamers, temperamentally, as fellow artists.
The exception is Diana Scott, the flighty young woman played by Christie in Darling, who flits from man to man, always hoping that a better, more luxurious, more glamorous life is just around the corner. Darling is a bit of a morality tale. Diana is judged to be a failure. This was also John’s least favorite of his films.
None of the characters in Sunday Bloody Sunday are quite like Billy or Joe, or indeed Diana. But the movie does, once again, explore the choice between acceptance of what is and the quest for something better. Bob is a child of the sixties, detached, promiscuous, unwilling to commit to anyone. Alex, the woman in the triangle, played by Glenda Jackson, demands a commitment from him. She refuses to settle for a shared arrangement. Not a dreamer, she nonetheless wants something more perfect than what she has got. Sometimes, she says, nothing is better than something.
In the extraordinary final scene of the film, Daniel Hirsh lays down his philosophy, which is very close to John’s. In a sudden departure from the naturalistic style of the rest of the movie, Finch turns off the recorded Italian lesson he is working on, faces the camera, and explains why he is prepared to settle for the imperfect relationship with his restless, undependable young lover. Sometimes, he says, half a loaf is better than nothing.
John often told me that he didn’t count himself among the great cinematic innovators: Fellini, Mizoguchi, Buñuel. Nor was he political in the way that Godard was, or Oshima, or Lindsay Anderson. The directors he most admired were humanists: Truffaut, Ozu, Satyajit Ray. Like them, he viewed human behavior with a wry sense of humor rather than with outrage. But there was a dark streak running through his humanism, a fascination with human cruelty and violence.
This fascination is less evident in Sunday Bloody Sunday than in some other films of his. But there is nothing mawkish about the film, either. The style of his storytelling here, as in all his movies, owes a great deal to his background as a documentary filmmaker. What he sometimes called “the acid eye” reveals itself in details: the strung-out young hustler who recognizes Hirsh as a former pickup, the drunken woman humiliating her husband at a party, the half-innocent but cutting knowingness of a young girl, the constant news of economic crisis on the radio.
Some of these details reflect the time, place, and milieu of the story—upper-middle-class London in the early 1970s. And times have changed, including attitudes toward homosexuality. But the film has not dated, as so many more political movies have. For the emotions explored with such mastery by John Schlesinger are timeless. He shows us a glimpse of the human condition. Which is why we can be moved by this extraordinary film, over and over and over again.
Ian Buruma writes about a broad range of political and cultural subjects for major publications, most frequently the New York Review of Books. He teaches at Bard College. His books include Behind the Mask, God’s Dust, Playing the Game, The Wages of Guilt, The Missionary and the Libertine, Anglomania, Murder in Amsterdam, and Taming the Gods.
© 2012 Ian Buruma