John Sayles 1950-
(Full name John Thomas Sayles) American director, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Sayles's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 10, and 14.
An acclaimed independent filmmaker, Sayles is best known as screenwriter, director, and editor of a collection of highly personal, sometimes quirky films that have garnered limited commercial appeal despite their popularity with critics. His most notable films include Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), and Lone Star (1996).
Sayles, whose parents were both educators, was born September 28, 1950, in Schenectady, New York. He was educated at Mt. Pleasant High School in Schenectady, where he excelled less as a scholar than as an athlete, earning letters in four sports. After graduation, Sayles attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and was active in intramural sports and drama; he majored in psychology and earned a B.S. degree in 1972. For the next several years, he worked at a series of blue-collar jobs in several cities including Boston, where he worked in a meat-packing plant, and Albany, where he served as an orderly in a nursing home. Meanwhile he acted in summer stock productions in New Hampshire and wrote short stories that he submitted to various periodicals without success. In 1975 Sayles sold his first story to Atlantic Monthly and won an O. Henry Short Story Prize. He continued writing and within the next few years had produced two novels, several more short stories, and numerous nonfiction articles. He began writing screenplays for Roger Corman, known for exploitation movies in the science fiction and horror genres. The earnings from his screenwriting career, along with the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant he received in 1983, enabled him to finance his own projects—films on which he retains creative control by not only writing, but directing and editing them as well. His first independent production, Return of the Secaucus Seven, appeared in 1980, and in 2003 he completed his fourteenth independent film, Casa de los Babys. His services as screenwriter and script doctor for other producers and directors are still in great demand, and he continues to take on such assignments, sometimes uncredited, in order to continue making the type of films for which he has become famous. Sayles divides his time between his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, and his upstate New York farm, both of which he shares with his longtime partner, actress Maggie Renzi, who has produced several of Sayles's films.
Sayles's first published short story was the award-winning “I-80 Nebraska.” He also produced two novels during the 1970s: The Pride of the Bimbos (1975) and Union Dues (1977), the latter was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He then turned to writing screenplays for Corman's genre films, including Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980), and Battle beyond the Stars (1980). Sayles's critical reputation rests, however, on those projects that reflect his personal vision of such social and political issues as racism, urban decay, corruption in major league baseball, and the violence surrounding the unionization of coal miners. His narratives tend to be dialogue-driven and slow-paced, and he typically employs a large ensemble cast that includes no major Hollywood stars.
Sayles's first feature film, Return of the Secaucus Seven, involves the reunion of a group of idealistic college friends, now in their thirties, concerned that they have betrayed the values they espoused ten years earlier. The film is widely considered the inspiration for Lawrence Kasdan's far more successful The Big Chill (1983) which treated the same subject matter with a much larger budget. Sayles's next offering, The Brother from Another Planet, deals with racism and achieved a minor cult following. In 1987 Sayles released Matewan, based on the true story of the Matewan massacre in the post-World War I coal fields of West Virginia. Like most of Sayles's films, Matewan resists the stereotypical Hollywood happy ending and culminates in bloodshed and defeat for the struggling miners. Eight Men Out (1988), Sayles's representation of the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal, shows the dark side of America's favorite pastime, unlike most baseball films. The year 1991 marked the release of City of Hope, his bleak view of urban life in a medium-sized city on the skids. The following year Sayles turned to a more personal film, Passion Fish, the story of a wheelchair-bound former soap opera star who returns to her hometown in the South and recovers from her physical and psychic wounds with the help of a nurse who is a recovering drug addict. Lone Star is perhaps Sayles's most successful film to date. A richly-layered story of the cultural history of a Texas border town, the work explores tensions between African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Anglo Americans that began many decades earlier. Sayles's most recent efforts include Men with Guns (1998), Limbo (1999), Sunshine State (2002), and Casa de los Babys (2003).
In addition to his many screenplays, Sayles has also produced a third novel, Los Gusanos (1991), about the Cuban exile community in Florida. His most famous nonfiction works include Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan (1987) and Sayles on Sayles (1998).
Critical assessments of Sayles's stories have frequently been more enthusiastic than the reception from the viewing public. Many critics consider him a writer first and a director second, praising his narratives as thoughtful and intelligent. But because his films often foreground the story rather than the stylistic elements, and because exposition is often accomplished through dialogue rather than visual devices, Sayles has received a fair amount of negative attention from critics as well. Many film reviewers have considered his pacing far too slow, and others have suggested that his true medium should be television. Sayles's choice of subject matter, however, has earned him a reputation as a filmmaker with integrity, whose concern for the downtrodden and willingness to explore class distinctions are uncommon in American cinema. Andrew Sarris claims that Sayles's films typically depict “the gritty, grimy world of losers and underdogs and sufferers,” and Randall Kenen calls the director “the troubadour of the grotesque.” For Sarris, Sayles is a rare filmmaker who understands “the subtler overtones of class distinctions, social injustices, and economic inequalities in a land flooded with fantasies of equal opportunity and limitless upward mobility.” Andrew Kopkind believes that regardless of the specific social or political issue that Sayles explores, “the cultural message beneath the plot is always the same: movies need not be escapes, rituals or mystifications of ordinary experience. They can instead be mirrors for self-evaluation and parables of real life.” His films typically enjoy brief runs in a limited number of theatres, many of them art houses.
Many critics have remarked on the strong sense of place apparent in Sayles's films, whether it is a Harlem neighborhood in Brother from Another Planet, the threatening landscape of Alaska in Limbo, the Louisiana bayou country in Passion Fish, or the Donegal coast of Ireland in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Thulani Davis believes that the quintessential location for Sayles's films is Hoboken, New Jersey, which features “the face of decaying urban working towns all over, unglamorous, exposed to the elements-physical and spiritual.” She suggests that he recreates this type of space regardless of where he shoots a film. Various critics nominate different titles as Sayles's best film: Claudia Dreifus considers Matewan his masterpiece; Gavin Smith believes that Lone Star “marks his most fluent and lyrical use of the medium,” and Andrew Sarris puts Passion Fish near the top of his Ten Best List for the year 1992. Despite their differences, however, most critics agree that Sayles is one of the most important independent filmmakers in America; he is, as Trevor Johnston puts it, “the doyen of American independent film-making.”