In Memoriam: Joel Schumacher, 1939-2020

by Philip Berk June 23, 2020
Director Joel Schumacher

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Joel Schumacher, who died at the age of 80 after a year-long battle with cancer, was always eager to talk to the Hollywood Foreign Press. Irrepressible, Joel had as eclectic a career as any director of his era. 

A late bloomer, he made his first film in his early 40s and he continued to work despite numerous setbacks for the next 40 years.

He earned a Bachelor's degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology but soon realized his future lay in making films. He began his career as a costume designer on the Woody Allen classics Sleeper and Interiors and then earned a film degree at UCLA.

He sold his first script, Sparkle, to Warner Bros, his second, Car Wash, to Universal. It was so successful they signed him to direct a third, his script D.C. Cab, which did well enough. He was entrusted with directing Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and he was off to the races. Every studio now wanted him.

He made St. Elmo’s Fire for Columbia and The Lost Boys for Warner Bros, both enormously successful. All at once, he was the go-to-guy for directing Brat Pack actors, and reigning superstar Julia Roberts’ favored director. They made two films Flatliners and Dying Young together.

Michael Douglas who had produced Flatliners chose him to direct his controversial politically charged Falling Down, which was a critical success, but audiences weren’t buying. Michael, however, loved it. 

Schumacher then had a huge hit with The Client, which author John Grisham was so enamored of he insisted Joel direct A Time to Kill, which in turn made Matthew McConaughey a star and was an even bigger hit.

Warners was so delighted with his work they entrusted him with the Batman franchise. The first, Batman Foreverwas a huge success, but his follow up, Batman and Robin, almost scuttled both the franchise and George Clooney’s career. Critics latched onto Joel’s openly gay persona and accused him of creating a homoerotic relationship between the title characters. After that brouhaha, he needed a break and decided to concentrate on low budget personal films.

The first, 8MM, with Nicolas Cage, fared okay, but the follow-up Tigerland was exactly the movie he wanted to make. He had discovered newcomer Colin Farrell whom he rightly predicted would become a big star. The film was a critical and box office hit and he worked again with Colin on an experimental thriller, Phone Booth, which was shot entirely in a phone booth.

Jerry Bruckheimer was sufficiently impressed, he rewarded him with a prestige project, Veronica Guerin, a grueling political drama in which Cate Blanchett gave one of her finest (and Golden Globe-nominated) performances. Unfortunately, Disney saw no future in it, and it was unceremoniously dumped.  Luckily both Cate and he came out unscathed. So much so that he was offered the chance a lifetime, to direct the film of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s goldmine, Phantom of the Opera. The result was underwhelming in part because of the decision to cast non-singer Gerard Butler in the leading role. Even so, the film introduced Emmy Rossum to the screen and ended up earning three Golden Globe nominations. But sadly it spelled finis to Joel’s adventurous ride.

He made a couple of films after that but was unable to resurrect his career. His last credible work was directing two episodes of House of Cards. We’ll always remember Joel for his gregarious personality, his unwavering optimism, and his contagious enthusiasm.

And of course, his best movies. Rest in peace Joel.