Legendary Film Critic Andrew Sarris Dead at 83

The great film critic Andrew Sarris, who was instrumental in popularizing auteur theory in America, has died of a stomach virus at the age of 83 at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact Sarris had on the way this country sees movies. Inspired by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard and other writers for the French film journal Cahier du Cinema, Sarris penned an essay in 1962, “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” that championed the then controversial idea that directors were the sole authors of movies. Prior to Sarris and his numerous followers, Americans would talk about, say, “Dial M for Murder” as a Grace Kelly movie, not a Alfred Hitchcock film. Or, to put it in more recent terms, without Sarris, “Jaws” would be known as a Richard Dreyfuss movie, not a Steven Spielberg flick. So if you have ever talked about a filmmaker’s “oeuvre,” referred to “Pulp Fiction” as a Quentin Tarantino movie or geeked out on thematic similarities of one David Cronenberg movie with another, you can thank Sarris for that.

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And during the 1960s and ’70s, arguably the golden age of American cinema, Sarris, along with his regular sparring partner, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, helped make the country aware that movies can aspire to being more than just mindless Sunday afternoon diversions.

Sarris landed his first steady gig at the Village Voice in 1960 when he filled in for Jonas Mekas, who was taking time off to make a movie. He raved about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” — which had received decidedly mixed reviews — beseeching readers to watch the movie three times: once for the terror, once more for the dark comedy, and once again for its “hidden meanings.” He boldly proclaimed that Hitchcock was “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.” His review drew piles of hate mail but time has confirmed Sarris’ assessment of the director. Sarris ended up writing for the Voice for 28 years.

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While Sarris lovingly embraced other directors from John Ford to Sam Fuller to Martin Scorsese with similar zeal, his acerbic dismissal of other filmmakers is the stuff of legend. He lamented that Stanley Kubrick’s faults “have been rationalized as virtues.” He dismissed John Huston as “less than meets the eye.” And he wrote off Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni as “Antoniennui.”

The Twitterverse exploded with chatter at word of Sarris’ death. Roger Ebert tweated, “I will miss his intelligence and his laughter. He helped me to see movies.” New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote “the dean of our profession passes.” Director Greg Mottola, best known for “Adventureland” and “Superbad,” tweeted “very sad to hear that my former professor Andrew Sarris has passed away. An inspirational film writer and teacher. RIP, Andrew.”

And Yahoo! Movies’ Thelma Adams offers this memorial:

“Sarris was the ideal critic, who accessed his head and heart to connect with movies of all stripes, from French New Wave to American pop. Most cineastes know that he was the father of the auteur theory, but I have the good fortune to remember the man himself. When I was a green film critic at the New York Post he told me in a shared elevator that I was as beautiful as my prose. He was that kind of generous gentleman. He was an inspiration to stay honest and slay sacred cows, to look at every movie fresh without forgetting the films that went before. He loved a great intellectual fight, but in my experience he was more lover than fighter, although he suffered fools not at all.”

Sarris is survived by his longtime spouse and intellectual partner Molly Haskell.

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June 2012

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