Joel Schumacher died at 80 on Monday and let me tell you, this man lived a life. I can’t even imagine what he would’ve said in response to Variety’s breaking news alert about his own death, which described him as the “director of Batman films,” which would be like remembering Spike Lee as the director of the Oldboy remake. I’m writing this appreciation because we need to put some respect on Joel Schumacher’s name.
First of all, Schumacher was a trailblazer as an openly gay director who was loud and proud about his sexuality — and his promiscuity. He survived the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s, and died June 22 following a quiet, year-long battle with cancer. Schumacher started out working in the fashion industry before deciding to become a filmmaker. He began his career as a costume designer, working with Woody Allen on Sleeper and Interiors before writing the 1978 Sidney Lumet film The Wiz.
Schumacher went on to make his own feature directorial debut with the 1981 sci-fi comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman starring Lily Tomlin. Once Schumacher established himself as a movie director, he was able to pivot to other mediums such as music videos (The Smashing Pumpkins, Lenny Kravitz, Seal, Bush) and he also directed two early episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards for his friend David Fincher. But I’m here to celebrate the man’s movie career, so let’s get the misfires out of the way first.
We all get it by now. Batman & Robin sucked. The Number 23 is terrible. There’s no question that Joel Schumacher directed some real stinkers in the latter half of his career. It turns out that just like the rest of us, he was an imperfect human being. But Schumacher made four great movies by my count — The Lost Boys, Falling Down, A Time to Kill and The Client, and a bunch of other good movies such as St. Elmo’s Fire, the box office hit Flatliners, the underrated Robert De Niro-Philip Seymour Hoffman drama Flawless, the Vietnam movie Tigerland, the creepy genre flick 8MM, and yes, even Batman Forever. I mean, talk about being versatile!
Sure, when you compared Schumacher’s 1995 camp classic to Tim Burton‘s Batmovies and later, Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Forever may not have been flattered, but on its own merits, it’s certainly more fun than most comic book movies I see these days. What seems clear to me is that Schumacher wasn’t one of these guys who grew up reading the Batman comics and felt this slavish responsibility to adapting them. He was a guy like me, who couldn’t help but point out how silly superheroes — and especially supervillains — can be, even if the comic book genre is capable of yielding true greatness from time to time.
Meanwhile, Schumacher was also the only director — and I do mean only — to truly understand the power of author John Grisham, whose legal thrillers had captured America’s imagination by the early ’90s. And yet, star-driven movies like The Firm (Tom Cruise) and The Pelican Brief (Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington) can’t hold a candle to The Client or A Time to Kill, the latter of which is one of my all-time favorite films. When Matthew McConaughey delivers that gut punch of a twist at the end of his closing statement, and that little boy runs outside of the courtroom with the verdict, and the music soars… that’s the power of cinema right there. Go watch the opening scene of The Client and tell me that isn’t grade-A level filmmaking, featuring one of the greatest child performances ever from Brad Renfro.
Schumacher is the one who cast Renfro, just as he was the director who gave guys like McConaughey and Tigerland star Colin Farrell their first real leads. He worked with the Brat Pack at the height of their fame, and Julia Roberts as well. He directed the Coreys in one of the greatest, most iconic vampire movies ever made. He saw the dark side of Jim Carrey. He put Nicolas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix in a film about snuff films! And that’s another thing that I loved about Joel Schumacher. He had a thing for trashy movies. Only in researching this piece did I realize that he executive produced the little-seen erotic thriller The Babysitter starring Alicia Silverstone that came out the same year as Clueless, as well as the sexy college thriller Gossip starring James Marsden and Kate Hudson.
And then there’s the Michael Douglas thriller Falling Down. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, Falling Down may ultimately prove to be Schumacher’s masterwork, if only because it’s the kind of morally complex movie that would never, ever get made right now — an uzi blast of repressed white male rage that foreshadowed the shameful Trump presidency to come. Schumacher directed pros like Douglas and Robert Duvall to ace performances, and not only is Falling Down a great LA movie, but it’s also one of the best films to take place over the course of a single day.
In the hours since his death was announced, I’ve seen an outpouring of stories from his friends and collaborators, and if one thing is clear, it’s that Schumacher was loved, and will be deeply missed. Tonight, I’m going to watch The Lost Boys in his honor, because just like them, Joel Schumacher never wanted to grow up. God bless him for that.