NEW YORK – Film critic and essayist Andrew Sarris, a longtime contributor to “The Village Voice” and other newspapers and one of North America's most enthusiastic champions of the auteur theory, has died. He was 83 years old.
According to the New York Times, Sarris passed away yesterday at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, of complications stemming from an infection following a fall.
Known for his endorsement of the auteur theory – which suggests that the director is most responsible for a film's cinematic voice and quality – and for his intellectual rivalry with legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, Sarris is being mourned by many in the current critical establishment.
“In my own first days as a film critic, Kael was my muse, but Sarris was my mapmaker,” Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote in a tribute yesterday. “He was the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest... Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors.”
Salon contributor Andrew O'Hehir recalled sitting in on Sarris' Columbia University lectures as a student in the 1980s. “His lectures were memorable performances, sometimes wandering from one digression into another, Diderot-style, without quite losing the thread, and sometimes piercing right to the heart of the matter with a perfect bon mot,” O'Hehir wrote yesterday. “But don’t let me mislead you: Sarris was... probably the most analytical and theoretical of the titanic film critics who dominated the New York media conversation in the 1960s and for some time thereafter.”
Sarris was born and raised in the boroughs of New York City, and he fell in love with the movies as a young child. After college and an army stint, he spent a year in Paris, where he met Cahiers du Cinéma founders François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol – all of whom would become highly influential film directors during the 1960s as part of the French New Wave. It was here that Sarris first learned about auteurism – a term that he later coined in his 1962 essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory”.
He began to write for Film Culture, a movie periodical based in Manhattan's East Village, in the mid-1950s. In 1960, he persuaded The Village Voice to give him a shot. His first review for the Voice won him immediate controversy: it was a rave review of Psycho, in which he called the movie "the first American movie since Touch of Evil to stand in the same creative rank as the great European films" and Alfred Hitchcock “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today” – at a time when most serious American critics didn't consider Hitchcock anything more than a formulaic, commercial entertainer.
Sarris' acclaimed book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 was published in 1968 and revealed his choices for the fourteen greatest U.S.-based directors of all time – a list that included Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford, Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. The book also chided David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder as being overrated – although Sarris later changed his mind about Wilder. (Sarris also reversed his negative opinion of 2001: A Space Odyssey after seeing the movie a second time – “while under the influence of a smoked substance that I was assured by my contact was somewhat stronger and more authentic than oregano.”)
In contrast to Kael's famously personal, jazzy writing style, which reflected her emotional reactions to the movies that she reviewed, Sarris' style was more analytical and theoretical. In the heyday of the two critics' rivalry, serious movie lovers often identified themselves as either Paulettes or Sarrisettes.
After his stint with the Voice, Sarris wrote for the New York Observer for many years, but true to the age of the decline of print media, the newspaper laid him off in 2009.
Sarris is survived by his wife of 43 years, fellow film critic Molly Haskell.