The great film critic Andrew Sarris, remembered chiefly for his advocacy of the “auteur theory” in America, has died at age 83, due to complications from a fall. He’s survived by his wife Molly Haskell, another film critic and the author of the essential feminist book From Reverence To Rape: The Treatment Of Women In The Movies.
There’s no overstating Sarris’ impact on film criticism and scholarship, which is as significant and lasting as that of his chief sparring partner, Pauline Kael. Inspired by the critics/filmmakers writing in Cahiers du Cinéma—a magazine he later helped translate into English—Sarris wrote the 1962 essay “Notes On The Auteur Theory,” which imported the then-radical/now-commonplace notion of the director as the author of the film, with a stamp every bit as distinctive (in its best instances, anyway) as the writer of a novel. Sarris’ 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 is the auteurist bible, using directors (and related categories) as the organizing principle for a critical history of sound-era cinema. Though some of his dismissals earned him some blowback—Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, and John Huston rank low in the pantheon, for example—the theory exalted the work of filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, who at the time was considered more as a commercial craftsman than a genuine artist. In his first and most famous review for The Village Voice—where he wrote for 28 years—Sarris hailed Hitchcock as “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.” Sarris was flooded with angry letters, according to this retrospective piece by the Voice’s J. Hoberman, but time has surely vindicated him.
As self-styled American auteurs took over Hollywood in the late ’60s and ’70s, Sarris was one of the handful of major critical voices who shaped the conversation—and it was a contentious one, at that. Throwdowns were common: Sarris once referred to the viciously acerbic John Simon as “the greatest film critic of the 19th century” and battled openly with Kael, whose essay “Circles And Squares” pilloried auteurist thinking. Yet despite these dust-ups, Sarris’ tone was always more reflective and circumspect than that of his contemporaries, and he was never quite as rigid in his thinking as anti-auteurists believed. He had a modest prose style, built around strong ideas, careful argument, and an understanding of where individual films fit in the broader context of film history. Sarris’ influence carried over into academia, too: He served as a longtime professor at Columbia University and other institutions, where he brought intellectual legitimacy to film study and criticism.
Controversial as the auteur theory was at the time, the word “auteur” has become ingrained in critical language—to the point of misuse and abuse, occasionally—and the notion of looking at movies through that prism is accepted practice. He tread softly—in this brilliant profile by Kent Jones in Film Comment, he claimed never to argue with people about movies—but left the deepest footprint.