Remembering Andrew Sarris: A Great American Film Critic

He changed the way people look at movies. He wrote the most influential book on American films. He was a mentor and a friend. He is irreplaceable.

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Film critic Andrew Sarris at the 25th Anniversary Of Columbia University's Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall on May 4, 2012 in New York City.

In 1960, The Village Voice, the Greenwich Village weekly that had established itself as the house organ for New York’s boho intelligentsia, assigned a film review to an underemployed 31-year-old son of Greek immigrants. The movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; the freelancer, Andrew Sarris. “Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today,” Sarris wrote. “Besides making previous horror films look like variations of Pollyanna, Psycho is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.”

These were fighting words — not just to Voice readers, for whom avant-garde art cinema was the only garde, but to mainstream moviegoers, who might have seen the Hitchcock hit as nothing more than an efficient scare machine, and to Hollywood hierarchy, which believed only liberal dramas deserved to be taken seriously. Hitchcock, who never won an Oscar, an artist? A lurid story of mass murder and mother love (and mother murder), a surpassing and radical work of art? Some readers demanded that Sarris be flushed down the drain. Instead, the Voice made him their chief film critic and gave him a weekly pulpit to promote his view that the director was the author of a film and, more important, that cinema was a form of aesthetic expression as rich as life and much more beautiful.

In nearly a half-century of weekly columns for the Voice and The New York Observer, and in his 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 — surely the most audacious, influential and glorious single volume in U.S. film history — Sarris demonstrated that movie criticism could be its own art, powerful and poetic. In the Pantheon of American film critics whose members include James Agree, Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman and Richard T. Jameson, as well as Sarris’s wife and muse Molly Haskell, he could be considered first among equals for the sustained quality of his writing and its lasting effect on the medium. When he died yesterday, in Manhattan, at 83, he left a grand legacy as a writer and teacher (at Columbia, Yale and New York University) and, for many who walked in his shadow, a mentor and friend.

(LIST: Find Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema on the all-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books)

I’m one of those shadow figures. As a teenage subscriber to the Voice, and a lover of foreign films, I read that Psycho review and realized that a movie didn’t need subtitles to be profound. For two years in the late 1960s, I took Andy’s courses at the NYU School of Cinema Studies. In the early ’70s I wrote freelance reviews at the Voice under his tutelage, and he contributed pieces to the magazine I edited, Film Comment. He wrote the introduction to my 1974 book on screenwriters, Talking Pictures, whose format I shamelessly stole from The American Cinema. For many years I served with Andy or Molly on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival.

My wife Mary and I, who like Andy and Molly were married in the summer of 1969, spent memorable days and nights with this golden couple in Cannes, Sarasota, Portofino and Quogue, Long Island. Mary cooked dinner for Andy’s 50th birthday; six years later she wished him happy birthday standing at his hospital bed as he battled a life-threatening virus. He beat that bug, surviving and thriving until death finally took him. His departure makes me sadder than I can say.

Mr. American Cinema

Born in Brooklyn on Halloween, 1928, he grew up in Queens, where he lived at the movies in the days when urban neighborhoods had several large theaters showing the films of “more stars than there are in heaven.” Vivien Leigh was his first serious screen crush; he saw her in Gone With the Wind and That Hamilton Woman dozens of times each. After graduating from Columbia, he spent three years in the Signal Corps, then worked as a script reader for 20th Century-Fox. When he was 30, Film Culture published Andy’s essay on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the movie that for many critics announced the arrival of film as something between an art and a religion. Writing the story literally made him sick, cuing a longstanding love-hate appraisal of the Swedish director.

You see, Andy revered not just the American cinema but all cinema, especially French. He used to argue (sometimes, I suspect, just to argue) that Max Ophuls’ 1955 romantic epic Lola Montès was the greatest film ever made; and he championed the work of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol — all former critics who had blossomed into directors. Andy never felt that urge. He was a lifelong movie-watcher, by profession and obsession. In a 1963 interview with himself in the New York Film Bulletin, this liberal Democrat chose rapture over ideology — “If I must choose between beautiful people and ugly problems, I will choose the beautiful people and leave the problems to the politicians” — and offered a three-word mantra to summarize his conception of the cinema: “Girls! Girls! Girls!”

(READ: Corliss on Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma)

A year in Paris in 1961 exposed Andy to the politique des auteurs: the notion, proposed by Truffaut and the other critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, that the director is the author of a film no less than a writer is the author of a book. In his 1963 rough draft of The American Cinema, also published Film Culture, he applied that policy to American directors, long thought of only as the foremen on the assembly line of the Hollywood dream factory. All of “the American cinema,” he argued, could be defined through the men (in those days, almost always the men) with the megaphones. He called it “the auteur theory.”

Those days at Queens movie theaters, it turned out, served as research for an epic reconsideration of Hollywood film. Long before home video made the full Hollywood banquet available to study and savor, and ages before the Internet Movie Database provided credits for virtually every film ever made, The American Cinema was an invaluable reference work. It alerted budding cinephiles to a vast trove of popular artistry, as unearthed by its chief curator and connoisseur, and inspired a generation of young critics for whom no Poverty Row Peckinpah was too obscure to be lionized. For better or worse, it also certified the redundant directorial credit, as in “Rock of Ages… Directed by Adam Shankman… An Adam Shankman Film.”

The Far Side of Sarris-dise

The Galileo of film critics, Andy constructed a Hollywood cosmology of 200 directors, who were listed not alphabetically but in categories with titles either honorific (“Pantheon” for, say, Howard Hawks, “The Far Side of Paradise” for Preston Sturges) or proscriptive (“Less Than Meets the Eye” for John Huston, “Strained Seriousness” for Stanley Kubrick). Thus by its format, the book automatically exalted opinion, and a judgment was urged on readers before they ever began reading. The tactic was described as an “insane mnemonic device” by Film Quarterly editor Ernest “Chic” Callenbach (another prime source of movie enlightenment, who died two months ago, also at 83). At the time, I thought of Sarris’s ranking system as baseball stats with attitude. Anyway, Chic was right. More than 40 years on, I can still recall the place settings for each director at Andy’s banquet, as well as the ones he consigned to dine downstairs with the servants.

This rating hints at two hallmarks of the Sarris brand of auteurism (which is like saying “the Jesus brand of Christianity,” for both are radical systems that become orthodoxy, and both have been exploited for commercial purposes). One is its genesis, not just in sympathy with the French proponents of director worship, but in antipathy to the comfortable stodginess of Bosley Crowther, for 27 years the film critic of the New York Times. As much as Sarris yearned to canonize Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, he also needed to cauterize the work of directors laureled by front-line movie reviewers. This made Crowther the hidden auteur of the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category, a Hall of Shame that Billy Wilder shares with, among others, John Huston, Elia Kazan, David Lean and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The only thing the Less men had in common was praise from Crowther, and that, I suspect, sealed their fate.

Until they got old. And here is the second law of Andyology: when a director became eligible for Social Security, he entered that “melancholy twilight” phase of his career that Sarris found profoundly touching long before he reached his own seniority. So Ryan’s Daughter redeemed Lean, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes elevated Wilder. Politique polemics gave way to intimations of mortality, and creative immortality.

(LIST: the all-TIME 100 Movies)

Back in the ’60s I was skeptical of Sarris’ gerontophilia — his belief that advancing age can stoke genius, and a high hack can grow, not decline, into an auteur. But now I am touched by the sentiment. It pointed to his respect for the old moviemakers whom he had rescued from anonymity. As Disraeli said, and Andy loved to repeat, “In the long run, we are all dead.” That is true. It is also true that, thanks to Sarris, some directors and films will never die. He was the prime reviver of our ragged, treasured art.

If readers came to The American Cinema for the polemics or the stats, they stayed for the insights, rendered in epigrams (that “Billy Wilder is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism”) or philosophical effusions (that “the cinema is both a window and a mirror”). Less the commissar of critics than a romantic poet whose subject was cinema, Sarris believed that “the world [could] be remade in the moonbeams of a movie projector.” As his masterwork proved, the film world could also be enlightened by one man’s passion and eloquence.

Over the years, Andy was encouraged to update The American Cinema. I suggested that he enlarge it to include other potential auteurs, not just screenwriters but producers (David O. Selznick), actors (James Cagney), cinematographers (John Alton) — craftspeople who dominated the films they made. In the late ’70s he had planned to reduce the categories to two: “Pantheon Directors” and everyone else. But the decades rattled on without a second edition of this invaluable work of criticism, and in the mid-’90s Andy told me there would never be one. I’ll bet he eventually saw the book as a creature of its time, even as the films he wrote about were phantoms of another age. Besides, he continued to refine and redefine his vision of the book’s directors and their successors in his columns for the Voice and the Observer — a living history of world cinema in weekly installments.

Teacher

Great critics are not necessarily great teachers; writing and talking are antithetical as performance arts. So in September 1967, when I signed up for Sarris’s film history course at New York University’s School of Cinema Studies, I didn’t know what to expect. Never having seen this brilliant critic in the flesh, I did assume he’d be thin and intense, a hawklike visage on a scarecrow body, wrapped in tweeds and sporting a scarf that blew dramatically even when there was no wind —  Basil Rathbone, say, with an mid-American accent. His intellectual energy would have burned away excess calories. Of course this was an idiot notion. It ignored the givens of the professional life of a film critics: sitting on their butts watching movies, then sitting on their butts writing about them.

When I entered that trapezoidal classroom on East Ninth Street, I saw a panda man — a large fellow just shy of 40 with sad eyes and an air of genial melancholy. He seemed unaware of his eminence, wearing his legendary status as uneasily as his anonymous dark suits. There was a tentative note in his high, musical voice, as if the bolts of wisdom he was hurling at the grad students were the merest suggestions, submitted for our approval. We expected fire and fury; we got a puppy dog, of the basset breed, eager to please. And please us he did, in great inspirational doses.

Sarris was a superb teacher, a charismatic guide to world cinema. I wish I’d taken copious notes in his classes, or at least saved the notes I took. What I do recall is the format and the impact. Each week Sarris would show, on a rickety 16mm projector, a classic film (Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel, for example). Before the screening he offered remarks that sketched, with the acuity of a Daumier, the director’s achievements; afterward he’d have a colloquy with the class. Sarris never failed to persuade—often of the film’s greatness, always of his own powers of analysis and rapture.

(READ: TIME’s 10 Best Movies of the Millennium, Thus Far)

For this transcendent performer, the NYU lectures weren’t rough drafts for next week’s Voice column, or for an essay in a film magazine. They were intellectual happenings, Coltrane-worthy improvs on the evening’s theme. He’d get revved up, fueled by his eloquence, and almost literally levitate, taking his students on the super-Sarris ride.

I remember one of these flights, in a later seminar on film criticism. He started talking about some 1968 film, possibly Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George, and soon riffed on the kinship of acting and homosexuality. (The connections, which he might not have made in later decades, were self-love and self-doubt.) Then he subsided, spent, and looked around at us, muttering ruefully that he had just spilled his insights to an audience of twelve. At that moment we felt like some anonymous woman whom Warren Beatty had lavished an energetic evening on — sad that we hadn’t satisfied his expectations, thrilled that he had exceeded ours.

Rather than maintaining an Olympian distance from his students, Andy was always approachable. In the two years I took Sarris’s NYU courses, I was also freelancing film pieces for National Review, Commonweal, The New York Times, Film Quarterly and Film Comment. Gradually he connected the skulker in the third row with the occasional byline above movie reviews. “You’re not a student,” he said to me once, “you’re a competitor! Com-pe-ti-tor!” Maybe he didn’t use the exact words that Spencer Tracy directed at Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib; nonetheless, I took the jibe as a compliment. A mentor might become a colleague.

Citizen Kael

“In 1963 I rose from obscurity to notoriety by being quoted out of context,” Andy wrote in the introduction to his 1970 collection Confessions of a Cultist. “The first inkling that I had acquired a position of power came when I was attacked by other critics. Ironically, my enemies were the first to alert me to the fact that I had followers.”

His 1963 “enemy” was Pauline Kael, then 43 and a freelance film critic in San Francisco. In Film Quarterly, Kael wrote a long broadside, “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” attacking Andy’s Film Culture piece, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” and concluded by asking if he and like-minded critics were “making a comment on our civilization by the suggestion that trash is art?”

When she became a critic for The New Yorker, Kael would occasionally blur the line between trash (bad) and art (good). But her attack resounded, less in the specific argument than in her making it personal. “That wild old woman,” as Quentin Tarantino would later call her, was matchless at picking fights. Kael’s and Sarris’s apposite articles, in two magazines whose combined circulation of Torq/Lite hydraulic wrenches was surely less than 10,o00, helped promote both writers to fame and controversy, at a time when — don’t laugh, anyone who wasn’t around then — film criticism was at the center of the cultural discussion.

(READ Corliss on Pauline Kael by subscribing to TIME)

For almost a decade, Sarris couldn’t be mentioned without a reference to Kael, and vice versa; they became the Fred and Ginger, the Liz and Dick, of film arbiters. Each critic gathered acolytes among the young, a kind of salon of kindred souls. Pauline got reviewing jobs for many of her protégés, whom I dubbed “Paulettes”; the name stuck. Andy hired some of his students to write for the Voice film section — Wilfrid Sheed called us “Sarrisites” — but he was much less dogmatic than Kael in insisting we hew to the party line. Any auteurist who would harbor a screenwriter-lover like me in his bosom must have been wearing a platinum breastplate.

It galled Andy to be linked with Pauline, but he often did the linking. In my first issue as Film Comment‘s editor, the lead article was his “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1970,” in which he restated his affirmative-action policy toward directors and waded once more into the Kael maelstrom. Clearly he had tired of  “playing good old Charlie Brown to Miss K.’s Lucy”; clearly her old slights still rankled. “And that is about all that can be said on the subject,” Andy wrote, before spitting another few hundred words in her general direction. Perhaps he still smarted at the “Joys and Sarris” subtitle of Kael’s 1963 screed; she had punned on a mispronunciation of his name, which rhymes with Harris, not Doris.

Or maybe he was recalling their first meeting. It was about 1965 — Kael having just moved to New York to write for McCall’s — when she invited her rival for a chat in her West Side apartment. Andy told his friend Eugene Archer, then a critic at the Times, “It’ll be like Woman of the Year,” alluding to the 1942 George Cukor movie that marked the first on-screen pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. After the rendezvous, Sarris told Archer, “She’s no Katharine Hepburn.” Archer’s retort: “And you’re no Spencer Tracy.”

Molly

Andrew was not exactly Spencer Tracy. Over the years he reminded me of Gene Hackman (with his large man’s improbable grace), and F.D.R. (the rings around the eyes, the fate-defying upward tilt of the head). But this Greek Spencer found his Hepburn — as much Audrey as Katharine — in Molly. Gifted, gorgeous, chic as Chanel, Molly also had that Sarrisish sand-in-the-oyster feeling of an outsider at the marvelous party to which her celebrity had made her an honored guest.

These qualities proved ideal for Molly in her new role as Andrew’s companion, critic, and keeper. She gently instructed him in the proper volume for dinner conversation. Her aristocratic feminism — she wrote the 1974 From Reverence to Rape, that acute, liberated history of women in movies — perfectly complimented his informed, star-struck romanticism for most things female. Her laugh, as knowing as Rosalind Russell’s but warmer, lent perspective to his occasional hot flashes and blue moods.

Molly was Andy’s nurse and good-humor woman through his bizarre, catastrophic illness in 1984, even as he worked heroically to jolly her through the illness that immediately followed his recovery. (She wrote a wonderful book about that awful year: Love and Other Infectious Diseases.) Under her loving care, Andy evolved into Andrew.

(READ: Margaret Carlson’s review of Love and Other Infectious Diseases)

In the first year of their marriage, Molly and Andrew had contributed tandem rhapsodies to Vogue, each extolling the other’s brilliance, sanity and wit. It was the sort of public declaration of love that leads a couple’s friends to fear the worst; we figured they’d be Reno-bound in no time. But they confounded the Cassandras by remaining exemplarily independent and interdependent.

What Andrew wrote of Mankiewicz in The American Cinema, that “his vibrant women … shine with special brilliance from midnight to the three o’clock in the morning of the soul,” might be meant as a paean to his own vibrant woman. Street kid and penthouse lady, the Sarris-Haskells were the couple of the year — any year from 1969 till today, and forever. Rest in peace, Andrew. Live long and be strong, Molly.

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