Joel Schumacher, costume designer-turned-director of films including "St. Elmo's Fire," "The Lost Boys" and "Falling Down," as well as two "Batman" films, died in New York City on Monday morning after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 80.
Schumacher was handed the reins of the "Batman" franchise when Tim Burton exited Warner Bros.' Caped Crusader series after two enormously successful films. The first movie by Schumacher, "Batman Forever," starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey and Nicole Kidman, grossed more than $300 million worldwide but was criticized by many for an unpleasant manic quality — the result of having two villains, with one of them played by Carrey.
Schumacher's second and last film in the franchise was 1997's "Batman and Robin," with George Clooney as Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as villain Mr. Freeze; the dark vision that Burton had brought to the first two films in the series had been abandoned for what could only be called camp. The movie still had a worldwide gross of $238 million, but was widely considered a failure both commercially and artistically. Quickly crystallizing into a symbol of all that was wrong with the film was Schumacher's decision to introduce nipples to the batsuit. The openly gay Schumacher was accused of introducing homoerotic elements to the relationship between Batman and Robin; in 2006 Clooney told Barbara Walters that he had played Batman as gay.
Several years after the Batman debacle, Schumacher directed the feature adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "The Phantom of the Opera." Despite tepid reviews, it received three Oscar noms.
In 1985 Schumacher struck gold with his third feature film, "St. Elmo's Fire," which he directed and co-wrote. Brat Packers including Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy as well as a young Demi Moore starred in the story of a bunch of Georgetown grads making their way through life and love. Even the theme song was a hit and is still played to evoke the era. The film offered a pretty smart take on the complexities of post-college life.
His next film was a big hit as well: horror comedy "The Lost Boys," about a group of young vampires who dominate a small California town, starred Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim. It scored with teens but was not a hit with critics: Roger Ebert said, "There is a moment, early in this film, when it seems to have a handle on its characters and the after-dark teenage world they inhabit. But the ending of the film is just another one of those by-the-numbers action climaxes in which the movie is over when all the bad guys are dead."
Schumacher had a high-concept screenplay by Peter Filardi and an A-list cast — Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin — for the 1990 horror thriller "Flatliners," about arrogant medical students experimenting with life and death, and the director hit it fairly big again, with a domestic cume of $61 million.
While those hits captured the era well, others during that period were misfires, such as the 1989 remake of the French hit "Cousin/Cousine" called "Cousins" and starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini and there was the sentimental "Dying Young," starring Roberts and Campbell Scott.
But in 1993 he showed what he was capable of with perhaps his best film, the critically hailed "Falling Down," starring Michael Douglas as a defense worker who's lost it all and decides to take it out on whomever he comes across. While we understand his frustration, he is not a hero, and he does not triumph violently like Charles Bronson in one of the "Death Wish" movies. The film played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
The New York Times said the film "exemplifies a quintessentially American kind of pop movie making that, with skill and wit, sends up stereotypical attitudes while also exploiting them with insidious effect. 'Falling Down' is glitzy, casually cruel, hip and grim. It's sometimes very funny, and often nasty in the way it manipulates one's darkest feelings."
Schumacher's next film was also a solid hit. "The Client," based on a John Grisham novel, was a highly effective legal thriller that also boasted terrific rapport between Susan Sarandon's lawyer and her 11-year-old client, a boy played by Brad Renfro who has witnessed a murder.
Intriguingly, between making the two problematic "Batman" films, Schumacher skillfully directed another Grisham adaptation, "A Time to Kill," which sported a terrific cast (including Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd and a career jump-starting turn by a young Matthew McConaughey) and, while not without its own weaknesses, asked important questions about race.
After the second "Batman" he made the much darker, smaller-scale thriller "8MM," which followed a miscast Nicolas Cage as a family-man private detective in pursuit of those who made what appears to be a snuff film.
His next film, 1999's "Flawless," about a homophobic cop who's suffered a stroke, played by Robert De Niro, and the draq queen, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose help he needs, was formulaic — the odd couple who couldn't be more different find out they have a lot in common — but it sported excellent performances by the leads and certainly had heart.
Switching gears dramatically, Schumacher made "Tigerland," starring a young Colin Farrell in the story of young recruits preparing to go off to Vietnam. It had a gritty look, but while some critics saw an earnest quality, others saw cynicism.
Schumacher's 2002 thriller "Phone Booth," which reunited the director with Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland — and intriguingly trapped Farrell's antihero in the title New York City phone booth for almost all of the film's running time — had critics and audiences alike talking, even if the ending was a cop-out.
His other films included actioner "Bad Company," starring Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock; "Veronica Guerin," starring Cate Blanchett as a journalist crusading rather recklessly against the Irish drug trade; and Jim Carrey thriller "The Number 23" and "Trespass."
Schumacher started out in showbiz as a costume designer, earning credits on 1972's "Play It as It Lays," Herbert Ross' "The Last of Sheila" (1973), Paul Mazursky's "Blume in Love (1973), Woody Allen's "Sleeper" (1973) and "Interiors" (1978) and 1975 Neil Simon adaptation "The Prisoner of Second Avenue." He was also credited as the production designer on the 1974 TV horror film "Killer Bees."
He also started to write screenplays: 1976's "Sparkle," 1978 hit "Car Wash" and the adaptation for 1978 musical "The Wiz."
Schumacher's first directing assignments came in television: the 1974 telepic "Virginia Hill," which he also co-wrote and starred Dyan Cannon, and the 1979 telepic "Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill," which he also penned. He stepped into the feature arena with the 1981 sci-fi comedy "The Incredible Shrinking Woman," starring Lily Tomlin, followed in 1983 by "D.C. Cab," an action-comedy vehicle for Mr. T that Schumacher also wrote.
Born in New York City, he studied at Parsons the New School for Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. He worked in the fashion industry, but decided to instead pursue a career in filmmaking. After moving to Los Angeles, he quite naturally worked at first as a costume designer and worked in TV while earning an MFA from UCLA.
Most recently, Schumacher directed a couple of episodes of Netflix hit "House of Cards" in 2013, and in 2015 he exec produced for the ID channel the series "Do Not Disturb: Hotel Horrors."
Camerimage, the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography, awarded Schumacher a special award in 2010. He also received the Distinguished Collaborator Award at the Costume Designers Guild Awards in 2011.