Andrew Sarris; film critic helped popularize directors

NEW YORK — Andrew Sarris, a leading movie critic during a golden age for reviewers who popularized the reverence for directors and inspired debate about countless films and filmmakers, died Wednesday. He was 83.

Mr. Sarris died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan after complications from a stomach virus, according to his wife, film critic Molly Haskell.

He was best known for his work with the Village Voice, his opinions especially vital during the 1960s and 1970s, when movies became films, or even cinema, and critics and fans argued about them the way they once might have contended about paintings or novels.


No longer was the big screen just entertainment. Because of film studies courses and revival houses, movies were analyzed in classrooms and in cafes. Audiences discovered such foreign directors as Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, rediscovered older works by Howard Hawks, John Ford, and others from Hollywood, and welcomed new ones such as Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese.

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Filmmakers were heroes and critics were sages, including Mr. Sarris, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, and Manny Farber.

‘‘Andrew Sarris was a vital figure in teaching America to respond to foreign films as well as American movies,’’ fellow critic David Thomson said Wednesday. ‘‘As writer, teacher, friend, and husband he was an essential. History has gone.’’

Mr. Sarris started with the Voice in 1960 and established himself as a major reviewer in 1962 with the essay ‘‘Notes on the Auteur Theory.’’ Acknowledging the influence of French critics and even previous American writers, Mr. Sarris argued for the primacy of directors and called the ‘‘ultimate glory’’ of movies ‘‘the tension between a director’s personality and his material.’’

He not only helped write the rules, but filled in the names. He was a pioneer of the annual ‘‘Top 10’’ film lists that remain fixtures in the media. In 1968, he published ‘‘The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,’’ what Mr. Sarris described as ‘‘a collection of facts, a reminder of movies to be resurrected, of genres to be redeemed, of directors to be rediscovered.’’ Among his favorites: Ford, Hawks, Orson Welles, and Fritz Lang. Categorized as ‘‘Less Than Meets the Eye’’: John Huston, David Lean, Elia Kazan, and Fred Zinnemann.


The critic himself would be criticized, especially by his enduring rival, Kael, a West Coast-based reviewer who in 1967 was hired by The New Yorker. In the 1963 essay ‘‘Circles and Squares,’’ Kael mocked Mr. Sarris’ ideas as vague and derivative, trivial, and immature. She later wrote off the auteur theory as ‘‘an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence.’’

Although Kael went on to celebrate such directors as Altman and Brian De Palma, the two never reconciled and friends divided into ‘‘Sarristes’’ and ‘‘Paulettes.’’ When Kael died in 2001, Mr. Sarris acknowledged that they ‘‘never much liked each other’’ and added that he found her passing less upsetting than the demise days earlier of actress Jane Greer.

Kael aside, Mr. Sarris was greatly admired by his peers and even some directors. ‘‘Citizen Sarris,’’ a collection of essays about the critic published in 2001, included contributions from critics Roger Ebert and Thomson, and from filmmakers Scorsese, John Sayles, and Budd Boetticher. Scorsese, with whom Mr. Sarris briefly shared an office at New York University, praised him as ‘‘a fundamental teacher’’ and credited him for helping Scorsese ‘‘see the genius in American movies.’’

Mr. Sarris left the Voice in 1989 to write for the New York Observer, where he remained until he was laid off in 2009. In 2000, Mr. Sarris was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism and in 2012 received a $10,000 prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for ‘‘progressive, original, and experimental’’ criticism. He was also a founding member of the National Society of Film Critics, wrote screenplays for the films ‘‘A Promise at Dawn’’ and ‘‘Justine,’’ and worked as a story consultant for 20th Century Fox from 1955-65.

He was a longtime professor of film at Columbia University, and also taught at New York University and Yale University. His other books included ‘‘Politics and Cinema’’ and ‘‘The Primal Screen.’’


In 1969, Mr. Sarris married Haskell, a union Kael predicted would not last. Haskell said Wednesday that ‘‘he had a wonderful life’’ and that it was fitting.