August 08, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Midnight Cowboy roped seven Oscar nominations in 1970, John Schlesinger declined to fly to L.A. on the chance he’d win Best Director. (He did, and Cowboy became the only X-rated film to win Best Picture.) Schlesinger was busy filming Sunday Bloody Sunday in England and, as he told EW in 1995, ”I thought I’d look stupid if I left the crew twiddling their thumbs and came back empty-handed.”

But taking chances is what defined the London-born, Oxford-educated, openly gay filmmaker, who died July 25 at 77 from stroke complications. ”He was always taking risks in his work,” says Cowboy’s Jon Voight. ”Never worried about the outcome.”

After capping early British feature successes with 1965’s Darling (which won Julie Christie an Oscar), Schlesinger hit a creative-control peak with Cowboy. But from the late ’80s on, his gifts were often compromised, particularly in a string of perfunctory Hollywood thrillers including The Believers and Pacific Heights. As he lamented to EW, ”Films are so tailor-made for audiences now…. There’s pressure to keep it all instantly understandable. Not the way to keep a sense of individuality, is it?”


Billy Liar (1963) Tom Courtenay rules as a fantasy-obsessed working-class slacker.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) it smashed taboos with a kiss between Murray Head and Peter Finch.

The Day Of The Locust (1975) It’s ’30s Hollywood on a skewer.

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