Danny Boyle’s abrupt exit last week from the new James Bond sequel upset many Bond fans, who now face a longer wait for Bond 25, but my own reaction was one of relief. Boyle is too interesting a filmmaker to be making franchises rather than films — the Bond business had already consumed another talented Brit, Sam Mendes, for a few years (Skyfall and Spectre). Bond is surely a damn good business (the last four iterations grossed over $3 billion worldwide) but, by and large, British filmmakers haven’t been creating the sort of truly and innovate fare that they contributed in years past.
I was reminded of this yesterday when I spoke at a 50th anniversary salute to Midnight Cowboy at the Coronado Island Film Festival. Screening Cowboy pinpointed that extraordinary mid-1960s moment when the Brits essentially annexed the film world. John Schlesinger’s movie created a sort of cinematic cataclysm: Cowboy was an X-rated picture that won three Oscars and introduced two major stars, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Its young and very British director focused on American themes and gay-related sub texts with an artistic boldness that jolted studio filmmakers.
And Schlesinger was just one of a phalanx of defiantly original British filmmakers commanding our attention — Tony Richardson (Tom Jones), Lindsay Anderson (The Sporting Life), Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) Jack Clayton (Room at the Top), Ted Kotcheff (Life at the Top), Silvio Narizzano (Georgy Girl) and then, of course, Schlesinger (he had earlier impressed with Darling).
London’s critics proclaimed these films to constitute “our new wave,” liberating British filmmakers from the arty auteurism ruling French and Italian cineastes. The Brits were actually telling coherent stories: Significantly, when Michelangelo Antonioni secured an international release for Blow Up, he famously asked a young Brit, Kotcheff, to help him cut 20 minutes from the film to make it more accessible.
Hollywood quickly noticed that movies from Britain were generating box office results and, further, that British directors were a relative bargain; their agents were asking half the going rate of top Hollywood filmmakers. The one problem: The Brits demanded creative control, rejecting Hollywood mandates and studio expertise.
David Picker, the president of United Artists, understood these realities when he signed Schlesinger for Cowboy. The brilliant, if demanding, filmmaker did not disappoint: Within days of reaching his Texas location Schlesinger fired his camera crew, demanded a new editor and ordered a script rewrite. Even the title song was put up for review: Picker initially resisted Harry Nilsson’s nasal rendition of “Everybody’s Talking,” but neither Bob Dylan nor Joni Mitchell were able to deliver better songs capturing Joe Buck’s sense of isolation.
To Schlesinger, the Texas locations were fascinating but frustrating. Packed into his initial scenes were strands of a complex and violent back story involving rape and alienation. Its message: That the young hustler heading to New York carried no baggage, yet a lot of baggage.
Schlesinger was dubious about Voight at first but casting guru Marion Dougherty pushed hard for the actor and his screen test was compelling. Following the Texas shoot, Schlesinger and Voight spent days wandering the streets of New York together and reviewing the script. Manhattan’s chaotic buzz was new to Schlesinger; Voight, despite his Texas regalia, had grown up in a New York suburb. When the actor finally demanded, “What’s my character’s motivation?” a petulant Schlesinger snapped, “You’re looking to get laid, that’s your only motivation.”
Schlesinger’s principal New York City guide was his then assistant, Michael Childers, who introduced Schlesinger to Andy Warhol and the New York underground scene (Childers went on to a distinguished career as a photographer and artist; Schlesinger died in 2003). Warhol and other artists adorned the film’s vibrant, and sexy, party scenes, their energy fortifying Voight’s fantasies of his success in the big city.
Upon its release, the reception to Midnight Cowboy was a mixture of shock and surprise. Commenting on the poignant dependency between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, Gene Siskel observed he “could not recall performances as moving and gritty.” Critics later marveled how Hoffman could portray characters as contrasting as Ratso and Benjamin Braddock (from The Graduate) back to back.
Reviewing the picture, the ratings board itself was in disarray, fretful of the film’s “homosexual frame of reference.” United Artists reluctantly agreed to an X rating, the first and last time an Oscar winner was relegated to this category.
Today’s United Artists does not make any movies, X-rated or otherwise. British directors, aware of the quirky market, tend to pursue topics tamer than Cowboy. They also remember some of later problematic ventures of Brit directors in Hollywood – Clayton in The Great Gatsby, Schlesinger in Day of the Locust.
As for Danny Boyle, his admirers hope he will return to the sensibility of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting rather than pursue the franchise circuit. Ironically, rumors of his split from Bond focused on a life-or-death disagreement: Should James Bond finally be killed at the end of the film, or should he live on to further sequels? That, to be sure, may be a cosmic issue for Bond fanatics, but it may not be for admirers of Danny Boyle.