Joel Schumacher, director of St. Elmo’s Fire and Batman Forever, dies of cancer at 80
Joel Schumacher, the eclectic and brazen filmmaker who dressed New York department store windows before shepherding the Brat Pack to the big screen in St. Elmo’s Fire and steering the Batman franchise into its most baroque territory in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, has died. He was 80.
A representative for Schumacher said the filmmaker died Monday in New York after a yearlong battle with cancer.
A native New Yorker, Schumacher was first a sensation in the fashion world after attending Parsons School of Design and decorating Henri Bendel’s windows. His entry to film came first as a costume designer. Schumacher dressed a pair of Woody Allen movies in the 1970s: Interiors and Sleeper.
As a director, he established himself as a filmmaker of great flare, if not often good reviews, in a string of mainstream films in the ‘80s and ’90s. To the frequent frustration of critics but the delight of audiences, Schumacher favored entertainment over tastefulness — including those infamous sensual Batman and Robin suits with visible nipples — and he did so proudly.
“A movie that’s in a movie theater that runs at 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 and there’s no one in the audience when that movie runs — what’s the point?” Schumacher once told Charlie Rose.
The success of his first hit, St. Elmo’s Fire, with Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy not only helped make a name for the Brat Pack but made Schumacher in-demand in Hollywood. He followed it up with 1987’s The Lost Boys, with Jason Patric, Corey Haim, Kiefer Sutherland and Corey Feldman. A vampire horror comedy, it gave a darker, contemporary view of the perpetual adolescence of Peter Pan.
Schumacher then made Flatliners, about morbidly obsessed medical students, and a pair of John Grisham adaptations in The Client and A Time to Kill. Falling Down, with Michael Douglas as a Los Angeles man whose anger from minute every-day interactions steadily builds in violence, was maybe his most critically acclaimed film, though its depictions of minorities — particularly a Korean grocer — were from the start hotly debated.
On its 25th anniversary, April Wolfe of LA Weekly wrote that it “remains one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, one both adored and reviled by the extreme right.”
The slickness of those productions helped Schumacher inherit the DC universe from Tim Burton. In Schumacher’s hands, Batman received a garish overhaul that resulted in two of the franchise’s most cartoonish movies in 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin. The first was a box-office smash but the second fizzled and remains most often remembered for its infamous suits.
“It was like I had murdered a baby,” Schumacher said of the response to Batman & Robin. Yet it, too, has developed a small cult following for those who prefer the antithesis of Christopher Nolan’s more grim Batman movies.
Schumacher was raised in Queens by his mother after his father died when he was four-years-old. As a youngster, he quickly became enmeshed in the city’s nightlife.
“The street was my education,” Schumacher told Vulture earlier this year. “You could ride your bike over the 59th Street Bridge then. So I rode my bike everywhere. I was in Manhattan all the time and all over Queens. If you’re a kid on a bike, anything can happen, and predators come out of the woodwork, my God. I looked very innocent, but I wasn’t.”
Schumacher would often say he was fortunate to have survived the ‘60s at all. He made habits of liquid Methadrine, acid and sex. Out long before many in Hollywood, Schumacher pegged his lovers in “the double-digit thousands.” He was a warm and gossipy raconteur though Schumacher said he “never kissed and told about anybody who gives me the favor of sharing a bed with me.”
“I don’t not like talking about it, I just don’t believe it matters,” Schumacher said of his sexuality in a 2000 interview with the Guardian. “I’ve lived my life very openly. I started drinking at nine. I started doing drugs in my early teens. I started smoking at 10 and I started sex at 11. So I’m not hiding anything. But I am totally and completely against labels.”
After Batman and Robin, Schumacher turned to lower-budget thrillers: 8mm, with Nicholas Cage; Flawless, with Robert De Niro; Phone Booth, with Colin Farrell. Schumacher, behind the beginnings of so many careers, gave Farrell his first led role in 2000’s Tigerland. In 2004, he took on Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera, a late, gaudy flourish that combined Schumacher with perhaps his Broadway equivalent in the spectacle-making Weber. Most recently, he directed two episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards in 2013.
In his last interview, with New York magazine, Schumacher reflected on a show at London’s National Gallery of the now highly regarded works of James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. “They did a brilliant thing. Right next to them on the wall, framed right next to the paintings, were all their horrible reviews,” said Schumacher. “Who remembers these reviews?”
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