31 July 2003

John and Hope: John Schlesinger (1926-2003), Bob Hope, 1903-2003

Two giants of the film industry, both born in London, have died within days of each other, within easy reach of Hollywood where they made their reputations and garnered the world’s respect, love even.

John Schlesinger was a friend, though never close, and I worked with him only once, in his last success Cold Comfort Farm. I’d first met his name as director of A Kind of Loving (1962), shot on location in Bolton, where I lived. Alan Bates had a scene with June Ritchie inside the town hall by the glass door of my father’s office in the Borough Engineer’s department. One of my favourites of his films was the underestimated The Day of the Locust, a scathing critique of Hollywood politics and its heartbreak.

John latterly lived in Los Angeles and London where I went to his parties of good food, good wine and very jolly company; there was always laughter around John. Although he resembled a handsome teddy bear, his tongue could have a wicked edge that sliced through human follies. You can tell that from the incisive accuracy of the social commentary in his films from Darling to Midnight Cowboy. I happened to be with Jon Voight last week at the Giffoni Film Festival for children and asked him how John was faring at home in Palm Springs. He told me that the decision had been made to turn off the life supply, now there was no chance of a recovery.

Perhaps it’s true that for John, facts apart, there is no need for obituaries. His private concerns and passions are revealed in his work, a point he made to me when I was encouraging him to come out and be open about his homosexuality. This was in 1988, shortly after I had done the same thing. “Oh Ian anyone who wants to guess whether or not I’m queer has only got to look at Sunday Bloody Sunday,” (where Peter Finch’s bisexual character kissed Murray Head full on the lips — an iconic moment for gays of my generation in a country, where to make love was illegal until 1967.) I was very touched when, less than a year later, John came out by signing a public letter from a group of gay and lesbian artists who supported my acceptance of a knighthood from Mrs Thatcher’s avowedly homophobic government. He had started as an actor and was spot-on in his last role as a gay writer in Sean Mathias’s screen adaptation of David Leavitt’s Lost Language of Cranes.

John Schlesinger at the 1996 premiere of Cold Comfort Farm
Photo: Fred Prouser/Reuters

Twenty years before John was born, Bob Hope emigrated from south London aged four. Judging by rumours (revelations?) at his death, he was hetero through and through. Certainly he had to agree to apologise for an anti-gay crack, when the error of his scriptwriter’s ways was pointed out by GLAAD. I enjoyed the Road movies as a kid but as a stand-up I was more comfortable with the stage personae of Jack Benny and George Burns. Hope's famous adlibs were scripted, of course. But I know of one that wasn’t.

In 1981 I was working on Broadway; so was Elizabeth Taylor. That summer she had to renege on a promise to appear in a charity concert at the open air Wolf Trap arena in Washington DC. She asked me to substitute for her. “Do something from your Shakespeare show and I’ll owe you one.” Which is how I came to work with Bob Hope who was master of ceremonies at Wolf Trap. In the middle of the first half, without a rehearsal, I did my party piece - a little bit of Romeo and of Juliet, playing both parts. The stage felt half a mile away from the bulk of the audience picnicking on the grass but they seemed amused and I exited to healthy applause. Back on came Bob Hope: “Ian McKellen, ladies and gentlemen – I hate that guy – he can get laughs even with Shakespeare!” So he must have been watching from the wings and thought that gag up all by himself. RIP. — Ian McKellen, July 2003

Bob Hope

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