Saturday July 26, 2003
A film like Midnight Cowboy would never have been made today
I love cinema. It is my passion. How exciting my life has been, how fortunate I was to find this life. Such work both here in America and in my beloved England, both places which I call home.
I made movies during the true golden age for both British and American cinema. How could we have known at the time it would be so brief? A shining moment. I was privileged to make films at a time when cinema dared to deal with people and their relationships to each other and society. Midnight Cowboy would not likely be made today, when so much rides on blockbuster special effects. The cinema I was part of sought out truth, however fleeting that truth may have been. We took risks, we asked questions, we probed, we explored. I have had the best of all possible worlds.
When I look back, I am so terribly grateful that I had the opportunity to make statements about the human condition. Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving these were films without any special effects or daredevil stunts, about people. Midnight Cowboy was the story of two human beings finding each other among the millions of souls wandering through the streets of New York, intersecting at a place where their dreams, their hopes collided. That's it. Just two people and their hopes and their dreams.
None of the studios wanted to make Midnight Cowboy and but for the brave and wise David Picker at United Artists, I would never have been given the chance to tell the story of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo.
The success we had with Midnight Cowboy allowed me to take another step, to make a very personal statement with Sunday Bloody Sunday. That was my story. In those days it was not an easy thing to be open and undisguised as a gay man on screen. Certainly, the movies up till that time had not presented much in the way of positive images of gay men or women on the screen, but I was determined that Sunday Bloody Sunday would offer dignity to its gay character. I was determined that I would present the character, played by Peter Finch, with as much integrity and sympathy as I presented the character played by Glenda Jackson. They were the same. Love is the same. That is my point. I am so terribly grateful that I had the opportunity to make it.
It has all changed now, the whole system of film-making, but for a few glorious years directors were blessed in being allowed to express themselves in films of quiet dignity and searing insight.
It had been my hope to spend my final years working with young film-makers, men and women looking to take risks, to provoke, to challenge. I had hoped to lecture, to offer time to the Sundance Institute, to give back to an industry and art which had given me so much. I wanted especially to return to England, to my beloved home. I wanted to know young British film-makers, to hear what they were thinking, to see what they were creating. My roots will always be in England. My values are English, my sense of the world is English. As much as I love the energy and vitality of America, England will always be first in my heart.
My hope is to leave a little bit of a legacy. My hope is that young film-makers might find some inspiration in what I have done. It is so much more difficult now for them than it was for me. Bravo to all those who fight for their convictions, who dare to make films not assembled by studio committee or determined by committee values. So many fine young film-makers labour today without much of a budget or a studio to back them. I hope that my career may inspire and encourage them to keep at their art, to never settle for easy answers or simple solutions.
I have been an actor, a magician, a television documentarian, a stage director at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. I have been a director of opera all over the world but it was film that always beckoned.
The past year-and-a-half has been difficult, offering challenges unlike any I have faced before but I am surrounded by love and that has sustained me. I am indeed fortunate to have been a part of a craft that has allowed me to survive past any physical limitation, leaving a body of work of which I am tremendously proud.
This is an extract of the acceptance speech by John Schlesinger for his Bafta lifetime achievement award last year. The film-maker died yesterday.
Created: January 6, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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