Friday, June 26, 2020

Of Defenestration and Other Deaths: Steve Bing and Joel Schumacher

Movie fans who love a mystery will be salivating over the demise of zillionaire film producer Steve Bing, who was found dead Monday at the base of the Century City residential tower where he had a luxury apartment on the 27th floor. The strong indication is that he leaped to his death. I slightly knew his mother Helen, a gracious lady who was a leading L.A. philanthropist. The fifty-five-year-old Bing was a do-gooder in his own right, pledging funds to charitable causes and giving major support to the Democratic Party. He also had a serious connection to Hollywood. His reported $80 million investment made possible the screen version of The Polar Express, which went on to earn $285 million globally. He was behind the Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light, directed by Martin Scorsese, as well as a Jerry Lee Lewis album, Last Man Standing.

Nor was Steve Bing just valued for his money. He wrote several films and TV episodes, and directed one, Every Breath. Among his 18 producer credits was a popular action flick, Get Carter. Though he kept a low profile, he made headlines when he was revealed to be the father of the son born in 2002 to British glamor-girl Elizabeth Hurley. Now a man who seemed to have everything, and lots of it, is gone. Suicide, apparently. But why?

There’s no mystery about the death that same day of 80-year-old Joel Schumacher, who succumbed to cancer in New York City. I wasn’t aware until recently that Schumacher started out as a costume designer, beginning with 1972’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Hollywood novel, Play It As It Lays. He costumed six films in all, including Woody Allen’s futuristic romp, Sleeper. He then transitioned into screenwriting, getting his name on such popular entertainments as Car Wash and The Wiz, before making the leap into directing with The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1981.For the Brat Pack hit St. Elmo’s Fire, he both wrote and directed. Of his early directorial efforts,  I’m partial to the spooky charms of The Lost Boys, the teen vampire saga set in picturesque Santa Cruz.

Once Schumacher’s directorial career got rolling, he proved a master at bringing to the screen the tense legal dramas of John Grisham, including The Client and A Time to Kill. He won the hearts of fans with thrillers of all kind (Phone Booth, starring Colin Farrell, is a prime example), and is known for his colorful contributions to the Batman screen franchise.  (Yes, he’s the genius behind casting George Clooney in Batman & Robin  and adding nipples to the Bat Suit.)

Despite his mass appeal, top critical honors eluded him, though that didn’t stop him from trying. In 2004, he directed a splashy cinematic version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, The Phantom of the Opera. (Its three Oscar nominations were all in technical categories.)

But I want to end here with a nod to one of his earliest films, The Last of Sheila. In 1973 Schumacher designed the costumes for this twisty whodunit. It was written by none other than Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, both great lovers of puzzles and word games. The story features beautiful Hollywood folk (Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch among them) cruising the Mediterranean aboard a luxury yacht, all of them somehow connected to a gossip columnist who’d died a year earlier in a hit-and-run attack. Through an elaborate game proposed by host James Coburn, secrets are revealed and it’s clear that nothing is what it seems. Which is why I can’t stop wondering about the fate of poor Steve Bing. 

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