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Stars in his eyes: photographer Michael Childers mounts a retrospective of his A-list oeuvre--and recalls his long relationship with late filmmaker John Schlesinger.

"Sissy Spacek, Christopher Walken, Richard Gere, Eric Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Shelley Duvall, John Travolta. They were [about] 23 years old!" Such is the good timing of Michael Childers, the celebrity photographer who was also the life partner of film director John Schlesinger, who died last July at age 77. Childers is currently enjoying the career retrospective "Icons and Legends: The Photography of Michael Childers" at the Palm Springs [Calif.] Desert Museum through February 15.

Many of his famous subjects were just starting out when they went before Childers's camera, especially during his peak from the late 1960s through tile early 1980s. "I had access to young actors and young stars then that no photographer has now," the 59-year-old Childers says with more awe than ego.

He recalls the day a New York agent convinced him to take some gratis head shots of a young off-Broadway actor: "The actor was Richard Gere.... He was just a kid then." Then there was the time Childers was hired by Paramount to shoot a new Australian actor named Mel Gibson, or the day reporter Maria Shriver came to Childers's studio to interview him as he happened to be snapping a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. "It wasn't the first time they'd met," he laughs, "but I saw a twinkle in their eyes."

Part of what shaped Childers's life is that for much of his relationship with Schlesinger, they were virtually the only out gay couple in Hollywood, having been together since 1966. "John was very proud of our relationship," Childers says lovingly. "We were invited everywhere together." Aside from Childers's rapport with new talent, Schlesinger's power as an Oscar-winning director ensured that the photographer would meet and often shoot Hollywood's best and brightest. (Having a New York studio across the street from Studio 54 didn't hurt either.)

Of the 60,000 photographs in Childers's catalog from which the retrospective was selected, perhaps the most striking are of one of cinema's most indelible icons: Mae West. After her visit to the set of Schlesinger's ill-fated The Day of the Locust, Childers remembers, he screened the director's groundbreaking 1971 gay film, Sunday Bloody Sunday, for the larger-than-life performer.

"She was in rapt attention," he says now, launching into his best Mae West impression. "She got up in the end and said, 'Oh, my goodness, this is one of the most important breakthroughs for the gay boys I've ever seen!'"

Vary writes for Entertainment Weekly.
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Author:Vary, Adam B.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Feb 3, 2004
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