Andrew Sarris R.I.P.

Sarris:

It was this ineradicable feeling of emotional insecurity which enhanced his great dramatic moments on screen, as much as it probably accounted for his reportedly less-Cary-Grantish behavior off-screen. Without this darker side, the true greatness of Grant as an actor might be more difficult to demonstrate. It is what Ralph Richardson said of John Wayne: simply, that his face projected the mystery required of a great actor. Grant, like Wayne, invented a personality into which he grew until the Hollywood butterfly obliterated almost all vestiges of the Bristol lower-class caterpillar. Why should we now look to the dung-heap for the caterpillar’s “real-life” essence intead of looking at all the flowers of artistry around which this colorful creature flew?

The passage contains the best and worst of the late Andrew Sarris: a ludicrous conceit in the last sentence that’s like a boil on the surface of a very fine, trenchant analysis of the person many of us consider the greatest of classic film actors. That was Sarris — so carried away by ardor that he lost sobriety. The contemplation of acting and the craft of watching a scene unfurl affected him like the champagne did Garbo in Ninotchka. Before we assert that Pauline Kael — the antagonist in his longest and greatest blood-feud — kept her equipoise let’s not forget that she wrote her own frenzied encomiums too (on Robert Mitchum: “This great bullfrog with the puffy eyes and the gut that becomes an honorary chest…”).

You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet is filled with warmth like this, eulogies to Margaret Sullavan, Garbo, Harold Lloyd, Claudette Colbert, Otto Preminger, and other lights who made talking films between 1927 and 1949. He praises Sullvan’s “life-facing intuitions, tragic but not maudlin, playful but not malicious, all too wise but quickly weary of the consequences of wisdom” and shows impatience with how George Cukor and Katherine Hepburn collaborated to put an unpleasant version of Hepburn on screen in The Philadelphia Story: “It is Katherine Hepburn getting her comeuppance at long last, and accepting it like the good sport she was.” As these examples show, as a writer he was neither graceful nor shrewd; rarely does a sentence tremble from an ungainly mix of slang and erudition as it often does with Kael. He had no talent for dismissals. He didn’t insult the intentions of film artists. He was a gentleman — except when someone burped Pauline Kael’s name in his presence.

As the link above shows, he was not above meanness. After all, why was he still so upset? Sarris lost the battle but won the war. Now every film school grad thinks of directors as “auteurs,” that films like books are inviolable creations that spring from one man’s (always a man) head. Thanks to Sarris, we say things like “Michael Bay films.”

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