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Fresh Air Remembers Film Critic Andrew Sarris

Film critic Andrew Sarris was married to fellow critic Molly Haskell. (Getty Images)

This interview was originally broadcast on August 8, 1990.

Andrew Sarris, who popularized the auteur theory and was called the "dean of American film critics," died on Wednesday. He was 83.

In 1962, Sarris became the first American film critic to write about the auteur theory. That's the idea that the director of a movie is the person most responsible for it, and that movies can be better understood if they're seen in the context of a director's complete body of work.

Pauline Kael wrote a spirited critique of Sarris in 1963, and as another film critic observed, "Kael and Sarris' wrangle over the auteur theory had the excitement of politics and sport. The intensity of their debate lured people to see new films, and to see old movies in a new way."

Sarris spent decades writing about film for The Village Voice. He later became the film critic for The New York Observer and taught at Columbia, Yale, Juilliard, and New York University.

In 1990, he joined Terry Gross for a conversation about his career and the art of film criticism.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The film critic Andrew Sarris died yesterday, at the age of 83. Some of his fellow critics regarded him as the dean of American film critics. He wrote for The Village Voice from 1960 to 1988, and then for The New York Observer. His former colleague at The Voice, film critic J. Hoberman, writes that more than any individual, Sarris educated American moviegoers on the history of the medium. Hoberman describes Sarris' book, "The American Cinema," as a bible for countless cinefiles.

In 1962, Sarris became the first American film critic to write about the auteur theory. The idea was that the director of a movie was the person most responsible for it, and that movies could be better understood if they were seen in the context of a director's complete body of work.

I spoke with Andrew Sarris in 1990. Here's an excerpt of our conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You wrote a now-famous article in 1962, about the auteur theory of film.

ANDREW SARRIS: Yeah, right.

GROSS: And you became the leading American exponent of the auteur theory. Explain what you meant back in 1962.

SARRIS: Well, many people have complained - with some justification - that it wasn't a theory at all. It was something called the politique des auteurs, which Truffaut had coined in 1954 in "Cahiers du Cinema," and it was more a policy. It was that certain directors, you studied their works as a body, you know. And what was new was that I took a great many American action directors, genre directors much more seriously than they had been taken in the past. And that was the big debate I had with Pauline Kael - over that - at that time.

You know, there was a lovely film directed by Max Ophuls, called "One Woman's Story." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The name of the film is "Letter from an Unknown Woman."] And when Bosley Crowther reviewed it, he didn't even mention the director's name in the review. And that would be unthinkable today, that you wouldn't mention the name of the director - of anything.

GROSS: When you started to think about movies in terms of the auteur, and in terms of the director as the auteur, what kind of different reading did you come up with than mainstream film criticism had? For instance, what were some of the recognized masterpieces of the cinema at the time, that you didn't think were that good? And what were some of your alternative choices?

SARRIS: Well, in 1960, for example, I thought one of the great films of the year was "Psycho," the Alfred Hitchcock movie. And very few critics would, you know, list that as one of the best movies of the year - although many of them liked it. But they didn't think it would be important enough. It certainly wasn't as important as an Ingmar Bergman movie, for example.

And I felt it was just as important and, in many cases, better than many of the Ingmar Bergman movies. Mainstream critics, if you came up with a film that had a serious subject - the war, or poor people, "The Grapes of Wrath," or something like that - not that there's anything wrong with "The Grapes of Wrath." But "The Grapes of Wrath" isn't any greater than other John Ford films that are not about poor people and their problems.

GROSS: When you started writing about genre films - about Westerns, and crime movies - what got you to take them seriously?

SARRIS: Well, I always liked them, and then I decided that that was a great genius of the Hollywood system; that it wasn't a realistic art form. It was a mythological art form and particularly, the film noir. I once said, you know, that only a good film teaches you how to live, but even a bad movie can teach you how to die. And the dark films, I thought, particularly in Hollywood, had long been underrated.

I think - for example - now, I think some of the most interesting films being made today are in the horror genre. I think a film like "The Fly," the new version, is much more interesting than something like "Terms of Endearment." You know, something like "Arachnophobia," I find it much more interesting than a lot of so-called humanistic films.

GROSS: Video has given us access to film history in a way that we've never really had it before.

SARRIS: That's true.

GROSS: So let me ask you to name a few of your favorite films. And you could go as far into the past as you want to - films that you might want to recommend to us to see, if we haven't already seen them.

SARRIS: Yeah. Well, my favorite film of all time is probably "Madame de...," the Max Ophuls film with Danielle Darrieux. It's a French film, subtitled. Among American films, films I admire - is Orson Welles' "Magnificent Ambersons," Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," and John Ford's "The Searchers," "The Great Dictator" - to modern times - by Chaplin.

GROSS: Chaplin.

SARRIS: Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill Jr." particularly, and Sherlock Jr., and Bunuel's "Belle du Jour." Oh, "Red River," Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West." Hundreds. I'm not much on, you know, desert island - you know, if you were going to a desert island, what 10 pictures would you take? I would never go to a desert island, and I would never take just 10 movies. I think I'd just get sick of them.

(LAUGHTER)

SARRIS: I'd have to have hundreds of movies, and keep seeing new things all the time - and changing them. Also, one of the things that I find that I get frustrated sometimes, and people sometimes don't fully appreciate about movies, is that there's so many bad movies.

GROSS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SARRIS: And you have to have some feeling about how bad a movie can be...

GROSS: To appreciate the good ones?

SARRIS: ...before you can appreciate why people are so - like the good ones.

GROSS: You and your wife, Molly Haskell, are both film critics.

SARRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I wonder what the rules of the house are, about discussing movies before you've written about them; if you're worried about influencing each other's opinions. And, you know, that sometimes you...

SARRIS: Well, there was only one, brief period in our lives when we had that problem. I was reviewing for "The Voice," and Molly was first-string critic for New York Magazine. And we were going to the same screenings. And we couldn't talk to each other, and we couldn't use each other's insights.

And it was very difficult for us because one of the things that got us together - we were a very strange couple in this respect; we're both doing the same things. There aren't many married people that are doing exactly the same thing. But Molly comes from a different vantage point. She's become very much a feminist film critic, and she's dealt in that thing. But the problem with us, and the reason that we haven't started the Siskel-Ebert thing, you know, is that, you know, we...

(LAUGHTER)

SARRIS: You know, if I could come on as a male chauvinist pig, you know, and Molly as a, you know, a feminist, you know, and that we'd screech at each other, you know, that would be very good television. But we are disgustedly in agreement. People say, oh, you're in agreement because you're married. We say no, we got married because we were in agreement, because we do have the same sensibility.

GROSS: Film critic Andrew Sarris, recorded in 1990. He died yesterday at the age of 83, of complications from an infection after a fall. Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers reviews Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series "The Newsroom," a drama about a fictional cable news show.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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