After John Schlesinger made “Midnight Cowboy,” which won the Oscar in 1969 for best picture and director, he had carte blanche to make any film he wanted.
His choice was “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971), one of the most quietly forceful and intelligent movies ever made about the desolating messiness of adult relationships.
Peter Finch’s Daniel is a London physician, Glenda Jackson’s Alex, divorced, is an employment counselor, and Bob, a modernist sculptor played by Murray Head, is the wayward young man with whom they are both romantically involved.
It’s a movie about the limits of love and compromise: Alex wants Bob all to herself, while Daniel is content with “half a loaf.” Bob wants everything and nothing.
Schlesinger, who, like Finch’s character, was both homosexual and Jewish, was criticized in some gay-lib precincts for the seediness of the homosexual content in “Midnight Cowboy,” specifically the scene in which Jon Voight’s hustler is serviced in a dark movie theater by the student played by Bob Balaban, and another in which Voight bashes a middle-aged suitor in a sexual encounter gone wrong.
Tonally, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion) is anything but seedy. It was perhaps the first Hollywood film to feature homosexuality without wallowing in guilt, remorse or fear.
The moment when Daniel and Bob casually move into a brief, passionate kiss is filmed with breathtaking matter-of-factness (which didn’t prevent the scene from causing a stir at the time anyway).
Even though the movie is often referred to as a breakthrough in gay cinema, that designation is too limiting. It is unapologetically a film about the riven lives of three people who just happen to be who they are.
Schlesinger certainly had his baroque side, as in parts of “Midnight Cowboy” and, much more so, in his shrill adaptation of “Day of the Locust.” But he began his directing career, after failing as an actor, in documentaries. His best work is intensely observant and naturalistic and grounded in the bedrock of strong performance.
Along with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” I’ve always thought his best film was the 1983 BBC television drama “An Englishman Abroad,” written by Alan Bennett and starring Alan Bates as the spy Guy Burgess. Few scenes in movies are more comically sad than the one where Burgess, having invited his actress friend Coral Browne (playing herself) to his Moscow flat, asks her to measure him for a Savile Row suit.
Schlesinger always had the good sense to reach out to the best screenwriters when he had an idea for a movie. Besides being a novelist and short story writer, Penelope Gilliatt, who wrote “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” had been the film critic in England for The Observer before alternating with Pauline Kael in six-month shifts at The New Yorker.
Schlesinger and Gilliatt’s often contentious relationship resulted in a script so true to its characters that it doesn’t seem written at all. The one exception is the famous closing “half a loaf” monologue, spoken by Daniel directly into the camera. It’s a startling break from the movie’s naturalism and yet, because we are drawn in so intimately, it seems shatteringly real.
It’s Finch’s finest moment as an actor (and literally a far cry from his most famous role as the “mad prophet of the airwaves” in “Network.”) As for Jackson, she was never better, more variegated, not even as Queen Elizabeth I in the 1971 BBC television mini-series.
Gilliatt once wrote that Jackson “was the only Ophelia I had ever seen who was capable of playing Hamlet.” Why on earth she gave up acting in 1992 to enter the House of Commons is beyond me. Just think of all the great performances we’ve been missing on the floor of Parliament.
To contact the writer of this column: Peter Rainer at Fi1L2E@aol.com
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.