in memoriam

Joel Schumacher Was Hollywood’s Greatest Genre Chameleon

Sure, his films sometimes missed big, but they often hit even bigger. Photo: Alex Bailey/Really Useful/Warner Bros./Shutterstock

Throughout his career in Hollywood, Joel Schumacher gravitated toward motley crews of new actors — Black performers in Blaxploitation flicks and young guns fencing the boundaries of nature. The results often inspired the ire of critics, as he endured major critical misses: St. Elmo’s Fire, Flatliners, and Batman & Robin connected with audiences and continued his employability; Flawless, Number 23, and his final film, Trespass, accomplished neither. But he fostered talent like Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Colin Farrell, and Matthew McConaughey and became one of the great moralistic filmmakers of the last 40 years, bending his style to a bevy of genres: thrillers, musicals, superhero fare, teen dramas, procedurals. As a screenwriter in particular, he showed incredible dexterity within Black stories; freedom and rebellion thematically pervaded his directorial work up until his death on Monday, June 22, after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.

Born August 29, 1939, in New York City to Marian and Francis Schumacher, the future fashion designer and filmmaker survived a traumatic childhood. By the age of 4, he lost his father. To make ends meet, his single mother worked six days a week, leaving her son mostly alone. Schumacher began drinking at the age of 9; decades of experience with methedrine and acid would follow. “I never would do it when I was on a job,” he said. “If I lost any jobs for lack of talent, that’s fair, but I did not want to lose them because I was drinking or doing drugs.”

During his teen years, Schumacher lived an openly gay life in 1950s New York City, under the looming threat of anti-sodomy laws at the time. (In 2019, he colorfully quipped that he had sex with over 20,000 men during his lifetime.) He went on to study at the city’s Parsons School of Design, working with famed designer Halston, an experience detailed in Frédéric Tcheng’s 2019 documentary. This led to him working on the set of Woody Allen’s 1973 comedy Sleeper, where Schumacher took on the role of costume designer, continuing his collaboration with the director on 1978’s Interiors. The costume credits continued: Frank Perry’s 1972 drama Play It As It Lays and Neil Simon’s 1975 comedy Prisoner on Second Avenue.

Schumacher broke into screenwriting the next year. When other white screenwriters were degenerating the revolutionary spirit of Blaxploitation into cheap buffoonery, like 1974’s Black Sampson and 1975’s Black Gestapo, Schumacher co-wrote self-determined Black feminist characters into Sam O’Steen’s cult classic Sparkle, a musical about a group of singers mirroring The Supremes, grappling with drugs and domineering abusive men. That same year, for Michael Schultz’s racially diverse comedy Car Wash, Schumacher created the flamboyant Lindy (Antonio Fargas), who famously silenced critics with the line “I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get.” And in 1978, Schumacher famously adapted a Broadway musical based on the The Wizard of Oz, transforming it from an Old Hollywood ode to far-off dreamers into the rebellious Sidney Lumet-directed Blaxploitation fantasy The Wiz, providing Dianna Ross her most ebullient role and Michael Jackson his only major feature-film performance. Together, the three movies explore Black fashion, music, and dance, along with contemporary political and socioeconomic themes like the Black Power movement, income stagnation, and urban decay for multidimensional Black characters. Schumacher wielded a magic touch when painting the forgotten, capturing an understanding of Black euphoria flourishing without white comfortability.

Though the Lily Tomlin-vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman marked Schumacher’s directorial debut, his follow-up was the goofy Mr. T–starring D.C. Cab. It was here that he established his penchant for casting relative newcomers to helm his films, a habit that served him well in the next phase of his career: the Brat Pack years. As nimbly as he wrote intriguing Black characters, he began crafting similarly rebellious teen flicks. It’d be easy to equate Schumacher with John Hughes, but Schumacher drew as much from the well of teenage angst and he was inspired by the idea of young, intense friendships. His suburban stories were darker, more dangerous — from St. Elmo’s Fire, a film that poignantly explores the struggle of post-graduate life, to The Lost Boys, about a biker gang of beautiful vampires in a painful search for blood. Drawing inspiration from Peter Pan and B horror movies, Schumacher’s marauding teenage murderers played like age-defying rebels bucking their quaint surroundings and the crushing authority of elders. Sutherland’s unflinchingly demonic and enraged performance made it soar.

Just as abruptly as he came to the teen genre, he shifted from it, turning to the deceptively sweet, 1989 romantic comedy Cousins, starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini and, soon afterwards, to the 1990 Frankenstein-inspired thriller Flatliners that launched Roberts’s career, about medical students who purposely die and revive themselves in an effort to explore the boundaries of life. (A side effect, of course, is that upon return, they’re haunted by the bitter ghosts of people they have wronged.) Death and violence in Schumacher’s films became opportunities to ask complex moral questions, often confronting the inequities of the proverbial American Dream. In 1993’s Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas, Schumacher settled into a vision of white rage, centered on a recently unemployed defense engineer on one seemingly endless walk across Los Angeles to attend his daughter’s birthday party. Throughout the saga, Schumacher positions Douglas’s D-Fens as the villain, a deranged personification of white male victimhood incited to increasingly violent acts. With 1996’s A Time to Kill, Schumacher switched gears to tell the story of a white lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) defending a Black father (Samuel L. Jackson) standing trial for killing his daughter’s rapists in Mississippi. His morality plays were less a cudgel for conservative values and more impassioned calls for decency and fair play — as in 2003’s Phone Booth, about a womanizing man (Colin Farrell) held hostage at a payphone by a sniper, who demands that the captive confess his philandering ways to the two women he’s sleeping with.

Around this time, Schumacher set his sights on a studio comic book flick: Batman Forever, which he’d follow with Batman & Robin. Unlike Tim Burton’s dark comedy Batman, Schumacher’s sequels were unrepentantly kooky and off-kilter, pitching camp to the extreme. Featuring infamous performances from George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and extravagant set pieces, the films persist as eccentric heirlooms for the generation of ’90s kids who grew up on them. And though the director has said he never considered Batman and Robin to be gay, critics have long pointed to the phallic imagery, the nippled costumes, and the latent sexuality Schumacher surrounded them with as revolutionary when compared to the marketing-driven queer characters in contemporary comic book films.

Later in life, Schumacher continued to flex his genre muscles with the antiwar film Tigerland (2000), the autobiographical crime narrative Veronica Guerin starring Cate Blanchett (2003), his misbegotten adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera (2004), and two episodes of the Netflix political drama House of Cards (2013). “What I say to film schools is, making movies is not all blow jobs and sunglasses,” the director once quipped. Until the end, he lived his life and career as a creative maverick, gleefully thumbing his nose at critics and cynics alike. Few directors have had “cult classic” attached to more of their films than Schumacher, but his legacy will endure as something more complex: as one of the few openly gay big-budget filmmakers in Hollywood thriving at the height of the AIDs epidemic, as a dexterious white writer expressing the inner hopes of his Black characters, as an examiner of American morality, and as a chameleon of genre. Sure, his films sometimes missed big, but they often hit even bigger.

Joel Schumacher Was Hollywood’s Greatest Genre Chameleon