Joel Schumacher, an American filmmaker best known for his work on major studio films, passed away at age 80 on June 22, 2020.
Schumacher was known for his intensely stylized and polished films, and for being one of the few highly successful American directors to be openly gay for his entire career. His passing in the middle of LGBTQ Pride Month is no doubt bitterly ironic, yet it allows for this man’s legacy as a gay icon in the film industry to be properly recognized. Schumacher came into the industry during a time of immense homophobia, and thus did not like to attach himself to a label. He often refused to participate in interviews wherein his sexuality would be the key subject. And yet, his aesthetic and narrative choices can be read through that lens, possessing some palpable subtextual elements.
Schumacher struggled for years to establish a career. Despite his success as a fashion designer having graduated from the Parsons School, he struggled to remain afloat due to his addiction to alcohol, hard drugs and the significant debt he had incurred. Schumacher, however, was able to gain some writing credits on films such as “The Wiz,” Sidney Lumet’s ‘70s funk reboot of “The Wizard of Oz” starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and “Car Wash,” a comedy ensemble vehicle with notable names such as the late comedy greats George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
Schumacher still struggled to gain any sort of recognition or mainstream relevance, but in the mid-to-late ‘80s, his luck began to change. After directing the popular coming-of-age comedy “St. Elmo’s Fire”—part of the ‘Brat Pack’ boom of ‘80s teen dramedies spearheaded by the late John Hughes—Schumacher landed the directing job on perhaps his most beloved film: “The Lost Boys.”
“The Lost Boys” is a who’s who of ‘80s teen and adolescent heartthrobs: Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, and the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman). This no doubt contributed to its success and current place as a nostalgic cult classic/midnight movie. Alex Winter, of “Bill and Ted” fame, also appears in a small role.
“Lost Boys” is glossy and beautifully shot, and is permeated with homoerotic subtext. Just look to the early sequence starring Tina Turner’s saxophonist, Tim Cappello, on the beach of Santa Cruz (which became one of the earliest viral memes— the “Sexy Sax Man”). The stunning and almost dreamlike cinematography, as though the film becomes a 90-minute music video, is no doubt a part of its appeal, making its overtly sensual nature a lot more marketable. Schumacher’s greatest talent may have been sneaking in quite provocative content into his work due to his films’ surface-level visual beauty.
“Lost Boys” arguably laid the groundwork for the more erotic and seductive vampire films which have come in the years since, repainting the subgenre’s villainous monsters as dreamboat outcasts and punk rockers. “Interview with the Vampire,” “True Blood,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and even “Twilight” owe something to the success of “The Lost Boys.” Perhaps a notable element of the film is the idea of the transfer of tainted blood (vampiric blood) in order to live forever—at a price. Coming in the midst of the AIDS crisis, it seems almost intentionally suggestive (an inversion of the AIDS virus: instead of killing someone, the vampiric exchange renders them undead) and is perhaps subtly informed by the horrors of the real world. The fact that the vampire hive of the film is kept as a local secret by authorities could also be a commentary on the Reagan administration’s denial of an AIDS crisis—while providing Roy Cohn access to highly experimental treatments for HIV in private.
However, Schumacher has not been exclusively shackled to genre films, nor is the LGBTQ reading of his work applicable to all of his films. “Falling Down” is perhaps his best and most relevant work, with the bottled-up, impotent and directionless rage of the white middle-class protagonist portrayed comically and sympathetically, yet with an unflinchingly critical gaze. Michael Douglas’s realization in the finale—“I’m the bad guy?”—is genuinely heartbreaking, possibly because viewers have realized this long before he does. And yet the film does not abandon Schumacher’s stylish direction.
Like his contemporary and stylistic twin Tony Scott accomplished in “True Romance,” Schumacher is able to take his more commercial aesthetic inclinations and make them work for a darker, more violent narrative. The glossy cinematography only exacerbates the tense atmosphere: every bead of sweat dripping from Douglas’s brow creates a visceral sense of the oppressive LA heat wave in which the narrative occurs. Coming only a year after the LA Riots, the film seems to comment upon the civil unrest found bubbling under the surface of modern society— even among the seemingly privileged class of white-collar Caucasian males. It’s this interesting social commentary that keeps “Falling Down” so relevant.
Most remember “Falling Down” for its comic sequences—such as when Douglas holds up a fast food restaurant (an obvious parody of McDonalds) at gunpoint for refusing to serve him breakfast after 11:30AM—but Schumacher is able to tap into something really tragic, angry and pathetic about American modernity and masculine rage, while allowing his aesthetic to both intensify these feelings yet make them more palatable to a mainstream viewership.
Schumacher’s ability to make the bizarre, counterculture and perhaps even shocking into commercial fare and box office success was perhaps why Warner Bros. turned to him as the replacement for Tim Burton in their third “Batman” film.
After Burton’s decidedly twisted, grim and offbeat attempt at a sequel in “Batman Returns” led to suburban parental outrage and cancelled Happy Meal tie-in promotions, Warner Bros. sought out a new vision to take the series in a more colorful and family-friendly direction. Schumacher was the man for the job.
Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” was a big hit upon release, no doubt partially due to the star power of Jim Carrey at the time. It is now revered as something of a camp classic by cult cinema fans. “Batman” fans in general, however, were a little disappointed with the bright and comical tone the film took. Of particular note was giving the Batsuit anatomically correct features like nipples and buttocks, which were seen as rather bizarre touches.
Schumacher considered the modern interpretation of superhero comics as American culture’s mythology, and so insisted the Batsuits evoke Greek and Roman statues, or the work of Renaissance figures like Michelangelo. Schumacher’s stylistic tastes were no doubt innovative and unique, but perhaps misguided in this case.
The emphasis on the sensuality of the Batman character was perceived as Schumacher’s sexuality playing a role in the film’s subtext. Schumacher seemed to have recognized the homoerotic undertones inherent to superheroes (particularly Batman and Robin), and just ran with it. Schumacher, however, stated definitively that these subtexts in “Batman” long predate his films; in response to those who said his films made the franchise ‘gayer,’ he pointed out astutely: “If I wasn’t gay, they would never say those things.”
Schumacher’s more campy take didn’t exactly go over any better with the follow-up sequel “Batman & Robin.” Despite the massive star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone and then-“ER” star George Clooney—albeit all very miscast—the film was a critical disaster.
Schumacher was given more free reign to take his goofy, cartoonish style for “Batman” even further—similar to Burton being given excessive creative control over “Batman Returns”—and corporate notes for how to shoehorn in various costumes for each character to sell more action figures; the corporate speak for this being to make the film “toyetic.”
“Batman & Robin” was despised by comic book fans and mainstream audiences alike, being far too absurd and corny to satisfy anyone looking for a straightforward action film. It is often considered one of the worst films ever made—an unfair criticism. Despite its misguided creative direction, the film is still competent and more entertainingly bad than anything. It is by no means one of the worst films ever made—just one of the worst “Batman” films.
Schumacher himself apologized for the film in a documentary released in 2005 for the DVD special edition of “Batman & Robin,” and considered this film one of his greatest missteps. It’s also one that has plagued his reputation as a filmmaker both in the comic book community and the general public. One cannot mention Joel Schumacher without most people’s first thought being “Batman & Robin.” This intense hatred of a bad superhero film ultimately crippled Schumacher’s reputation for an entire generation of film buffs.
Schumacher continued to get work on major budgeted pictures. However, his 2004 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster Broadway musical “The Phantom of the Opera” received mixed reviews upon release that have since been reevaluated. Schumacher’s glossy, camp style beautifully captures the extravagant and indulgent stage musical; he faithfully recreates much of the stage production’s iconic sequences while using the medium of film to its full advantage with sweeping pan shots, close-ups to emphasize action and far more elaborate sets than a stage musical could provide.
His final work was directing two episodes of Netflix’s acclaimed drama “House of Cards.” Schumacher passed away from cancer on June 22, but his legacy did not go unnoticed. Jim Carrey, who worked with Schumacher on “Batman Forever” and “The Number 23” praised Schumacher as a visionary and a good friend.
Matthew McConaughey credited Schumacher for helping start his career, as after his memorable but minor part in “Dazed and Confused,” it was Schumacher’s legal thriller “A Time to Kill” that launched McConaughey into stardom. Schumacher fought for the then-unknown McConaughey to get a starring role alongside Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson, and set up a secret screen test so that McConaughey wouldn’t have to worry about industry insiders thinking he wasted a studio’s time screen testing but not landing a part. McConaughey, obviously, did land the part.
Schumacher wasn’t shy about saying what he thought about actors he had worked with, and yet possessed an immense respect for his actors, never spreading gossip on-set for its own sake or a personal grudge. He called Tommy Lee Jones an “asshole” and Val Kilmer “psychotic” while working on “Batman Forever” but also said they were immensely talented in the roles he cast them in.
Schumacher adored his casts and never let them take blame for a film’s particular failings, and always made sure to defend them—as was the case with George Clooney, who partially blamed himself for the failure of “Batman & Robin.” As director, Schumacher felt if any part of a film didn’t work, it fell to him. He kept in touch with Jason Patric of “Lost Boys,” despite Patric leaving show business. Schumacher expressed admiration for Patric, who came from celebrity lineage, for abandoning fame and fortune when it was presented to him, as Patric felt it wasn’t worth the drama.
Schumacher lost many friends to the AIDS crisis, and this period led to a crisis for him. Schumacher was sure he must have caught it, and had multiple tests done, even having a rough outline for how he’d want to spend the last months of his life once he was diagnosed. Schumacher’s experiences during this time perhaps informed the slightly darker aspects of his work during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, which dealt with death, destruction, and a helpless sort of rage in “Falling Down” as well as sensuality and immortality in “The Lost Boys.”
Schumacher never considered himself much of a big talent, and felt critics were annoyed at his success with audiences despite critical backlash. Schumacher once said of himself when first starting out as a director, “It’s very hard to realize you have a calling and realize you’re not gifted. I wanted to be a director all my life, and when I finally got the chance, I was so miserably untalented.”
Schumacher, however, felt invigorated to know audiences loved his work even when the critics despised it: “It is the greatest thing that can happen to you. Because it reminds you who you made the movie for. And if you want to make movies just for the critics, they will (obscenity) you anyway.”
Schumacher, however, was wrong about one thing: he was talented. Schumacher had a keen visual eye, which made the color palettes of his films and the vibrant, kinetic energy of his sequences pop. His style intensified his films as primarily aesthetic and emotional experiences, paying no mind to realism or calculating logic. Schumacher’s films weren’t cold or cerebral, though they could’ve become just that in the hands of another filmmaker. His films exuded this passion and life and energy that was so appealing… though often lost on critics of his time.
Schumacher’s ability to make the mundane or the macabre into something almost beautiful, or fun, or simply stylish and exciting, is a talent in its own right. And he will be sorely missed for that.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.