Joel Schumacher, who has died aged 80, started his film career as a costume designer, and ended it as one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful directors. He was responsible for a slew of hits – from the Brat Pack favourite St. Elmo’s Fire to the vigilante drama Falling Down. But there were also one or two notorious duds, said The New York Times. In particular, he was accused of “ruining Batman”. The caped crusader had been revived in the late 1980s by Tim Burton; but though admired, Burton’s two Batman films were regarded as too dark for family audiences. Schumacher was tasked with making a lighter movie. First, he made Batman Forever – which was camp and gaudy but crowdpleasingly effective. It grossed $336m, so he was asked to make a further instalment, and this time, he took it too far. Painfully unfunny and wildly over the top, 1997’s Batman & Robin also made money, but “has acquired a reputation as one of the worst blockbusters of all time”.
Yet it would be a grave injustice if this most versatile of directors were remembered for Batman & Robin – and his controversial decision to put rubber nipples on the Batsuit, said Jeremy Garelick in The Hollywood Reporter. Schumacher wasn’t only responsible for bringing to the fore the actors collectively known as the Brat Pack: he also made stars of Colin Farrell, Julia Roberts and Matthew McConaughey. And he was one of Hollywood’s genuine good guys – he loved nurturing talent and he really believed that film-making should be a collaborative process, and that everyone’s view was worthy of respect. On set, he’d announce: “Don’t go home and tell your husbands or wives or boyfriends or girlfriends what I did wrong today. Make sure to come up to me and tell me your suggestion, so that I can try to fix it before it’s too late.” It was, perhaps, because he felt not only lucky to be where he was – on a set, making movies – but lucky to be alive. Openly gay and for a period very promiscuous, he had survived poverty, addiction and the Aids epidemic.
An only child, Joel Schumacher was born in New York in 1939. His father died when he was four. His mother worked six days and three nights a week to make ends meet, and by the age of seven, he was spending most of his time on the streets. “Predators come out the woodwork, my God,” he once said. He started drinking at nine, smoking at ten, and became sexually active at 11. But across the road from the tenement where he lived there was a movie theatre. “I was the Cinema Paradiso kid.” Despite his rackety life, he won a scholarship to fashion college. Then, in 1965, his mother died – and he went right off the rails, mainlining so much speed, five of his teeth fell out. Eventually, he took a job as a department store window dresser, rebuilt his life, and moved to LA. He started designing costumes on films including Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973). Allen advised him to try scriptwriting. In the late 1970s, he had hits with the comedy Car Wash and the all-black musical The Wiz; he directed his first film, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, in 1981.
There followed a spate of hits, including the teen vampire drama The Lost Boys, and the John Grisham thriller The Client. Some of his films were so slick and commercial that The Village Voice was moved to describe him as a “well-oiled toxic waste machine”. Yet they were not without artistry, said The Washington Post. In 1993’s Falling Down, the “hot-city sheen and washed-out browns and yellows amplify the urban angst”, helping to explain why a man on the edge might be driven to violent madness. And though St. Elmo’s Fire looks dated now, with its cast of white protoyuppies, it was hugely influential, paving the way for a host of films and TV series about friends becoming adults together. After Batman & Robin, Schumacher said he was treated as if he had “murdered a baby”. But he kept working, and remained devoted to film-making. There’s something about “cutting these films in dark editing rooms and putting them out in dark theatres where people can connect to them”, he said. “I somehow feel connected with humanity when I create humanity on that screen.”