Film critic Stanley Kauffman dead at 97
Stanley Kauffmann, the erudite critic, author and editor who reviewed movies for The New Republic for more than 50 years, wrote his own plays and fiction, and helped discover the classic novels Fahrenheit 451 and The Moviegoer, died Wednesday. He was 97.
Kauffmann died of pneumonia at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, said Adam Plunkett, assistant literary editor at The New Republic.
Kauffmann started at The New Republic in 1958 and remained there – except for a brief interlude – for the rest of his life, becoming one of the oldest working critics in history. He wrote during a dynamic era that featured the rise of the French New Wave and the emergence of such American directors as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. He was among the last survivors of a generation of reviewers that included The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael and the Village Voice‘s Andrew Sarris, idols of the “Film Generation,” so-called by Kauffmann himself.
Never as famous as Kael or Sarris, he still had a dedicated following, with admirers including Susan Sontag and Roger Ebert, who once called him “the most valuable film critic in America.” Kauffmann received an Emmy in 1964 for his commentary on WNET-TV and a Polk Award for film criticism in 1982. His theater reviews brought him a George Jean Nathan Award in 1974.
The kind of critic who preferred the word “film” to “movies,” Kauffmann was far more skeptical of popular culture than was Kael, with whom he (and so many other reviewers) occasionally feuded. He did not share her passion for The Godfather (“an aggrandized gangster film”) or Nashville (“a superior book-club novel”). In recent years, he didn’t bother with Avatar or other blockbusters, reasoning that they would manage fine without him. He did spread the word about such foreign-language releases as the Russian musical Hipsters, a documentary about German painter Gerhard Richter and the Israeli family drama Footnote.
When the American Film Institute was compiling a list of the 20th century’s best movies, Kauffmann declined to participate, worrying he would be “trampled under the thundering herd” of opinions with which he disagreed.
Kauffmann’s interests and influence were not limited to film. He worked in publishing in the 1940s and throughout the 1950s. He wrote several novels, among them The Philanderer, released in Britain in 1953, soon banned and the subject of a landmark obscenity trial. Jurors acquitted publisher Fredric Warburg and the case helped change British laws on artistic expression.
As a publishing editor, Kauffmann twice helped make history. In 1953, at Ballantine Books, he took on a disturbing novel about a future society in which books are burned – Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” A few years later, at Alfred A. Knopf, an agent sent him the manuscript for a novel by a young author named Walker Percy. Kauffmann would recall that the book was beautifully written but poorly structured and needed substantial revision. Acquired for $1,000, Percy’s The Moviegoer was published in 1961, developed a word-of-mouth following among fellow writers and went on to win the National Book Award, beating Catch-22 among others.
For Kauffmann, the success was bittersweet. He had often disagreed with the publishing house’s founder, Alfred Knopf, and had been fired by the time The Moviegoer caught on.
A dentist’s son, Kauffmann was born in New York City in 1916. He witnessed film’s early years firsthand, seeing new works by Charlie Chaplin and others during the silent age. He began going to the theater in the 1920s and had memories of John Barrymore, the daring Shakespeare productions of Orson Welles and the raucous opening of Clifford Odets’ pro-union Waiting for Lefty, when audience members shouted along with the play’s closing chant of “Strike!”
Theater was his first love. He graduated from New York University’s College of Fine Arts in 1935 and was an actor and stage manager with the Washington Square Players. He wrote several plays and taught for years at the Yale School of Drama, his students including the future Broadway producer and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman. In 1966, he became the theater critic for The New York Times but was regarded by Broadway producers as too negative and by Times executives as “too ponderous and professorial,” according to Gay Talese’s history of the newspaper, “The Kingdom and the Power.” He was replaced within months and was back at The New Republic the following year.
Kauffmann did not plan to become a film critic. He was highly valued by paperback pioneers Ian and Betty Ballantine and helped them obtain rights to a book-length edition of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a deal Kauffmann helped secure by visiting the playwright at his Brooklyn home. He had worked in book publishing for more than a decade when, in 1957, a friend offered him the chance to write about film for The Reporter, a biweekly magazine. He enjoyed it enough to send a review to The New Republic and soon was hired fulltime. Kauffmann would recall that as a young man, he was told theater was a vital force because it encompassed all art forms before it. Film, he later decided, was theater’s successor.
His favorite films included Citizen Kane, Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (“The Passion of Joan of Arc”). He also kept up on cinema from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. His review in 2012 of the Japanese documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about a dedicated and ageless restaurateur, seemed to capture some of Kauffmann’s feelings about his own work.
“Devotions differ, from the monumental to the personal; but whatever it is, so long as it is not antisocial, we generally feel good when we see it in practice,” Kauffmann wrote. “It seems to be what each of us should have for completion but what not everyone is lucky enough to find.”
Kauffmann married Laura Cohen in 1943. They had no children.