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Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris

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Also Known As: Andrew George Sarris Died: June 20, 2012
Born: October 31, 1928 Cause of Death: Complications from a Stomach Virus
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA Profession: critic, professor, author, case worker in New York City government

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Film critic Andrew Sarris rose to prominence during his long tenure with The Village Voice as America's leading proponent of the auteur theory of film analysis. Inspired by the ideas expressed in Francois Truffaut's landmark 1954 essay "Une Certaine tendance du cinema francais," he introduced to American readers the notion that film, ideally, was a medium of personal expression for the director, who deserved recognition as an "auteur" in his 1962 essay called "Notes on the Auteur Theory." Almost immediately, he found a virulent opponent in Pauline Kael who engaged in a decades-long debate with Sarris over the theory, which she deemed immature, vague and derivative. Sarris' best known book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968), expanded his "notes" to full-fledged theory, and Kael responded with Raising Kane (1971), her repudiation of Sarris citing "Citizen Kane" (1940), supposedly the quintessential auteur film, as a collective achievement for which the contributions of scenarist Herman J. Mankiewicz and cameraman Gregg Toland had been severely underestimated. As the decades passed, Sarris and his theory remained relevant to generations of new writers and filmmakers, while...

Film critic Andrew Sarris rose to prominence during his long tenure with The Village Voice as America's leading proponent of the auteur theory of film analysis. Inspired by the ideas expressed in Francois Truffaut's landmark 1954 essay "Une Certaine tendance du cinema francais," he introduced to American readers the notion that film, ideally, was a medium of personal expression for the director, who deserved recognition as an "auteur" in his 1962 essay called "Notes on the Auteur Theory." Almost immediately, he found a virulent opponent in Pauline Kael who engaged in a decades-long debate with Sarris over the theory, which she deemed immature, vague and derivative. Sarris' best known book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968), expanded his "notes" to full-fledged theory, and Kael responded with Raising Kane (1971), her repudiation of Sarris citing "Citizen Kane" (1940), supposedly the quintessential auteur film, as a collective achievement for which the contributions of scenarist Herman J. Mankiewicz and cameraman Gregg Toland had been severely underestimated. As the decades passed, Sarris and his theory remained relevant to generations of new writers and filmmakers, while Kael had fallen from her lofty perch over allegations of kowtowing to Hollywood. Throughout it all, Sarris was among the key figures in American film criticism, and his collected body of work wielded considerable influence on film studies, as well as Hollywoodâ¿¿s concept of the directorâ¿¿s role in the conception of a film.

Born in Brooklyn, NY on Oct. 31, 1928, he was the son of real estate investor George and Themis Sarris, Greek immigrants who raised him and his brother George in Ozone Park. He fell in love with the movies at an early age, enduring his familyâ¿¿s poverty, caused by his fatherâ¿¿s reckless investments, by following film awards and critical circles with the same dogged, highly opinionated passion as baseball fans or opera lovers. Upon graduating from Columbia College in 1951, he served three years in the Army Signal Corps before returning home to Queens to live with his mother after his fatherâ¿¿s death. He spent much of his time avoiding the rigors of a 9-5 job, working briefly as a story consultant at Fox and a case worker for New York Cityâ¿¿s social services department. He also traveled extensively to Paris, where he befriended members of the French New Wave, including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Upon his return, he began writing film criticism for Film Culture, but found the job wanting.

In 1960, he persuaded the editors of The Village Voice to let him review films for their pages. He immediately ignited a firestorm of controversy among cineastes for a spirited defense of Alfred Hitchcockâ¿¿s "Psycho" (1960) â¿¿ the epitome of crass genre filmmaking by an unquestionably commercial filmmaker. Despite vigorous demands for his dismissal, The Voice kept Sarris on staff, noting that his viewpoint kept film criticism from becoming stale and single-minded by generating such spirited debate. In 1962, shortly after being named the editor-in-chief of the French film magazine Caheirs du Cinemaâ¿¿s English language version, he penned "Notes on the Auteur Theory," an essay inspired by the writings in Caheirs about the significance of the director as the filmâ¿¿s primary author. Among those filmmakers championed in the essay, and in subsequent works, were such Hollywood figures as Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks, who were joined by iconoclasts like Orson Welles and Samuel Fuller. Dismissed in the work were such legendary figures as John Huston, David Lean and Elia Kazan.

The results were decidedly explosive, with Sarris going mano-a-mano in the pages of the New York press with such established figures as John Simon, whom Sarris described as the "greatest film critic of the 19th century." But it was his verbal brawls with Kael at The New Yorker which inspired the most substantive press, as well as a loyal division of followers on either side of the argument who were dubbed "the Sarristes" and the "Paulettes." Among his acolytes were such noted critics as J. Hoberman, A.O. Scott, Kenneth Turan and the controversial Armond White. Despite the inherent problems of the auteur theory (i.e., it did not account for the collaborative nature of creative filmmaking nor for the role of the film viewer in interpreting the film), it found a niche in circles both academic and popular. Sarris even wielded some influence over Hollywood filmmaking by spurring the rise of billing even the most routine directorâ¿¿s efforts as "A Name-of-Director Film" in its opening credits. In 1966, Sarris co-founded the highly influential National Society of Film Critics. He continued to write for The Voice while promulgating his ideas as a teacher, first at NYC's School of Visual Arts and later at New York University. Beginning his association with Columbia University in 1969, he rose to full professor in 1980, shortly before being made Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters in France. He even dabbled in the creative end of films, making uncredited contributions to the screenplays of "Justine" (1969) and Jules Dassinâ¿¿s "Promise at Dawn" (1970). In 1989, Sarris moved to The New York Observer while continuing to write and edit authoritative books on the cinema, including You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949 (1998), in which he revisited many of the auteurs discussed in his landmark American Cinema, revising some opinions, none more radically than his new appreciation for Billy Wilder. He also hosted a radio show on New Yorkâ¿¿s WBAI-FM, and proved to be a pleasurable interviewee on such TV documentaries as "John Wayne Standing Tall" (PBS, 1989), "Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer" (PBS, 1990), "Billy Wilder: The Human Comedy" (PBS, 1998) and "Charlie Chaplin: A Tramp's Life" (A&E, 1998). In 1998, he obtained his masterâ¿¿s degree from Columbia University.

Sarris left the Voice in 1989 to write for The New York Observer, where he remained into the new millennium. His lasting influence on the critical community was feted by the Pulitzer Prize organization, which named him a finalist for criticism in 2000; the following year, an essay collection Citizen Sarris, featured tributes by Roger Ebert, critic David Thomson and filmmakers Martin Scorsese and John Sayles. Budget cuts forced his layoff from the Observer in 2009, after which he moved to Film Comment. Though his output had slowed with age, he was still among American film criticism⿿s most skilled practitioners, as evidenced by a $10,000 prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his "progressive⿦ and original" work. On June 20, 2012, Sarris⿿ wife, the critic Molly Haskell, announced that he had died at St. Luke⿿s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan after complications developed from a stomach virus.

By Paul Gaita

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1948:
Reportedly hit by a truck crossing the street c. 1948 "after seeing 'That Hamilton Woman' (1941) for the 37th time or something"; during convalescence (on crutches for about a year), he started going to movies all the time
1952:
Served in U.S. Army Signal Corps
1955:
Worked as an associate editor of <i>Film Culture</i>
1955:
Served as story consultant at 20th Century-Fox
:
Worked for a time in the early 1960s as a case worker in NYC social services and city government
1960:
Wrote film reviews for <i>The Village Voice</i>
1962:
Named Editor-in-Chief of <i>Cahiers du Cinéma</i> (English-language edition); coined the term Auteur Theory in his 1962 essay "Notes on the Auteur Theory"
:
Hired as film instructor at School of Visual Arts, New York
:
Worked as assistant professor at NYU School of the Arts
1968:
Wrote the highly influential book <i>The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968</i>
1969:
Began lectureship at Columbia University School of the Arts as assistant professor; became associate professor in 1972; appointed full professor in 1980
1969:
Reportedly made uncredited contributions to the screenplay of "Justine," directed by George Cukor
1970:
Did uncredited work on screenplay of Jules Dassin's "Promise at Dawn"
1971:
Wrote <i>Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955/1969</i>
1980:
Was a member of the jury at the Venice Film Festival
1986:
Wrote the liner notes for "The Voice: The Columbia Years 1943-1952," a collection of recordings of Frank Sinatra
1989:
Wrote film critiques for <i>The New York Observer</i>
1998:
Published <i>You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927-1949</i>
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Columbia College, Columbia University: New York , New York - 1951

Notes

Sarris was incapacitated for more than a year in the late 1980s with a mystifying disease which was most likely cytomegalovirus-associated encephalitis.

Named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1969

He was made Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres, Centre National de la Cinematographie in Paris 1982.

In 1986, Sarris was one of the runners-up for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticsm

Sarris was named officer in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres, Centre National de la Cinematographie in Paris 1989.

"With very little money I took off in 1961 to the Cannes Film Festival. I had three letters from The Saturday Review, The Atlantic Monthly" and the Village Voice. I didn't write a word about the festival, I got writer's block. I spent six or seven months in Paris, you know, went to the Cinematheque. When I came back from Paris I just walked into the Village Voice, I hadn't given them anything, I right away resumed doing my column. I was lazy, disorganized and very casual about the whole thing. When Pauline Kael attacked me I was amazed that I was considered so important. I didn't react very quickly. I didn't realize what had happened. I had just been plodding along." --Andrew Sarris, from July 1, 1998 interview with David Walsh at the World Socialist Website (www.wsws.org)

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Molly Clark Haskell. Critic. Married on May 31, 1969; author of "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies" and "Love and Other Infectious Diseases" (1990), about Sarris' battle with cytomegalovirus-associated encephalitis; artistic director of the Sarasota Film Festival.

Family close complete family listing

father:
George Andrew Sarris. Described by Sarris as "very grandiose . . . very Victor Hugo"; ran a boat rental business (row boats) in Howard Beach, NY c. 1946; prior to its loss in 1931, father had owned a lot of real estate.
mother:
Themis Sarris.

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Films of Josef von Sternberg" Museum of Modern Art
"Interviews with Film Directors" Bobbs-Merrill
"The Film" Bobbs-Merrill
"The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968" Dutton
"Film 68/69" Simon & Schuster
"Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema 1955-1969" Simon & Schuster
"The Primal Screen: Essays on Film and Related Subjects"
"The Films of John Ford"
"The John Ford Movie Mystery"
"Politics and Cinema"
"The American Sound Film"
"Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies"
"You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949" Oxford University Press
"The St James Film Directors Encyclopedia" Visible Ink Press
"Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic: Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris" Scarecrow Press
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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