It was audiences, not critics, that made hits out of such movies as St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), Falling Down (1993), Batman Forever (1995), and Phone Booth (2002). When Joel Schumacher died on Monday at the age of eighty, one of the most popular links being passed around on social media took readers to the candid and lengthy interview Andrew Goldman conducted with the director last August for Vulture. “What is it like to have a movie that critics don’t like perform extraordinarily well at the box office?” Goldman asked. “It is the greatest thing that can happen to you,” Schumacher said. “Because it reminds you who you made the movie for. And if you want to make movies just for the critics, they will fuck you anyway.”
Born in New York in 1939, Schumacher spent the ’40s roaming the city on his own or whiling away countless hours in the movie theater behind his apartment. His father had died when he was four, and his mother worked six days a week. David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) “had a phenomenal effect on me when I was seven,” Schumacher told Alex Simon in 1999. “I’m watching a lonely child wander through a graveyard, his father’s dead three years, suddenly that convict jumps out from behind the headstone. What a moment! Shattering. It was also the story of a poor boy who has great expectations, being invited into the world of the rich and the decadent, which is where I knew I wanted to be, and got to as quickly as I could.”
Schumacher told Goldman that he started drinking when he was nine, smoking when he was ten, and “fooling around sexually” with men when he was eleven. By the 1960s, he was shooting up—speed—several times a day, but having studied design and fashion, he managed to land jobs dressing windows for some of the city’s finest department stores, such as Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue. “We had mannequins committing suicide,” he told Sheila Johnston in the Independent in 1993, “but my favourite was, I got a piece of shatterproof glass the same size as the windows, backed it up to the real glass and then smashed it, so that from the street it looked like the whole store had been broken into. I had all the mannequins cowering in a corner. It was fun.”
Working and partying with the renowned fashion designer Halston and cutting way back on his drug use by 1970 led to Schumacher’s first costume design assignments. “The movies he was involved in before he started directing constitute a formidable filmography in and of themselves,” writes Glenn Kenny at the Decider. “His first gig as a costume designer was coming up with chic wear-for-despair in Frank Perry’s astringent 1972 adaptation of Joan Didion’s astringent novel Play It As It Lays, starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld as walking signboards for L.A. anomie.” He worked on Sleeper (1973) with Woody Allen, whom he always credited as the mentor responsible for giving him the courage to direct.
With that goal in mind, he turned to screenwriting, and whether by coincidence or design, his first screenplays were either rooted in or dabbled with black culture. Sparkle (1976), a musical set in Harlem in the late 1950s and early 60s, was inspired by the Supremes. The episodic comedy Car Wash (1976) starred Franklyn Ajaye, Bill Duke, George Carlin, the Pointer Sisters, and in a brief cameo, Richard Pryor. And in 1978, Schumacher adapted the Broadway musical The Wiz for Sidney Lumet. Pryor appeared again, but of course, the stars of this reimagining of The Wizard of Oz were Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
Schumacher’s first feature as a director was The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), a sort of early comedic take on the phenomenon Todd Haynes would address in Safe (1995). Lily Tomlin plays a suburban housewife whose exposure to just the right mixture of everyday household chemicals has her shrinking down to the size of a Barbie doll. The technical challenges proved to be formidable. “I’m not embarrassed about anything I’ve done,” Schumacher told Bernard Weinraub in the New York Times in 1993. “When I began directing, I only had two choices: leave or get better. Someone said to me, ‘I can’t believe you did D.C. Cab .’ Well, let me tell you something, I needed the job. I was not sitting home thinking, ‘Should I do D.C. Cab with Mr. T or Out of Africa with Meryl and Bob?’ Life isn’t like that.”
The breakthrough came in 1985. If Schumacher had one universally acclaimed talent, it was for casting. Well before John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club was released that same year, Schumacher cast Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Mare Winningham, Judd Nelson, and Ally Sheedy as a tightly knit group of friends wondering what to do with their lives after graduating from Georgetown University. In the Los Angeles Times,Mary McNamara argues that “it is impossible to overstate the impact St. Elmo’s Fire had on American culture. Not only did it showcase a Brat Pack-plus cast with a post-Georgetown sheen but it kicked ‘coming of age’ into the early twenties, where it has stayed ever since.”
Schumacher cast a little-known Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys (1987), unaware at the time that he was Donald’s son. For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw,The Lost Boys is “a rather brilliant black-comic satirical picture about the nightmare of being young, a vampirish spin on Peter Pan—it’s one of the great kids’ heroism movies of the 1980s, something to put alongside Spielberg’s E.T. or Richard Donner’s The Goonies.” The Lost Boys “may not have invented the idea of vampires as cool delinquents,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “but by pushing it forward with a kind of luxurious music-video flair, Schumacher was the first to visualize it—he got there before Buffy, before Twilight, pioneering the mystique of monsters-as-hipsters.” In Flatliners (1990), Sutherland and Julia Roberts—not yet the megastar that Pretty Woman would make of her later that same year—play medical students experimenting with the line between life and death.
In 2020, three and a half years into the Trump administration, it’s fascinating to read the cover story that Carol Clover wrote for Sight & Sound when Falling Down was released in 1993. “There is, I think, something like Average White Male consciousness in the making out there,” she wrote. Bill Clinton, the first boomer president, had just been inaugurated. Michael Douglas plays a divorced and unemployed defense engineer who, finding himself stuck in traffic one hot summer day, sets out across Los Angeles on foot to attend his daughter’s birthday party.
Shut out of his job and his home, D-Fens, as we come to know him (that’s what’s on his license plate), discovers that he’s also shut out of neighborhoods claimed by various groups—Latinos, blacks, rich whites—as their own turf. “How exactly does one go about carving an interest group out of the default category?” asks Clover. “The same way as other interest groups made themselves: by claiming oppression. Victim status is the coin of the realm as far as identity is concerned. The Average White Male claim is bankruptcy, both fiscal and spiritual.”
Falling Down remains the most controversial of Schumacher’s twenty-five features—because, while much more noise was made about Batman & Robin (1997), everyone who saw it and everyone who worked on it, including Schumacher, agrees that it’s a terrible misfire. Schumacher had taken over the franchise from Tim Burton with the relatively well-received Batman Forever (1995), which “may not have proven a bellwether of big-screen superhero entertainment,” writes Jason Bailey in the New York Times. “But it may be the most succinct encapsulation of the Schumacher style: a big and gaudy, colorful and stylish, cheerfully unapologetic crowd-pleaser.”
Commenting dryly on Schumacher’s “bold sartorial choices” in his films, the NYT’s Dave Itzkoff notes that some of them, “like the punk-rock outfits of his young vampires in The Lost Boys, advanced fashion trends; others, like the articulated nipples on the Batsuit in Batman & Robin, did not.” Talking to Schumacher for Vice in 2017, Noel Ransome just had to ask about those nipples. “Such a sophisticated world we live in where two pieces of rubber the size of erasers on old pencils, those little nubs, can be an issue,” sighed Schumacher. “It’s going to be on my tombstone, I know it.”
Schumacher fared better in the 1990s with his two adaptations of John Grisham novels, The Client (1994) and A Time to Kill (1996). Matthew McConaughey, who starred in the latter, sent a statement to Variety when he heard that Schumacher had passed away: “I don’t see how my career could have gone to the wonderful places it has if it wasn’t for Joel Schumacher believing in me back then.”
Other actors who have worked with Schumacher have been similarly grateful. Colin Farrell starred in Tigerland (2000) and Phone Booth, a film Peter Bradshaw calls an “outrageous, uproarious Hitchcockian micro-thriller” set almost entirely “in a space the size of an upended coffin.” Talking to Leslie Felperin in the Independent in 2003, Farrell said that he’d “learned a lot off Joel about integrity and being a decent person and knowing the irrelevance of all the trimmings. What a life! He’s been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, ripped it apart, restitched it. He’s looked after me from day one and I know, if I ever get in a jam, who I’ll get at the end of a phone.”
At RogerEbert.com, Peter Sobczynski writes that Schumacher’s “last stab at a big-scale blockbuster was the long-awaited screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004), but his heart simply did not seem to be in it—other than a cheerfully flamboyant supporting turn from Minnie Driver in full diva form, the film was a resounding botch that might have become the Cats of its day if it hadn’t been so insanely boring.” But for Driver, “Joel Schumacher was the funniest, chicest, most hilarious director I ever worked with. Once,” she’s tweeted, “an actress was complaining about me within earshot; how I was dreadfully over the top (I was). Joel barely looked up from his NYT and said, ‘Oh, honey, no one ever paid to see under the top.’”
Critic and author Mark Harris has chimed in on Twitter as well. For years, critics “sneered at Joel Schumacher, and part of it was homophobia,” he writes. “Who was this costume designer, this window dresser, to think he could direct movies? I always admired him for not giving a damn about that, trusting his eye, and having fun.” For one last word from Schumacher, we turn once again to Andrew Goldman’s magnificent interview: “What I say to film schools is making movies is not all blow jobs and sunglasses. Every shot is grunt work. And happily, there’s nothing I would have rather done.”
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