Andrew Sarris: A Teacher, a Critic, and Impossible to Forget


Anyone who read Andrew Sarris’s movie reviews was, in a way, a student of his. In addition to being one of the most incisive critics the movies have ever known, Sarris also served many years as an actual teacher. Here, one of his former students (and a critic in his own right) shares his memories of Sarris, who died this week at age 83. For a tour of some of Sarris’s most memorable pieces for this paper, click here.

If, as a screenwriter, you were to write a treatment of Andrew Sarris’s life, you’d have two riveting plot points to spin the story around. First and foremost, Sarris, who died this week at the age of 83, conceived and brilliantly brought to life the “Auteur Theory,” a way of thinking about movies as original as Darwin’s ideas were about evolution and nearly as controversial. The Theory said, in essence, that no matter who was working on a film — the most famous DP, charismatic movie star, producer or Foley artist, whose gunshot sounds were unmistakable — it was The Director’s Voice (or was that fingerprints?) you were supposed to pay attention to.

And, Sarris demonstrated, the Great Ones had themes that repeated film-to-film. John Ford’s men, for instance, all-too-casually rewrote history to make cowards and martinets great men. Howard Hawks’s guys were obsessed with being professionals, no matter what the cost. In Hawks, you either were one or you weren’t, in which case, get the hell out of the way.

With his famous “Pantheon List” Sarris did something equally groundbreaking. He dared to suggest, to our timid, British-bootlicking country, that American directors and the films – make that movies – they made, might be just as important as those by gentleman who wore white silk scarves, berets, and whispered “Action!” in Swedish, French, or Italian.

The other night, as I grooved on Hawks’s Rio Bravo as much for its themes as its story, I thought of Sarris. If not for him, this almost plotless tale of four unlikely people in a Western town holding off the bad guys until the Feds arrived might have completely escaped my notice. It was he who instructed me to watch it -again!– for its Hawksian symbols and signifiers. I must be up to 40 viewings of Rio Bravo. And I love that movie so much, I get weepy just thinking about it.

The same feeling came over me this week, when I heard that Sarris had died. Right here, I must mention that, to me (and all his students) he was always Professor Sarris, a man I took three courses with at Columbia University in the 80s. His death got me to thinking, and also blinking, through my tears about the great, insightful, instructive, infuriating things he said, as I sat through hundreds his classes.

What comes to mind, first of all, was that he was always late. A bunch of us future directors, film nuts, screenwriters, or kids who’d rather be beheaded than take math would be sitting there, at the ungodly hour of 10 AM, in a small room in Dodge Hall, and you could set your watch that Professor Sarris would come wafting in at 10:20. This was understandable. Invariably, he’d have been at a screening of a film he was going to review (for this very paper), so we kept our grumbling to a minimum.

It didn’t matter anyway, because, he had just seen some hot, highly-anticipated new property, that wouldn’t be out for a few days. And we invariably asked the Professor to tell us about it. We never had to ask twice.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” said Professor Sarris, in a world-class snit one morning, that high, feathery, sardonic voice of his, barely containing his anger. “I just saw Fosse’s [Dorothy Stratton biopic] Star 80. It was the most disgusting, misogynistic movie I think I’ve ever seen. I actually think I’m physically ill.” Or, “I apologize for not being here on time. I just saw the new Jim Brooks film, Terms of Endearment. Just nauseating. I’m thinking of titling my review, ‘Cancer For Christmas.’ Strangely enough, he loved unrealistic, unhip, The Big Chill, I recall.

But with typically Sarrisian insight, he also genuinely enjoyed Psycho II. He had, of course, 33 years before, bestowed upon the bloody, dimestore original, the dual distinctions of High Art and Seriousness that must’ve made Hitchcock want to kiss him on the mouth. And the Professor felt that the sequel had lovely resonances and sly in-jokes that referenced the original. This tickled him. You could never tell with this guy. It’s why he was so much fun.

He turned us all on, either to directors we hadn’t yet heard of, or films of theirs we didn’t even know existed. Who knew Ingmar Bergman made a film called Brink Of Life, about a group of women in a maternity ward? One of whom, frighteningly, is weeks overdue and will not let go of that baby! Who had seen Fassbinder’s Merchant Of The Four Seasons? Not me.

Professor Sarris, very possibly, made the whole country aware of a forgotten fella by the name of Preston Sturges. And blew everybody’s minds with insights like ‘In Hemingway’s world, people seem to speak monosyllabically or say nothing at all. In Sturges’s world, people can’t seem to shut up. Everybody from the cabbie to the cop has a lot to say. I think that’s a much more honest depiction of the way Americans are.’

Of course, like anybody of real value, Professor Sarris, was not above being nasty. He’d mention a contemporary actress, who’d had a flop or two and say, blithely, ‘Oh, she’s finished.’ He told us the reason “Kael” (he never gave his female filmic Lex Luthor a first name) was ‘Always championing new trash, like De Palma, because she missed the real trash the first time around. Now she’s trying to catch up.’ But he was so funny, you couldn’t stay mad at him for any of these statements. He had the timing of Groucho or Jack Benny.

Although I hate the fact of anyone I love dying, Professor Sarris got lucky in this regard. He disappeared from us – suddenly – in 1984, struck down by an unholy, unnamed disease that nearly killed him, rendered him paralyzed, a full-blown amnesiac and nearly ground his beloved wife, film critic Molly Haskell, into dust. We all sent cards but went on our way. Expected never to see him alive again. The fact that he recovered and lived to write, lecture, extol, and bitch about movies again for 25 more years is extraordinary. We are richer for it. Not everyone gets a third act, you know.

I did get to see Professor Sarris one more time. In the late 90s, I bumped into him at the most un-cinematic of places: a Chemical Bank ATM on The Upper West Side. He only remembered me as the guy who said in class that the scene in MASH where the troops broadcast Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan’s lovemaking was too cruel (I’ve since changed my mind, as those two Tea Party prototypes deserved it). I told my professor I was glad he was well again. And ended with a question. “Did you really,” I asked, “think Manhattan was ‘the only true great American movie of the 70s’? Or did you just say that, because you knew someday, they’d use the quote on the cover of the videocassette? And it’d make you immortal.”

Professor Sarris, waited patiently for his money to come out. Then laughed in that high, inscrutable way of his. He patted me affectionately on the shoulder and walked out, without giving me a verbal response. And then, it was just like one of those grubby Film Noir or detective stories he made middlebrow America finally take seriously. I watched him as he walked off and disappeared around the corner. And I never saw him again.