Unsung Auteurs: Jerry Schatzberg

May 4, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Jerry Schatzberg, who helmed The Panic In Needle Park, Scarecrow and more.

No Jerry Schatzberg, no The Godfather. Well, there actually likely still would have been a The Godfather, but it would certainly not have been as good. Why? Because it was Jerry Schatzberg who discovered Al Pacino on the stage and gave him his first major lead role in 1971’s The Panic In Needle Park, which (as seen in the wildly entertaining and utterly mesmeric new TV series The Offer) prompted Francis Ford Coppola to fight to have the young, largely unknown actor take centre stage in his much touted mob epic. And while Jerry Schatzberg is certainly always mentioned in any discussion about the early upward trajectory of Al Pacino’s long and winding career, much of this fascinating filmmaker’s cinematic output remains sadly unsung. The fact that Schatzberg has always made low-key, introspective, character-based dramas likely has something to do with it. “I’m interested in people involved on the margins,” Schatzberg once tellingly said.

Born in The Bronx to a family of fashion furriers in 1927, Schatzberg first rose to prominence as a highly original and zeitgeist-capturing photographer in the late 1960s, becoming one of the top shooters at magazines like Vogue, Esquire and Life. It was his rock music and pop culture photos, however, that really got Schatzberg noticed, with his cover photo for Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album standing as one of music’s truly indelible images. His portraits of all manner of creative artists and politicians (from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix through to Warren Beatty, Sharon Tate, Faye Dunaway, Fidel Castro and Ted Kennedy) not only helped to define the 1960s but the very nature of photographic portraiture itself. Schatzberg’s photographs are truly stunning, and his film work would duly follow suit.

Jerry Schatzberg with Faye Dunaway and Barry Primus on the set of Puzzle Of A Downfall Child.

After making some notable TV commercials, Jerry Schatzberg made his directorial debut in 1970 with the wonderfully titled Puzzle Of A Downfall Child, on which he worked on the script with Carole Eastman (Five Easy Pieces). Working in a milieu that he was obviously familiar with, Schatzberg impressively tells the story of a top-tier fashion model (the exquisite Faye Dunaway) beset by bad relationships (including one with Roy Scheider’s ad exec) and a career slowly beginning a downward spiral. A great female-centric seventies art piece, Puzzle Of A Downfall Child sits snugly alongside other fine performance showcases of the era like Diary Of A Mad Housewife, A Woman Under The Influence and An Unmarried Woman. “I just wanted to make a film and wanted to make a certain way, and I found the means to do it,” Schatzberg modestly told Film Comment of his move into cinema.

Schatzberg went from high-end fashion right into the gutter with his next film, the aforementioned The Panic In Needle Park. Adapted by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne from James Mills’ book, this was one of the earliest films to tackle the issue of heroin addiction, with Al Pacino and Kitty Winn superb as two young junkies in love. Gritty, seamy, and deeply emotional, Schatzberg immersed himself in research to create something truly authentic and immediate. Inspired by the white-hot social realism of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers (“I just felt it was so honest and that’s the way I wanted to work”), Schatzberg employed documentary style realism to scorching effect on his sophomore effort, and The Panic In Needle Park still kicks hard today.

Jerry Schatzberg with Al Pacino and Kitty Winn on the set of The Panic In Needle Park.

With this third film, Schatzberg took the Palme D’Or at The Cannes Film Festival, but 1973’s profoundly unusual Scarecrow remains a largely forgotten curio today, best known for its potent teaming of Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. An unlikely buddy road movie, the actors throw impressive sparks off each other, and Schatzberg effectively creates a loose, freewheeling vibe highly emblematic of the era. It also once again showcased the director’s gifts when it came to getting the best out of his actors, with Hackman and Pacino at the top of their respective games.

If the reputation of Scarecrow has faded somewhat over the years, Schatzberg’s follow-up, 1976’s Sweet Revenge, is completely forgotten. A rare lead for Stockard Channing (Grease), the film is a real curio, following a female car thief who ironically wants to boost enough cars so she can buy herself a Ferrari. Schatzberg shifted gears for his next film, taking on writer/star Alan Alda’s The Seduction Of Joe Tynan, a 1979 political drama about the slow corruption of a liberal US Senator. It’s a strong, prescient work, taking on themes still relevant today, and features fine performances from Alda, Barbara Harris, Meryl Streep and Rip Torn.

Jerry Schatzberg with Al Pacino and Gene Hackman on the set of Scarecrow.

Like many directors who came up in the 1970s, the following decade would prove something of an unpredictable hunting ground for Jerry Schatzberg, with a tepid, confusing TV movie thriller (1988’s Blood Money with Andy Garcia and Ellen Barkin) and a desultory Jon Cryer-Demi Moore romantic vehicle (1984’s No Small Affair) the true low points. While not huge breakouts, his other films of the 1980s all boast abundant charms. 1980’s warm and laidback country music comedy drama Honeysuckle Rose features an all-too-rare lead turn from Willie Nelson (opposite Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving, no less); 1984’s Misunderstood is a sensitive, strongly performed father-and-sons drama starring Gene Hackman and Henry Thomas and set in Tunisia; and 1989’s Reunion is a powerful drama set against the rise of Nazism.

Schatzberg’s best 1980s effort is unquestionably 1987’s snappy, wonderfully cynical thriller Street Smart, in which Christopher Reeve’s shady New York reporter comes tumbling into the orbit of Morgan Freeman’s pimp. The film is a real forgotten gem, with the Oscar nominated Freeman a scene stealing delight as the charismatic Fast Black, one of the cinema’s all-time great pimps, and great support from Kathy Baker and Mimi Rogers. Though an uneven collection of films, Schatzberg’s 1980s oeuvre is unfairly underrated, perhaps even by the director himself. “I hate some of the films that I did, and I push them aside,” Schatzberg told The Film Stage in 2021. “There’s one that I denounce altogether. I won’t tell you which one. However, for the amount of films that I did, which was not that many, I’m quite happy with them. I think those first three were brilliant. Some of the others were really good. The studios were always trying to mess around, and it only got worse over time.”

Jerry Schatzberg with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

Pretty much sitting out the 1990s, Schatzberg returned in 2000 with the barely seen When The Ponies Came Back, in which a young Frenchman (Guillaume Canet) arrives in New York and begins an impromptu search for the father he never knew. Schatzberg hasn’t directed since, but there is a chance – even at the venerable age of 94 – that this may not be his final film. In an October 2021 interview with Indiewire, Schatzberg revealed that he is far from retired. “I’ve recently decided I’d really like to do one more film,” he said. “I don’t know what it is yet. Most of my friends can’t believe I’m the age I am because I don’t act it. I don’t really think about it. If it catches up to me, it catches up to me, but I’m not looking to that.”

One more, Mr. Schatzberg, please…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Antonia Bird, Jack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.

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