Andrew Sarris, critic who promoted ‘auteur theory’ of film, dies at 83

June 20, 2012

Andrew Sarris, a film historian and essayist who expanded the appreciation of movies by advocating the “auteur theory,” which maintains that a director is the “author” of a film, died June 20 at a hospital in New York. He was 83.

He had complications from a fall, his wife, film critic Molly Haskell, told the New York Times, which first reported his death.

Mr. Sarris had been a critic at the Village Voice for only two years when, in 1962, he wrote one of the most influential essays in the history of film, “Notes on the Auteur Theory.”

Published in the magazine Film Culture, the essay maintained that a director is responsible for the vision of a film and, by extension, for its artistic success or failure. (“Auteur” is French for author.)

The idea originated in an essay in 1954 by French director Francois Truffaut, but Mr. Sarris’s essay gave the notion critical momentum in the United States. He helped establish the primacy of the director in the minds of filmgoers and critics, as the idea of the auteur became a central organizing principle of film history.

Mr. Sarris also was known for interpreting films along the lines of literature. Where many earlier critics had analyzed the political, social and Freudian implications of film, Mr. Sarris was more interested in its expressive possibilities.

In his first review for the Village Voice in 1960, he brought a fresh perspective to film criticism by single-handedly raising the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock, who had often been dismissed as a commercial director of formulaic potboilers. Mr. Sarris declared Hitchcock “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.”

Mr. Sarris voiced early support for Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman, as well as American directors Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Samuel Fuller. There had always been exceptions, of course, but throughout Hollywood history directors had largely been seen as hired hands who jumped from one project to the next, shouting “Action!” Largely because of Mr. Sarris’s influence, directors came to be seen as having a coherent body of work that built from one film to the next.

“What Andrew did, especially for young people,” director Martin Scorsese told the New York Times in 2009, “was to make you aware that the American cinema, which you had been told was just a movie factory, had real artistic merit. He led us on a treasure hunt.’’

In 1968, Mr. Sarris expanded on the auteur theory with his book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968.” In the hugely influential book, he boldly named 14 directors to a pantheon of all-time greats and banished everyone to lower rungs of moviemaking greatness.

Hitchcock, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles were included among Mr. Sarris’s 14 all-time greats — but the arbitrary nature of his list led to fierce arguments among film buffs.

It also exacerbated a running feud between Mr. Sarris and Pauline Kael, the longtime film critic of the New Yorker magazine.

“The auteur theory,” Kael wrote, “is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence, that period when masculinity looked so great and important.”

She held that filmmaking is a collaborative art, with contributions from photographers, costumers and lighting designers — not to mention actors — sometimes of more importance than those of the director.

Mr. Sarris retaliated by calling Kael a “wench” in print and “more an entertainer than an enlightener” whose “critical apparatus has more in common with a wind machine than a searchlight.”

Their war of words lasted until Kael’s death in 2001.

“While Kael had a better eye for the jugular, Sarris had a better eye for cinema,” cultural historian Thomas Doherty wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001. “While Kael made you want to read more Kael, Sarris made you want to see more movies.”

Andrew George Sarris was born Oct. 31, 1928, in Brooklyn. His father was a real estate investor who lost much of his wealth during the Great Depression.

Mr. Sarris was captivated by film, literature and radio from an early age. While attending Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1951, he was struck by a truck. He spent almost a full year recovering, during which time he watched countless films.

He spent three years in the Army Signal Corps, worked for the Census Bureau and began writing film reviews in the mid-1950s. He was at the Village Voice from 1960 to 1989, when he went to the New York Observer. He was laid off in a budgetary cutback in 2009.

Mr. Sarris was also a professor at Columbia from 1969 until his death. He and Haskell were married in 1969. She is his only survivor.

Besides “The American Cinema,” Mr. Sarris wrote several other books on film, including “ ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet’: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927-1949” (1998), in which he elevated Billy Wilder to the pantheon after dismissing him in his earlier book.

Describing his younger efforts to create categories of greatness in film, Mr. Sarris said in 2001: “I’ll never do anything like that again. The cocksureness I had back then I just don’t have any more.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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