In praise of Andrew Sarris: Remembering the late film critic who championed the auteur theory
New York City’s Anthology Film Archives will pay tribute to the highly influential film critic Andrew Sarris, who died last June, with a series called “Expressive Esoterica,” named after a chapter on unsung, idiosyncratic auteurs in his landmark book, The American Cinema. The series runs Feb. 22-24 and March 22-31. FJI contributor Harry Haun here offers his own salute to Sarris, including highlights from the October 2012 Sarris memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.
Andrew Sarris—a critic, teacher and lover of film who preached what he practiced, mostly in The Village Voice (1960-1989) and lastly in The New York Observer (2007-2009)—made his professional movie-reviewing debut in the summer of 1960 with a classic blast of trumpets for Psycho, unmasking Alfred Hitchcock as a brilliant avant-garde artist parading himself as a commercial craftsman. The director, easily the best-known one of his day, was in a crucial career crisis at this point in time.
How crucial is elaborated on at length and with some depth in the recent film titled simply Hitchcock. He had just come off North by Northwest, a super-successful fun flick in which he calculatedly pushed the right buttons of his audience by replaying himself for laughs. Self-imitation is not the healthiest kind of creativity, he recognized, so he veered off into a daring new direction with Psycho, imbuing sensationalism with an aggressive artistic agenda. Sarris did cartwheels—and became the one-man band heralding this new Hitchcock.
If you did not know Sarris was one of the great tablet-givers of contemporary cinema criticism, you would have guessed as much from the guest-list at his memorial service at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, which was filled to overflowing with several decades of the film community’s crème de la crème.
From that landmark notice in The Voice in June 1960 to his well-considered words on Martin Provost’s Seraphine and Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro in The Observer in June 2009, Sarris was the go-to guy for generations of film-smitten innocents who didn’t know where to look until he pointed out the director behind the camera.
It was a theory he picked up in Paris during that twilight year between completing his military obligation and getting a job. Inspired by a François Truffaut article published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954 (“Une Certain Tendance du Cinema François”), Sarris transplanted on these shores the seeds of the very French idea that the director is the auteur of a film the way a composer is the author of a concerto or a writer is the author of a novel. Daring stuff back then, believe it or not.
Sarris said this first in a 1962 essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” and then it was the basis of his 1968 magnum opus, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, in which he boldly listed the greatest film directors and assigned them rooms in his pantheon. Fourteen made the first cut: Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Josef von Sternberg, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. In a sequel to the book 36 years later, he kicked Billy Wilder upstairs, with apologies for his years of critical myopia.
His pet? Probably the least-recognized name in the litter: Max Ophuls, whose 30-film career ran from Germany to France to America to France again. His best-known, and best, work was done during his final stretch: the Joan Fontaine-Louis Jourdan Letter from an Unknown Woman, La Ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de… and Lola Montes. Through it all, he wielded a fluid camera across rococo backdrops.
In 1984, Sarris was struck down by a mysterious virus that couldn’t be identified, let alone treated. At one point during his six-month hospitalization, the key doctor attending him asked him if he would mind that the malady be named after him when a cure is finally found. Sarris thought a long beat and said, “No, name it Ophuls.”
When he did die last June 20, it wasn’t “Ophuls” that got him (although he’d have fully embraced the diagnosis); it was from complications of an infection after a fall.
Love found Andrew Sarris in the late ’60s, and in 1969 he married Molly Haskell, herself a film critic of considerable heft and longevity. (“She realized she had been going to too many screenings,” Sarris once said, “when she jumped into a taxi and said, ‘Sixteen-hundred Broadway, twelfth floor.”) She selected all the memorial speakers, making each promise to leave her out of it and focus only on her husband.
A few impetuous ones broke ranks and spilled some lovely beans. It was too good a love story. They were the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn of film criticism.
Actually, Sarris had made an earlier pass at a Tracy-Hepburn relationship—a rather long-distance pass, according to a pal, Richard Corliss, his critical counterpart at Time magazine. When Pauline Kael decided to switch coasts and play in The Big Boys’ Sand Pile in New York, she proposed Sarris meet her for lunch. In view of the vitriol and derision she had hurled at his auteur theory from her power-base bunker in San Francisco, he was taken aback a bit but intrigued and rose to the bait. “Perhaps it’ll be Woman of the Year,” reasoned this inveterate man of the movies.
Dream on. What transpired at that lunch—and the mind boils, bubbles and boggles!—the world will never know. It stayed there. “She’s no Hepburn,” Sarris grumbled later to Corliss, who quickly came back with “And you’re no Tracy!”
The 17 who spoke at the service came from all walks of life and, pretty much, presented all sides of Sarris—in contexts hard to imagine. Several mentioned how miscast he seemed on the tennis court but how he came through anyway without great involvement in the activity. A Columbia colleague who taught math recalled how “ennobling” it felt when addressed by him, in mock formality, with “Mr.” before his surname. The infectious, impossible-to-imitate Sarris laugh, of course, came in for some play as well. Truth is, Sarris’ normal way of speaking was as if he was on the brink of breaking into laughter, that he could see the joke coming eight words away. It was inviting, endearing, accepting—unforgettable for the movie-critic cub who came within earshot of it and fell under its spell. He was beyond jovial.
Directors Robert Benton and Jonathan Demme were the two Oscar-winners on the docket. The driving forces from New York Film Festivals Past, Wendy Keyes and Richard Peña, had their says, with Keyes reading a letter of condolence that Haskell received from Meryl Streep, whose art was slow to win over Sarris.
“I was a benefactor of that generosity of vision,” Streep wrote of his turnabout. “He changed his mind about me and some of my work. Unafraid and undaunted by all the arched eyebrows, he announced it to a roomful of critics a few winters ago with warmth and good humor. It made my decade. I send you so many good thoughts, Molly, and strengthening wishes. I never thought I would cry for a critic, but there you go. I guess I’m not too old to be chastened by good will and grace.”
There was a parade of these arched eyebrows to the podium. Richard Schickel, Annette Insdorf, Film Comment’s Kent Jones, Phillip Lopate and Carrie Rickey from that thinning herd weighed in with moving remarks about their absent friend.
None of the critics or the directors brought an editor, so sentiments poured slowly from the heart, but it seemed to be the way the audience wanted to receive them.
No. 16 on the bill—David Thomson, the final critic to speak—joshed about the passage of time when he arrived well after the two-hour mark, deep into overtime: “I’ve been urged to assure you that the half-time interval in this event is coming up shortly.”
Thomson, who is something of a Sarris facsimile in Britain, turned out to be the most eloquent of the lot. “Andy wrote and taught and defined the job we have tried to keep alive,” said his friend from across the pond. “He published one of the most influential film books, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, and one of the least-read classics, You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet. And we are here because he is not. There’s great regret in that—and tenderness for the most important woman in his life, but his luck and his ability to seize the moment are to be rejoiced in.
“More than that, I can bring you fresh news,” he added, doing an elaborate Joe E. Brown kind of wind-up for a curve ball that caught everybody off-guard and landed a little like the euphoric-fantasy finish of Robert Benton’s film Places in the Heart.
Speaking in the crispest of Queen’s English, moving slowing and deliberately over a well-charted course, emphasizing key words as he went, he did quite a pitch. If he didn’t say the following in italics, it certainly seemed to be received that way:
“As you might suspect, Andy went from here to a fine, small viewing theatre, with flawless projection, and film—celluloid—was unquestioned. The archivist had done his preparation so he asked Andy, ‘What’ll it be, sir? The Earrings of Madame de… perhaps?’
“Andy could hardly credit his paradise. But he watched his old favorite in bliss. It seemed to be not just a new, 35mm print but the best he’d ever seen. When it was over, the archivist was at hand, wanting to know, ‘Did you enjoy that, sir?’
“‘Oh, Lord, did I!’ said Andy, in that soaring, sweet-sour drawl he had.
“The archivist smiled and said, ‘Well, sir, Monsieur Ophuls has not been idle in the last 50 years. Auteurship has been extended.’
“Andy gasped, ‘He’s made more films? They can be seen?’
“The archivist drew a piece of paper out of the air and said, ‘Now, let me see. There is The Magnolia Trees of Madame de..., The Tarte Tatin of Madame de…, Madame de…Meets Marcel Proust, Madame de…Goes Boating—oh yes, and this just delivered—not rated yet: The Weightless Undergarments of Madame de…’
“‘I’ll keep that for last,’ said Andy.
“The archivist smiled. ‘Sir, where we are now, there is no last.’
“‘Then give me the Tarte Tatin,’ said Andy, and he settled back in his deep, soft chair—the best cinema seat he had ever known. The lights dimmed again, the screen comes to life—but, at that very moment, a small busy woman enters the theatre and scurries to a seat a few rows in front and begins to take fierce notes.
“Andy realizes that it is still Pauline. He wonders if he should take notes, too. But he cannot.
“Molly is holding his hand.”