Richard Schickel, a film critic for Time magazine whose reviews — and essays, books and documentary films — combined a straightforward literary style with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood history, died Feb. 18 in Los Angeles. He was 84.
He had recently suffered a series of strokes, said a daughter, Erika Schickel.
By his count, Mr. Schickel was the author of 39 books and, remarkably, the creator of an equal number of documentary films. Most of them were biographies of Hollywood figures, from directors D.W. Griffith and Woody Allen to the swashbuckling silent-era star Douglas Fairbanks and the transformational midcentury actor Marlon Brando.
Mr. Schickel made perhaps his greatest impact as a weekly film critic. He began his career in 1965 at Life magazine, during what he later characterized as a golden age of filmmaking: Hollywood was experimenting with new subject matter, delving into topics of sex and violence in films such as “The Graduate” (1967) and “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), and foreign directors such as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa were rivaling their American counterparts in popular attention and critical acclaim.
Whether as a cause or as a consequence, it was also an era in which film critics such as Pauline Kael of the New Yorker and Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice became popular figures in their own right, forceful personalities who dueled in print each week over the merits of the latest Stanley Kubrick picture or the accuracy of the auteur theory of filmmaking.
Mr. Schickel was, if not always a central character in these critical battles, never far out of the fray. At Life and then at Time, a fellow Henry Luce-owned publication that he joined in 1972, he commanded one of the largest print audiences in America, reaching more than 4 million weekly readers each week with reviews that often strayed from popular assessments and critical consensus.
His first major work of film scholarship, the 1968 Walt Disney biography “The Disney Version,” fit squarely in this category, excoriating Disney films as trite fantasies that pandered to “the subliterates of our society.”
“As capitalism,” he wrote, the Disney film empire “is a work of genius; as culture, it is mostly a horror.” The book divided critics, some of whom considered it overly harsh, but has remained a touchstone of Disney scholarship, with The Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley praising it in 2003 as “the last word on that particular contribution to American self-delusion and escapism.”
His writing was replete with references to earlier Hollywood films and figures, and was sometimes highly personal. He began “Brando,” his 1991 biography of the actor, with a “Dear Marlon Brando” letter that apologized for delving into the actor’s private life. Later in the book, he described the impact of Brando’s performance in “The Wild One” (1953), as an outlaw biker, this way: “Oh, Lord, it was glorious. We were thrilled down to our toes curling cowardly in our white bucks.”
For every actor or film Mr. Schickel praised, there seemed to be at least two he was happy to take down a notch. Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957), an existential drama starring Death incarnate, “made my teeth ache,” he wrote. Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Vertigo” (1958) was overrated; the drama of World War II homecoming “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) was “undeniably lying and sentimental.”
His occasional bile was not without purpose. “In his criticism and films,” said Post film critic Ann Hornaday, “he always seemed to be making a passionate, unfailingly erudite stand against diminishing standards, both in the movies themselves and the way viewers watch and think about them.”
Richard Warren Schickel was born in Milwaukee on Feb. 10, 1933, and grew up in nearby Wauwatosa, Wis. His father worked in advertising and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Schickel’s home life was dominated by his grandfather, a lawyer who encouraged young Richard to read widely and, by the time he was 10, paid for his subscriptions to the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post and Time magazine, where Mr. Schickel became enthralled by what he called the “snappy authority” of film critic James Agee.
“I have to believe that it was not just the prose that attracted me,” Mr. Schickel wrote in a 2003 memoir, “Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip,” that took its title from a song his father sang at bedtime. “There was something about the act of criticism itself — its assertiveness, its ability to subvert the sometimes pompous, often expensive, object under review — that appealed to me.”
He studied history at the University of Wisconsin and, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1956, went east to New York, where he found a job reporting at Sports Illustrated.
Although Mr. Schickel was not unathletic — a tennis player, he volleyed with Sarris on the court as in print, and in 1975 wrote “The World of Tennis,” a layman’s account of the sport — he found his talents better suited to criticism. “Truth to tell,” he wrote in a 2015 memoir, “Keepers,” “it’s easy work.”
He was an editor at Look and the art magazine Show, where he reviewed books, before joining Life as a film critic. At Time, he worked for many years with fellow film critic Richard Corliss, who died in 2015. He later joined the online news outlet Truthdig.
His wife of six years, the former Carol Rubinstein, died in 1991. An earlier marriage to Julia Carroll Whedon ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Erika Schickel of Los Angeles and Jessica Schickel Vild of Chagrin Falls, Ohio; a stepdaughter, Ali Rubinstein of Los Angeles; and four grandchildren.
In recent years, Mr. Schickel expressed dismay at the state of American filmmaking, lamenting in particular the work and business model of the major film studios. “We used to have genres in movies,” he told the Erie Times-News in 2006. “Now we have franchises deliberately repeating the beats of what has preceded it.”
“What we have is a mix of crud,” he added, “and stuff that aspires to be great statements.”
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