If ever there was a director who had a strange career, surely Joel Schumacher would be among the first in line to claim that distinction. Over the thirty plus years he spent behind the camera, he was responsible for blockbusters (Batman Forever), bombs (Batman & Robin), cult films (St. Elmo’s Fire), and the occasional art-house item (Tigerland).
Where to even begin? Schumacher’s first two films as a film director were The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin in 1981, and DC Cab with – among others – Mr. T in 1983. It’s fair to say that neither were particularly distinguished – although DC Cab has its fans and I may or may not be among them. Let’s just say I will never tell. Still, after those twin disasters, Schumacher continued to get opportunities. And then he got better. While critics may have been cool to his third film, St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), it has become an ’80s touchstone for those of us who lived through the “greed is good” era. Even better was 1987’s vampire/horror/comedy The Lost Boys, which made a star of Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland. Once again, critics shook their collective heads, but like St. Elmo’s Fire, the movie has long outlived their barbs.
Never one to stay in any one genre, Schumacher then made the sweet (and criminally undervalued) romantic comedy, Cousins with Ted Danson and a radiant Isabella Rossellini in 1989. Schumacher then re-teamed with Kiefer Sutherland (along with a very young Julia Roberts) for the horror hit, Flatliners in 1990. Schumacher’s solid career roll was briefly stymied the next year by Dying Young which also starred Roberts, but didn’t find an audience, or a good review.
Perhaps Schumacher’s most controversial – and I think most misunderstood – film followed next, with 1993’s Falling Down. Depending on your viewpoint (and maybe even your politics), the Michael Douglas film about white male rage is either prescient (this is where I land) or, terribly irresponsible (a lot of liberals – which I am one of – end up here). I think where the confusion lives is often moviegoers struggle when something is presented without being condoned or vilified. Schumacher doesn’t defend Douglas’s gun-toting, right-winger (a reductive view that has taken hold) who goes on a one-day rampage after having a psychological breakdown while stuck in L.A. traffic (I’m sure he’s not the first), but neither does he condemn him. I think the film is worth a second viewing for those who dismissed it at the time. If you want to see the ugly roots of racism and white male fragility that is so much a part of our society right now, they can be found in Falling Down.
Schumacher followed up Falling Down with three huge hits: John Grisham’s The Client (which scored Susan Sarandon a best actress Oscar nom), Batman Forever with Val Kilmer (many people forget that his Batman actually did better at the box office than Tim Burton’s Batman Returns), and then with another Grisham adaptation, A Time To Kill, which made a star of Matthew McConaughey. That three-film run from 1994 to 1996 made Schumacher one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. Then Batman & Robin happened. After Val Kilmer bailed on reprising the character, Schumacher cast George Clooney in the lead. However, the film opened in 1997 to horrendous reviews and the middling box office returns killed the franchise in its tracks. The script was a mess, Clooney didn’t connect with his role (probably because the script was a mess), and there was that little matter of putting nipples on the bat suit (Schumacher owns that one alone).
After the brutal response to Batman & Robin, Schumacher went dark as night with 1999’s 8MM starring Nicolas Cage. I found his deep dive into the world of snuff films to be riveting and powerful… I think I was the only one. That same year, he made Flawless with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert DeNiro, which earned some nice notices for Hoffman, if not the film as a whole.
Neither film did well at the turnstiles though, and for his follow up, Schumacher made the super low-budget Vietnam era drama Tigerland, which introduced American audiences to Colin Farrell. Farrell is electric as Pvt. Bozz, a soldier in infantry training whose anti-authoritarian manner doesn’t go over well with his superiors. Hardly anyone saw it, but the folks in Hollywood who gave it a look knew that Farrell was a star and I’d be willing to bet gave him many a role off of that performance. Tigerland is gritty, fierce, and compelling. It’s a true art film and worthy of re-discovery.
Unfortunately, the Chris Rock/Anthony Hopkins flop, Bad Company, stalled any critical momentum Schumacher might have scored from Tigerland. He and Farrell worked together again on the modestly successful thriller Phone Booth in 2002, which is a tight little film that works well enough while you are watching it, but doesn’t linger in the memory for long.
Schumacher got one more shot at a huge production with 2004’s Phantom of the Opera starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. Unfortunately, Butler couldn’t sing. A point made all the more painful every time Rossum’s powerful voice filled the screen. Phantom wasn’t an out-and-out flop, but it was an underperformer. Schumacher only made four more movies after Phantom–none of which made a mark. After directing two episodes of House of Cards in 2013, Schumacher never sat in the director’s chair again.
When you do the math, it all adds up to one pretty odd career. His best movies never got their due. His biggest movies were critically dismissed, and his cult movies, well, they were critically dismissed too. At the same time, you really can’t cover ’80s and ’90s cinema without including Joel Schumacher – for good and bad. And when you do go over his resume, you might just find he was good more often than you think he was.
I know I did.
Joel Schumacher died today. He was 80 years old.