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Joel Schumacher: Reluctant and Conflicted Gay Trailblazer

Joel

I first interviewed Joel Schumacher in 2003, when he was enthusiastically promoting his latest film, Phone Booth. I had heard that Schumacher was gay, as pretty much everyone had at that point, but I also knew that he had said it wasn't something he really wanted to discuss. So, like the savvy journalist always does, I left the question that might prove displeasing to the interviewee to the very end (that way if they abruptly end the interview you've still got lots of material to work with).

I bluntly asked Schumacher why he avoided being called gay. "I'm a big opponent of labels," he shot back without pause. "African-American judge, Jewish vice-presidential candidate, lesbian congresswoman, transgendered military officer, whatever. I don't recall anyone referring to Bill Clinton as our Caucasian, heterosexual, WASP, male ex-president. In other words, he's normal and everyone with a label isn't."

It was a snappy answer and made for a good quote, even though I didn't agree with it then (and still don't). Cut to 2007, and I was pulling together a range of new interviews for my book, The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers. I was excited to gather such a variety of directors from various backgrounds, but the inclusion of Schumacher felt really important, given the unique place he occupied in film history: he had worked with Woody Allen (designing costumes for the hilarious 1973 dystopia satire Sleeper) and had gone on to direct the prescient 1993 vigilante film Falling Down, as well as being the first out gay director to be handed the keys to a major superhero franchise (Batman, post-Tim Burton).

I had kept Schumacher's email and phone number and reached out to him to request a fresh interview for the book. His assistant responded to say that Schumacher was busy, but I pressed on, having already anticipated that this would require some begging and pleading. Flattery usually works, so the line "this book simply won't be complete with a chapter on you" finally did the trick. We set up a time and I called him at his L.A. office.

The conversation was pleasant enough, with Schumacher recalling his earliest memories of seeing films as a child, his joy at making films, his general sense of loving cinema. But he bristled when I brought up Vito Russo's disparaging take on 1985's St. Elmo's Fire, which was Schumacher's breakthrough film. "Schumacher treats homosexuality as a joke and a problem because that's the way Hollywood wants it," Russo wrote in his landmark takedown of cinematic homophobia, The Celluloid Closet, adding "and Schumacher wants to work in Hollywood."

"Vito had his take on the film and on me," Schumacher told me, obviously aware that Russo had railed against Schumacher (among many others) who had chosen to remain mum about their own sexuality, when Russo felt the only remedy to homophobia was to come out. "That's fine if he felt that way. If your book is going to be about old arguments from ages ago, I don't think you'll have much to go on." I assured Schumacher this was only part one of our conversations (most chapters in the book were made up of two or more discussions) and that I had to bring up old controversies so the book didn't just look like fawning publicity. The call ended cordially.

But the next day I received an email from Schumacher saying he had no interest in being part of the book and was no longer willing to participate. Clearly worried that I was simply going to run with the conversation we'd had thus far, he cc'ed his lawyers and publicists on the email.

I emailed him back to say how genuinely saddened I was that he wouldn't be part of the project. I had really enjoyed talking with him and like a number of his films, so it was an honest sentiment. I said I had great respect for him and that I meant him no harm.

The next day, his assistant emailed me to ask for my address. I didn't know what to think, but thought that perhaps Schumacher was going to send a personal note. Then I remembered how even seemingly gentle people in Hollywood could turn vicious. The horse head scene in The Godfather ran through my mind. Maybe I should hire security, I remember thinking, then immediately realizing, You have no money. You can't afford security.

But a package soon arrived, and it was a bouquet of flowers so massive I couldn't quite believe it. It really was like nothing I'd ever seen. I broke it up to fill a few vases, but some of the exotic flowers were so huge I had to go out and buy an overflow vase. And this, coming from someone who has a vase collection that is epically gay.

I sent him an effusive thank you email, and he responded saying, "One day I'll spill the beans. I'm a closet socialist! When your book is a bestseller, I'll be in volume 2."

It was a pleasing closure to a sad rejection, though I did use his quote about labels in the introduction to my book.

I thought about Schumacher again in August of last year, when he gave a brazenly honest interview to Vulture, outlining his voracious sexual appetites (he didn't hold back, sleeping with tens of thousands of men), cautiously defending Woody Allen and looking back on his career. It was the kind of interview I had hoped to get for my book; it also struck me that it was a nothing-left-to-lose interview, the kind you read when someone knows they are close to the end. Doing the math as I read the obits this week, it was clear he knew he had cancer when he conducted that interview.

For all the talk of not wanting labels, it's clear homophobia did shape much of Schumacher's career. In particular, he was held largely responsible for ruining the Batman franchise: critics contended that Tim Burton had worked tirelessly to push the films into a dark direction, rescuing them from the camp excesses so many associated with the superhero from Adam West's famous rendition in the '60s TV series. Schumacher oversaw Batman and Robin costumes with nipples on them, something a number of critics noted, suggesting Schumacher had somehow re-gayed the franchise. Sounds at least a bit homophobic to me.

But to his great credit, Schumacher endured, going on to make a number of unusual films. His body of work is one of the most varied of any director I can think of. I'll always remember him fondly (I only wish every declined interview request could be met with flowers). And I'm glad I got to work in some of his words into my book, even if he didn't provide enough material for a chapter. I realize a big part of his reluctance to participate must have come after decades of negotiating his own identity in a city and business legendary for their fraught, complicated relationship to queerness.

A longtime contributor to The Advocate, Matthew Hays has also contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and VICE. He teaches media studies courses at Concordia University and Marianopolis College in Montreal.

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