Joel Schumacher, director of ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’ is dead at 80
By Dave Itzkoff
Joel Schumacher, the director whose visually inventive and sometimes subversive movies — including the coming-of-age drama “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the vampire action-comedy “The Lost Boys” and the campy superhero caper “Batman and Robin” — became cultural mile markers of the 1980s and ’90s, died Monday in New York City. He was 80.
The cause was cancer, with which he had been struggling for about a year, Bebe Lerner, a spokeswoman for his family, said in a statement.
After satiating a youthful appetite for illicit drugs, Schum- acher found more constructive outlets as a window designer for New York department stores like Henri Bendel. And after arriv- ing in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, he worked as a costume designer on films like the crime drama “The Last of Sheila” and Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” (both from 1973), then graduated to directorial assignments for television and motion pictures.
In his movies, Schumacher helped elevate emerging tal- ents, assembling actors like Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez for “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) in a group that came to be called the Brat Pack.
He made bold sartorial choices in his films as well. Some, like the punk-rock outfits of his young vampires in “The Lost Boys” (1987), advanced fashion trends; others, like the articulat- ed nipples on the Batsuit in “Batman and Robin” (1997), did not. Schumacher worked steadily for decades, directing thrillers like “A Time to Kill” (1996), “Phone Booth” (2002) and “Tres- pass” (2011). Yet he saw himself as dispensable in the eyes of the industry he served, where a single perceived misstep can end a career.
“Film making is like mountain climbing,” he told The New York Times in 1993. “No matter how many times you’ve climbed, you can still fall off. Even if you’ve climbed Everest seven times, the eighth time can be your last.”
Joel Schumacher was born Aug. 29, 1939, to Francis and Marian Schumacher. His father, a Baptist from Knoxville, Ten- nessee, died when Joel was 4, and he was raised in Long Island City, Queens, by his mother, who was Jewish and had come from Sweden. (As Joel Schumacher said of himself, “I’m an American mongrel.”)
Schumacher said he began drinking at the age of 9 and spent his formative years abusing LSD, methedrine and other drugs. But he found steady work as a window dresser (Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue also hired him) and studied for a time at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He later gradu- ated with honors from the Parsons School of Design.
When his mother died in 1965, Schumacher felt he had hit bottom. “My life seemed like a joke,” he told The Times. “I was living in this criminal environment. I was $50,000 in debt. I had lost six teeth. I weighed 130 pounds.”
Yet by 1970 he had stopped taking drugs and was em- ployed at Bendel, the luxury goods emporium on Fifth Avenue, where, he said, he rebuilt his life. “I got my self-respect back get- ting a good day’s pay for a good day’s work,” he said.
In Hollywood, his costume-design work, beginning with the 1972 drama “Play It as It Lays” (directed by Frank Perry, and written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne), gave him a foothold in filmmaking and screenwriting. He went on to write the screenplays for the musical drama “Sparkle” and the comedy “Car Wash,” both released in 1976, and for Sidney Lumet’s 1978 adaptation of the musical “The Wiz.”
Schumacher earned his first directorial credits with TV movies: “Virginia Hill” (1974), starring Dyan Cannon as the title character and Harvey Keitel as her gangster boyfriend, Bugsy Siegel; and “Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill” (1979), an ensemble comedy-drama set at a country-western roadhouse. His first feature film, the Lily Tomlin comedy “The Incred-
ible Shrinking Woman,” opened to mixed reviews in 1981.
After directing the 1983 comedy “D.C. Cab,” Schumacher found greater acclaim with “St. Elmo’s Fire,” about the postcol- lege meanderings of a group of friends from Georgetown Uni- versity. That drama was a hit, powered by the performances of at least a half-dozen future screen heartthrobs, an earnest musical theme by David Foster and the bombastic title track “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion),” sung by John Parr.
So, too, was “The Lost Boys,” which pit Jason Patric and Corey Haim against a gang of young bloodsuckers led by Kief- er Sutherland. Still other hits included the supernatural thriller “Flatliners” (1990), which starred Sutherland and Julia Roberts, and his 1991 romantic drama “Dying Young,” which starred Roberts and Campbell Scott.
After directing “Falling Down” (1993) with Michael Doug- las and “The Client” (1994), adapted from the John Grisham novel, Schumacher was chosen to take over Warner Brothers’ then-nascent Batman franchise from director Tim Burton, who was perceived to have taken the superhero movies in an increas- ingly gothic (and hence, uncommercial) direction.
Schumacher fared well enough with his candy-colored entry “Batman Forever” (1995), which grossed more than $336 million worldwide, though he would later call its leading man, Val Kilmer, “psychotic” in a 2019 interview with Vulture.
But the 1997 follow-up, “Batman and Robin,” starring George Clooney as the Caped Crusader, was somewhat less suc- cessful. Widely panned, it grossed about $238 million globally.
At his death Schumacher lived in Greenwich Village. Infor- mation on his survivors was not immediately available.
Speaking to Vice in a 2017 interview, Schumacher apolo- gized for “Batman and Robin,” saying that he had never intended to make so-called Hollywood tent-pole movies, moneymakers that can support an entire studio.
“My other films were much smaller and had just found success with the audience and not often with the critics, which is really why we wrote them,” he said. “And then after ‘Batman and Robin,’ I was scum. It was like I had murdered a baby.”
Even so, Schumacher was not ostracized from filmmaking; his output remained constant, as did his passion for the movies he made.
“I spent so much time as a kid in the movies in Long Island City,” he told The Times in 1993. “There’s something about be- ing that kid in a dark theater and growing up and cutting these films in dark editing rooms and putting them out in dark theaters where people can connect to them. I somehow feel connected with humanity when I create humanity on that screen.”