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Joel Schumacher, Who Gave Us All So Much More Than Just "Batman Forever" and "Batman And Robin" Dead At 80

By Brian Richards | News | June 23, 2020 |

By Brian Richards | News | June 23, 2020 |


The first thing to come to mind for many people who heard the news that director Joel Schumacher died yesterday at the age of 80 after a year-long battle with cancer is most likely, “Oh right, he made those horrible Batman movies, right?” Whether or not you liked those Batman movies that bear his name, there was and is so much more to Joel Schumacher than that.

Born in New York City in 1939, the same year as Batman — as Schumacher once memorably pointed out — Schumacher began working in the fashion industry after attending the Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology before realizing that what he was really passionate about was filmmaking. This led to him to Los Angeles, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA while also working as a costume designer for films such as Sleeper, Interiors, Blume In Love, and Play It As It Lays.

In 1976, Schumacher went from working in costume design for films to writing screenplays for them. The first film he wrote was Sparkle, which starred Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, and Lonette McKee. Inspired by the history of The Supremes, it was about three African-American sisters who form a singing group together.

Later that same year, he worked on the screenplay for Car Wash about a day in the lives of those who work at a Los Angeles car wash and the customers who end up there for all sorts of comical reasons. It starred Bill Duke, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Antonio Fargas, and The Pointer Sisters, and its theme song of the same name sung by Rose Royce is still considered a classic to this day.

In 1978, Schumacher wrote the screenplay for what is still considered to be one of the most beloved films of his own career and that of the late, great director Sidney Lumet: The Wiz. Starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, Mabel King, and Lena Horne, The Wiz was based on the 1974 musical of the same name and was also a reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but with an African-American cast.

In 1981, Schumacher made his directorial debut with The Incredible Shrinking Woman starring Lily Tomlin and Charles Grodin, and was about a regular-degular housewife whose entire body begins to shrink after she is exposed to some chemicals.

He soon followed that film with D.C. Cab, which he both wrote and directed, and starred Mr. T, Gary Busey, Adam Baldwin, Marsha Warfield, Irene Cara, and Bill Maher.

Schumacher then grabbed Hollywood’s attention with the Brat Pack drama St. Elmo’s Fire, starring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Mare Winningham, Ally Sheedy, and Andie MacDowell.

There are so many things to love and appreciate about The Lost Boys, Schumacher’s next film which was released in 1987. The whole damn cast (Jason Patric, Jami Gertz, Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Dianne Wiest, Kiefer Sutherland, Edward Herrmann, Barnard Hughes, etc.) bringing their A-game to each role. The swagger and sex appeal that David and his fellow “lost boys” have in every scene they appear in, even when they’re just walking around in a video store so they can flirt with the clerk. Their ability to make other people think that they’re eating maggots and worms when they’re really just eating regular food. (Sadly, I haven’t mastered this ability yet, just like how I haven’t yet mastered telekinesis no matter how X-Men comics I read). The soundtrack featuring a cover of “People Are Strange” by Echo and the Bunnymen, “Lost In The Shadows” by Lou Gramm, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” covered by Roger Daltrey, and of course, “Cry Little Sister” by Gerald McMann. Sam’s inexplicable need to have a poster in his bedroom of Rob Lowe posing provocatively. (Then again, I had a poster of Brandon Lee as Eric Draven in The Crow on my bedroom wall when I was younger, so who am I to talk?) How it made vampirism look appealing and seductive for Michael and for the audience, up until the moment when David and company head to the beach and feed on an entire group of people in a way that definitely earns the film its R-rating. The final battle between Michael, Sam, Star, the Frog Brothers, and Nanook the dog vs. David and the remaining “lost boys,” which makes fighting vampires alongside your friends, family, and highly protective guard dog more awesome than one would expect. Grandpa being an absolute kook from beginning to end, and yet ends it all with the best line in the film:

“One thing about living in Santa Carla that I never could stomach…all the damn vampires.”

And of course…

Can you name another vampire movie with sexy, shirtless, sweaty saxophone players for your viewing pleasure? No? Well, all right then.

Flatliners was Schumacher’s next film after The Lost Boys and starred Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt as five medical students who begin to suffer the consequences of conducting experiments resulting in near-death experiences. It was also the film where Sutherland and Roberts met, fell in love, and became engaged before she broke it off to be with his co-star from The Lost Boys, Jason Patric.

Falling Down, which opened in theaters a year after the Los Angeles riots in response to the Rodney King verdict, starred Michael Douglas as an unemployed White man who feels angry and bitter about the way the world is, and wants nothing more than to be with family as he unleashes all sorts of destruction and rage throughout Los Angeles against anyone who crosses him or upsets him. It was basically Joker long before Joker, minus the Clown Prince of Crime and dancing down stairwells in The Bronx and people jumping to conclusions in thinking that mass shootings would happen as a result of the film’s existence, but it still led some people to think that the film was supporting or glamorizing Douglas’ reign of terror, when in actuality, the film does anything but. (Granted, it didn’t help that part of the film’s marketing campaign involved commercials that showed Douglas’ acts of violence and told viewers that the film would show his character doing the kind of things that they’ve always wanted to do when stressed out by other people making their lives miserable)

The Client opened in 1993 was one of two John Grisham adaptations that Schumacher directed, which led to box-office success for him and additional name recognition for Grisham after the successful film adaptations of The Firm and The Pelican Brief. It starred Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, and the late Brad Renfro.

Twenty-five years after it first opened in theaters, what else is there to really say about Batman Forever?

For starters, it’s not nearly as bad as most people (particularly comic-book fans) would tell you, and Schumacher is clearly having fun here while also making sure that the audience is having fun as well. Is it as good as Batman or Batman Returns? Not entirely, but as much as those two films are held in high regard, they have their own flaws and shortcomings as well. Yes, Danny Elfman’s original theme music and score for the first two films reign supreme, but Elliot Goldenthal’s theme music and score for Batman Forever is very impressive and memorable, and avoids being blown out of the water by its predecessor. Val Kilmer was impressive as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, as was Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson and Robin. (And their costumes are still some of the very best in any comic-book movie.) Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian was an absolute smokeshow who plays the character as she’s in a film noir from the ’50s and I mean that in the best way possible.

For those of you who really didn’t like Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice — if you want to see Lex portrayed as a combination of Mark Zuckerberg and Max Landis and with no moral code anywhere to be found, Eisenberg was the perfect choice, but that’s neither here nor there — and didn’t like how he wasn’t anything like the Lex Luthor you know and love but was more like The Joker, let me remind you of Jim Carrey’s scenery-devouring performance as Edward Nygma, a.k.a The Riddler. He barely resembled the character from the ’60s television series or even the most recent version from the ’90s animated series, but none of this stops Carrey from having an absolute blast as he goes from awkward and obsessive scientist to slightly less awkward, a lot more obsessive, and murderous criminal determined to humiliate Bruce Wayne and take what is his. As for Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent a.k.a. Two-Face…hoo-boy! If you expected his portrayal to be quiet, grim, and subdued as he went from one personality to the next in his war against Batman, you sure as hell weren’t going to find it here as it basically is a contest between Jones and Carrey (and to say that they did not get along behind the scenes would be the understatement of the decade) as to who can ham it up the most and chew the most scenery. And for those who feel really strongly that they want to see more comic-book movies with humor and wackiness and that don’t take themselves too seriously, then Batman Forever is very much deserving of a second look.

If only just for this scene of Dick Grayson doing the absolute most when drying and hanging up his laundry …

And also because it gave even more attention to this classic tune from Seal, of which he was greatly appreciative

A Time To Kill was the second John Grisham adaptation that Schumacher directed to much critical acclaim and box-office success. It made Matthew McConaughey a household name, it drenched nearly the entire cast in sweat and made it look good (especially in Ashley Judd’s case), and it gave us a classic line reading from Samuel L. Jackson that made us love and appreciate him and his work even more (just go right ahead and ignore Kevin Spacey’s presence in the scene)…

Batman & Robin didn’t impress many critics or fans as much as Batman Forever did when it was released. Not with George Clooney taking over as Bruce Wayne/Batman (which he would go on to spend years apologizing for). Not with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and dropping every cold weather-related pun in all of existence. Not with Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy or with Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. And not with the Bat-credit card or the gratuitous shots of codpieces and butts as Batman, Robin, and Batgirl would suit up in their costumes. It was the critical and box-office disappointment of this film that would lead to Warner Bros. reaching out to director Christopher Nolan after the success of Insomnia for a grounded and more realistic approach to Batman. Which would result in the release of Batman Begins in 2005, followed by The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and a beautiful (and profitable) friendship between Nolan and Warner Bros.

After the Batman & Robin debacle, Schumacher decided to take on some smaller and lower-budget films to show what he was really capable of outside of Gotham City. He directed 8mm, with Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, and Peter Stormare…

Flawless, starring Robert DeNiro and Philip Seymour Hoffman…

Tigerland, starring Colin Farrell (in one of his first leading roles that made Hollywood sit up and take notice)…

Phone Booth, which also starred Colin Farrell, as well as Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell, Katie Holmes, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Veronica Guerin, starring Cate Blanchett …

The Phantom of the Opera, starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum …

And his final film, Trespass, starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman …

When news first broke about Joel Schumacher’s death, many of his former colleagues as well as his fans went to Twitter to offer their condolences and to pay tribute to the man and his work.

Two of Schumacher’s best and most revealing interviews were in 2017 with GQ, in which he said that he was sorry that comic-book fans were disappointed with Batman & Robin, but he was no longer going to spend the rest of his days apologizing for it, as well as speaking about his experiences and perspectives as a gay filmmaker working in Hollywood, and in 2019 with Vulture, in which he discussed…(checks notes)…his thoughts on Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s relationship and how it affected their kids, his working relationships with Julia Roberts, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, and Colin Farrell, his incredibly active sex life, his eyebrow-raising views on age gaps in sexual relationships, his thoughts on the late Corey Haim and Brad Renfro, and how he really felt about critics’ reviews of his work.

And Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, who conducted the GQ interview with Schumacher, spoke very kindly of him yesterday on Twitter.

For so many years and in so many genres, Joel Schumacher made movies that may not have won any awards, or will end up on anyone’s Greatest Films list, but they’ve stood the test of time and in many cases, are considered classics by many people because of how much those movies entertained them. Very few directors who have the opportunity to do so show as much variety in the stories they choose to tell, and that variety as well as the style with which he told those stories, is why Joel Schumacher deserves to be remembered for more than just two comic-book movies that wasn’t everybody’s brand of whiskey.

And to do all of this while working as a gay man in Hollywood, which wasn’t and still isn’t as welcoming or open-minded as it often likes to pretend it is … that just makes all of these feats even more impressive.

Thank you for so many years of entertainment, Joel Schumacher. May you rest in peace.


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