Stanley Kauffmann, legendary film and theater critic, dies at 97

October 9, 2013

Stanley Kauffmann, a reviewer of movies and theater who was one of the world’s longest-working critics and became known for his high-minded, impassioned, often rebellious tastes, died Oct. 9 at a hospital in New York. He was 97.

The New Republic, which had published Mr. Kauffmann’s reviews since 1958, announced his death. The cause was pneumonia.

During a career spanning eight decades, Mr. Kauffmann became deeply entrenched in the nation’s cultural firmament. He wrote for influential publications, including the New York Times (where he worked briefly as the newspaper’s theater critic), the Saturday Review and the New American Review. He was one of the few critics who could watch a 1997 Broadway play featuring Christopher Plummer portraying the talented but troubled actor John Barrymore — and remember seeing Barrymore onstage shortly before his death in 1942.

Mr. Kauffmann was an editor at Bantam Books, Ballantine and Alfred A. Knopf publishing houses in the 1940s and 1950s and was credited with discovering such acclaimed novels as Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.” A Shakespearean actor in the 1930s, Mr. Kauffmann spent years teaching at the Yale School of Drama and other academic centers.

He left his most enduring mark as a movie critic, a role to which he brought a drama lover’s perspective of structure, narrative and character development. He could be droll and incisive about a director or performer, and he used his voracious cultural appetite to make thematic connections between movies — the most populist art form — and literature. In short, he wanted Americans to take movies as seriously as they would fine art.


Film critic Stanley Kauffmann (Courtesy of the New Republic)

To Mr. Kauffmann, the most fundamental quality in his profession was “moral rigor — a commitment to the art, a passion to see it improve, a disregard for any kind of popularity.”

His tenure began decades before the advent of simplified thumbs-up, thumbs-down reviewing popularized by movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Mr. Kauffmann’s pedagogical approach made him unfashionable at times as hip movie conversations turned to “auteur” theory (emphasizing the role of director as the prime architect of a film) and later focused on the sociological or political implications of film.

Mr. Kauffmann may have lacked the prominence of Pauline Kael at the New Yorker or Andrew Sarris at the Village Voice, but he was nonetheless a central player in the passionate arguments about film aesthetics that in the 1960s and ’70s filled pages of publications noted for their long-form, provocative cultural criticism.

In the 1960s, he coined the term “film generation” to describe the phenomenon of young film fanatics who rushed to the bijou to see the latest offerings from avant-garde European directors including Jean-Luc Godard and the occasional American maverick such as Sam Peckinpah.

“He was passionately engaged with film’s highest aspirations as an art form and was at his most eloquent when films were most complex,” said Nell Minow, an author and movie critic. “He educated generations of film-watchers and filmmakers about how and what to watch.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Kauffmann was an early and ardent follower of European and Asian filmmakers. At the time, foreign movies — even those by such seminal artists as Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni and Satyajit Ray — seemed hopelessly obscure to most U.S. ticket buyers.

Mr. Kauffmann admired many of those directors, but he seldom fell into complete thrall. After hailing Godard’s tantalizingly unconventional feature debut “Breathless” (1960) — a film that shunned linear narrative and was rich in mocking self-awareness — Mr. Kauffmann found little to enjoy in his later works. He eventually labeled Godard “a magician who makes elaborate uninspired gestures and then pulls out of the hat precisely nothing.”

The 1970s heralded the arrival of a new generation of American directors, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who helped change the direction of cinema. Unlike Kael, Mr. Kauffmann was for the most part unmoved by films widely considered the best of the era.

He savaged no less than Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) and its sequel, and Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974), which he said “would be a good sinister thriller” if it were “shorter and less conspicuously paradigmatic.” He called Robert Altman’s layered drama “Nashville” (1975) “a superior book-club novel.”

He damned George Lucas space epic “Star Wars” (1977) as little more than a “tribute to Flash Gordon” serials of the 1930s and ’40s.

“The only way that ‘Star Wars’ could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional,” he wrote. “I kept looking for an ‘edge,’ to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world’s affairs or — in any complex way — sex intruded.”

As the years passed, Mr. Kauffmann’s “low-disgust threshold,” as the Shakespearean scholar Samuel Schoenbaum once dubbed it, became a calling card. Mr. Kauffmann ignored the marketing muscle that powered the “summer blockbuster” era beginning in the late 1970s with Spielberg’s “Jaws,” then “Star Wars.” He took pride in avoiding easily quotable nuggets for movie posters, which stroke the egos of many critics.

Mr. Kauffmann fascinated moviegoers with the unpredictability ofwhat moved and dismayed him. The late Roger Ebert once called him “the most valuable film critic in America” and “the one I turn to with the thought that, if we disagree, I may very well be wrong.”

Mr. Kauffmann loved William Friedkin's 1971 police thriller, “The French Connection” (“made with no ambition except to excite, and it does”); Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974), which captures the paranoia of the Watergate era; and Spielberg’s taut “Schindler’s List” (1993), which he wrote “has not used one trite shot, one cheap tear-jerking assemblage.”

He found Joel and Ethan Coen “arty nuisances” but wittily elevated his judgment of them when they made “Fargo” in 1996: “The hot news about Joel and Ethan Coen is that they have made a tolerable film.” Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994), he wrote, “nourishes, abets cultural slumming [with] calculated grunginess.” He preferred “Chronicle of a Disappearance,” a 1996 Palestinian film that he compared to the work of the absurdist Romanian playwright Eugene Ionèsco.

Michael Sragow, who has written for the New Yorker and now reviews films for the Orange County Register, recalled Mr. Kauffmann’s evocative description likening Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952), about the death of a Japanese civil servant, to Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”

“That kind of connection can come from only a man of Stanley’s literate background,” Sragow said. “The ability to mine such an apt comparison that binds together such seemingly disparate cultures and hits on universal truths about mortality, that alone is a signal gift in a critic and something only a man of Stanley’s culture and receptiveness to art in general would be able to do.”

Stanley Jules Kauffmann was born in New York on April 24, 1916 — the year D.W. Griffith released his epic silent film “Intolerance.” His father, a dentist, wrote for professional journals, and Mr. Kauffmann described growing up “in the atmosphere of words very early on.”

He studied drama at New York University, graduating in 1935, and spent a decade as an actor and stage manager with a repertory company, the Washington Square Players, that specialized in the works of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

Mr. Kauffmann began writing a series of one-act plays with titles such as “The Red-Handkerchief Man” and “The Prince Who Shouldn’t Have Shaved.” One of his children’s plays, “Bobino,” was produced in New York in 1944 and featured a young Marlon Brando.

In 1943, he married Laura Cohen. She died in 2012, and he had no immediate survivors.

In the 1940s, Mr. Kauffmann began working in publishing and writing brisk, pulpy novels such as “The Philanderer” and “The Tightrope.” His career in film criticism began in 1957, when a movie reviewer for a publication called the Reporter left his job and put in a word for Mr. Kauffmann. The next year, he began his affiliation with the New Republic.

In 1966, Mr. Kauffmann had a brief stint as a theater critic at the Times. According to Gay Talese’s history of the newspaper, editors hired critic Walter Kerr to replace Mr. Kauffmann because they considered his writing “too ponderous and professorial.” He remained at the New Republic for the rest of his career and wrote reviews and commentary through recent months.

Mr. Kauffmann’s collections of criticism included “A World on Film” (1966), “Figures of Light” (1971), “Living Images” (1975), “Persons of the Drama” (1976), “Before My Eyes” (1980) and “Regarding Film” (2001). He also wrote two memoirs, “Albums of Early Life” (1980) and “Albums of a Life” (2007).

In a 1974 essay, “Why I’m Not Bored,” Mr. Kauffmann wrote that the movies, no matter how unpromising, still captured his attention. He explained: “No matter how much I know about a film’s makers or its subject before I go, I never really know what it’s going to do to me. Depress me with its vileness, or just roll past, or change my life in some degree, or some combination of all three, or affect me in some new way that I cannot imagine.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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