Joel Schumacher was one of the few filmmakers whose talents reached well beyond the camera and spanned numerous genres. Leading both minimalist films and blockbusters as well as helping grow the careers of several young performers, Schumacher’s career included Brat Pack films, franchise adaptations, musicals and beyond making him, for better or worse, a household name. With 24 major film productions under his belt and a multi-faceted career Schumacher proved to be one of the most versatile talents of his time behind the camera and behind the scenes. That’s why his passing on Monday, June 22 at the age of 80 after a battle with cancer has shook the industry to its core with many tributes honoring the man as an icon. Today I’m taking a look back as the director’s life and work exploring both the ups and the downs of his decades-long career. This is In Memoriam: Joel Schumacher.
Joel Schumacher was born in New York City and raised by his mother in Long Island City after his father passed away when he was four years old. Visual art was always a passion of his specifically fashion. After several years in the fashion industry Schumacher found a new passion, filmmaking, leading him to move to Los Angeles where he began his career in cinema in the 1970s as a costume designer. Throughout the decade he would work on such films as “Play It as It Lays”, “The Last Sheila”, “Blue in Love”, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue”, “Interiors”, and, most famously, the Woody Allen film “Sleeper”. The decade also saw his first screenplay for “Sparkle” which was released in 1976. He would also pen the screenplays for 1976’s “Car Wash” and the 1978 adaptation of “The Wiz”. He would quickly take his talents behind the camera debuting as a director in the 1980s.
Schumacher’s first big screen directorial effort was 1981’s “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” which received negative critical reviews but did enough to put him on the map. He then directed “D.C. Cab” aka “Street Fleet” which released in 1983. Schumacher’s career officially took off in 1985 and 1987 with the releases of two of his biggest films “St Elmo’s Fire” and “The Lost Boys” which were considered Brat Pack productions, a label Schumacher himself denounced. The two films were financial hits and beloved by fans while also starting a trend for Schumacher’s career where he would hire young performers to star in his film as these movies further helped solidify the careers of Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Kiefer Sutherland in their early years. Schumacher also established himself as television writer and producer during this decade. After directing two TV movies in the 70s Schumacher helped write or produce episodes of “Now We’re Cookin”, “Code Name: Foxfire” and “Slow Burn”.
The 90s proved to be Schumacher’s busiest decade on the big screen producing some of his most popular and most infamous films as a director. He started the decade with the cult classic “Flatliners” in 1990 which reunited him with Kiefer Sutherland. After releasing “Dying Young” and “Falling Down” in 1991 and 1993 respectively Schumacher took hold of two franchises that would go on to not only solidify him as a staple of 90s cinema but also define his career for an entire generation of moviegoers. In 1994 he directed his first of two John Grisham novel adaptations, “The Client”, which was positively received by both critics and audiences. Schumacher released another Grisham adaptation, “A Time to Kill”, two years later after the author personally request Schumacher direct. While less critically successful it received higher scores from average viewers and served as a breakout film for Matthew McConaughey in the first decade of his illustrious career.
While Schumacher’s Grisham adaptations were praised and beloved, his other major franchise from the 90s was much less respected. After Tim Burton helped bring Batman to the big screen with two feature films in the late 80s and early 90s Warner Bros. wanted to bring a more family friendly approach to the series and thus Schumacher was hired to fill Burton’s shoes. This resulted in a pair of features, “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin”. “Batman Forever” was an immediate hit despite mixed critical reception scoring the highest opening of 1995 and becoming the second-highest grossing film in North America that year. In the years since however “Batman Forever” has become one of the most divisive films in the “Batman” franchise as well as the superhero genre in general. Schumacher’s follow-up, and ironically possibly his most famous film to mainstream audiences, was the 1997 sequel “Batman & Robin”. Critical despised and disappointing fans, “Batman & Robin” essentially killed the original “Batman” film series and today is regarded as one of the worst films ever made. Schumacher himself would apologize to fans over the years for the disappointment claiming studio pressure as a big factor in the final product even stating he originally wanted to adapt “Batman: Year One” as he was a fan of the caped crusader. Schumacher concluded the decade with a few more critical duds, “8mm” and “Flawless” both released in 1999.
Schumacher would rebound the next decade returning to minimalist filmmaking starting with the critically loved “Tigerland” in 2000 which helped spark actor Colin Farrell’s career. His next film, “Bad Company” developed an infamous reputation as it was the final major production to film inside the World Trade Center prior to the September 11 attacks. In fact, its release was moved to 2002 because of its unintentional association with the event. Poor critical reviews further sunk the film making it a box office bomb. Schumacher would return to the good graces of critics and fans later that year with one of my personal favorite movies in his filmography, “Phone Booth”, which once again reunited the director with Kiefer Sutherland and Colin Farrell solidifying the latter as a capable leading man. In 2004 he wrote and directed a big screen adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera” and also acted as executive music producer. Schumacher closed out the decade with “The Number 23” in 2007 and “Blood Creek” in 2009 before concluding his career on the big screen with 2011’s “Trespass”.
In his personal life Schumacher never hid the fact that he was gay, In fact he became one of the most prominent open gay filmmakers of his time, and possibly in history to date, and even incorporated his sexuality into many of his films. While he never had any kids or married Schumacher wore his promiscuity on his sleeve as he himself declared he had slept with as many as 20,000 men during his lifetime. He was a heavy supporter of numerous Democratic candidates. While he never won any major industry awards he did received the Distinguished Collaborator Award at the Costume Designers Guild Awards in 2011 and a special award from the Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography. He also notably won an Artistic Achievement Award in 2000 from the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and earned recognition from the ShoWest Convention, Catalonian International Film Festival, Taormina International Film Festival, and San Sebastián International Film Festival. Unfortunately Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” also earned him recognition for bad filmmaking including a Stinker Award for Worst Sense of Direction and a Razzie nomination for Worst Director.
Depending on who you ask Joel Schumacher is either an unquestionable talent in cinema or the man who almost killed Batman’s big screen franchise. Regardless, he certainly left his mark. As a writer, producer, director and costumer designer he contributed to numerous memorable productions that spanned multiple genres during his four decades in the industry and he served as a significant figure representing LGBTQ filmmakers during times where his sexuality could have been a road block. Instead he wore it like a badge, made it part of his identity and inspired others to embrace their true selves in their art. While he may have helped create one of the worst films ever made, his successes and contributions outweigh his failures and I personally am willing to overlook “Batman & Robin” in favor of “The Lost Boys”, “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Phone Booth” and, yes, even “Batman Forever”. These are all films that I grew up enjoying and appreciating and they’re a big reason why I, along with countless others, mourn the loss of a legend in the industry.