Andrew Sarris – Film Critic and Icon

Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris, Annette Insdorf and Ira Deutchman at the 25th Anniversary of the Columbia University Film Festival

I’m sure I am hardly alone in the devastation I’m feeling in hearing of the death of Andrew Sarris. I grew up reading his reviews in the Village Voice, and he was one of the major influences in my love of film.When I was a young aspiring cinephile, the much hyped feud between Sarris and Pauline Kael was in full throttle. Personally, I found myself more frequently in Kael’s corner. Her more emotional response to films seemed more in line with my youthful spirit, while  Sarris seemed both more orthodox and more academic than I was ready to accept at the time. In spite of this, his early embrace of auteurism was the kindling that lit my fire for many filmmakers that otherwise would never have been on my radar screen.

As my own career began to blossom, my appreciation for the contributions of the many collaborators on a film increased, so I began to reject auteurism. But Sarris’ reviews were still always compelling and his influence undeniable.

It was through my teaching at Columbia and a few mutual friends that I eventually got to know Andy (now I could honestly call him Andy). Talking to him in person added an unexpected dimension to the writing I had known all those many years.  He was friendly, funny, contrary and always enthusiastic. He was so in love with movies that it was infectious. He was willing to listen to anything you had to say on the subject, and to take it seriously. He questioned auteurism for the same reasons that I did, and mildly regreted his own role in popularizing it. His honesty and integrity were inspiring.

When Andy was dismissed from the Village Voice, I stopped reading it. I subscribed to the New York Observer just to continue to read his reviews. And when they also let him go, so went my subscription.

The last time I saw him was at the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Columbia University Film Festival on May 4th. We had the pleasure to pay tribute to him in front of the packed house at Alice Tully Hall. He had influenced literally generations of filmmakers and scholars in his many years at Columbia, and generations of filmgoers in his career as a critic. Our annual award for a distinguished alum is named after him, making it certain that we will never forget what a respected figure he had been in all of our lives.

I miss him so much.

3 thoughts on “Andrew Sarris – Film Critic and Icon”

  1. Ira, thank you for your thoughtful and eloquent piece. I shall miss him too. Like you, I felt the same way about the Voice and NY Observer after Sarris stopped writing for those publications. On one occasion, many years ago, on the opening night of New Directions/New Films at the MOMA, I introduced myself to him and told him how much I admired his writing. He was very gracious, and he smiled when I told him I was happy that he finally caught up in recognizing Billy Wilder–that he belonged and deserved to be in the Pantheon. Also, we talked briefly about tennis. Not many people know that he was a hardcore tennis fan, and I loved that when he was at the Voice, he wrote passionately about tennis as much as he did about movies. And I always made sure to watch or catch up on everything that was on his annual Ten Best List (which he usually starts by saying “this curmudgeon thinks…”.) Truly, he was something. He’s been sorely missed since he stopped writing (or stopped finding a place that would publish him), and now it’s even harder to accept that he’s no longer with us. Oh, but of course I’m mistaken–he will always be very much with us.

  2. My favorite Sarris tribute is by Todd McCarthy (perhaps because he loves & uses The American Cinema as much as I do. I’m on my 3rd copy – spines gave out on my first two copies.

    The Sarris legacy is not the auteur theory – but his book The American Cinema. No other book has done a more thorough and useful job of organizing films and directors from the beginning through 1967. Wish he’d done a second volume.

    One may agree or disagree with his evaluations of film or directors, but no one else went on record for as many of both as Sarris. That alone makes his film reference the most valuable. By the way, he’s even useful for directors that he didn’t care for – he italicizes the movies of “lesser” directors that he feels deserve a look.

    Here’s a twitter link to the Sarris Top tens for those who are curious about his opinions in the later years:

    Who knows if he kept these lists after 2006 – perhaps Molly has them?

  3. What sticks in my mind the most from having taken Andrew Sarris’ American Cinema class as a grad student in the early 1980’s was how he stressed the optimistic view that defines American film. Now you have to remember that we were all coming off the arty Euro films of the 1960’s and ’70’s and thought as aspiring filmmakers, these were the important films and the ones to emulate. But Professor Sarris made us see American movies in a different way. They were just as important as the European films and certainly better made (even the European filmmakers agree with this). After taking his class, I came away with a sense of pride at being an aspiring American filmmaker and that American films may not be as pretentious as European films but they certainly are as important in conveying the human experience. Thank you, Professor Sarris for all you wisdom, insight and inspiration into a truly American art form.

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