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Richard Schickel, RIP: How the Legendary Critic Defined a Generation

Schickel, who died Saturday at 84, chronicled the changing face of Hollywood in the sixties and seventies, but he didn't stop there.

richard schickel

Richard Schickel

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My first meeting as a member of the New York Film Critics Circle was December 1989 and, in those days, the group met at the old Newspaper Guild building, then on West 44th Street. The meeting room was a cramped, windowless enclosure with fake wood-panel walls, a full assortment of ashtrays and the ambiance of — well, interior designers have a technical name for enclosures like this: Shit-hole, I believe, is the term of trade.

But when I walked into this unprepossessing little room, here were people whose names were magical to me, critics whose work helped shape the way I looked at movies as a college student and then as a nascent critic and film journalist. Pauline Kael. Andrew Sarris. Rex Reed. Richard Schickel.

Schickel, who died Saturday at 84, may have been the name that struck the deepest chord at that time. Long before I discovered either Kael or Sarris, I was reading Schickel’s movie reviews in Life magazine.

To an aspiring teen journalist in Minneapolis with a serious movie habit in the latter half of the 1960s, Schickel offered smart, no-nonsense film reviews, which conveyed his excitement when he liked something. When he didn’t, he wasn’t merely disappointed; he mourned the squandered potential and wasted talent as if they were a personal affront.

When Life folded in 1972, Schickel moved over to the weekly perch at Time magazine and stayed there until 2010. So he was definitely the one critic I read regularly for a long time. Meeting him was a thrill — for me.

As filmmaker Martin Scorsese said in a statement he released after word of Richard’s death reached him, “As a person he was, to use a once popular term, ‘crusty,’ and he could be brutally funny…But it’s his deep and abiding love of movies that I’ll always remember about him…This is a man who gave his life to the thing he loved.”

Crusty — or, in other words, gruff, someone who had strong opinions about most things in his life (shocking in a critic, I admit). Richard wasn’t someone who suffered fools gladly, if at all.

Richard Schickel with Clint Eastwood and Darren Aronofsky

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I once heard him explain why he abstained when the NYFCC voted its annual award for best cinematography: “It always ends up being a prize for the prettiest sunset.”

And while he ended his career writing about film for truthdig.com (“They seem to want to keep paying me,” he told me in a phone conversation about 18 months ago), in his day he was part of a new wave of critics who, today, seem determinedly old-school: people who, by dint of knowledge, erudition, analytical ability and a facility with language, could express opinions that made films seem like an essential part of the artistic and cultural conversation.

Along with Sarris, Kael, Judith Crist, Joseph Gelmis and a couple of others, Schickel picked up the critical torch from the Bosley Crowther generation, even as the old studio system crumbled in the 1960’s and a new order emerged. As the baby-boom audience created a cultural shift that was reflected in films, critics like Schickel championed a new generation of filmmakers.

Still, Schickel had standards, whether about films or about criticism. Though he eventually migrated to the internet, he had his doubts about the web’s so-called democratizing effect on criticism, and said so in an Los Angeles Times op-ed piece in 2007:

“Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”

Schickel knew whereof he spoke because he had done it all himself. He wrote the first definitive biography of Walt Disney (“The Disney Version”) and nearly three dozen other books. He made nearly an equal number of documentaries, most of them about the history of movies. He was, in short, a renaissance man who understood the process he wrote about because he’d been through it himself, many times.

He was as comfortable looking backward (with books and films about Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Charlie Chaplin, as well as the history of Warner Bros.) as he was surveying contemporary talent. His books included biographies and appreciations of Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood (a longtime friend), Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard.

A native of the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Schickel always brought a certain Midwestern perspective to his work. He was as willing to laud a film that made him feel as one that made him think. He was nobody’s idea of a soft touch — but he was still susceptible to an underdog story (Of “Eight Mile,” he wrote, “This may be one of the few inspirational movies that could actually inspire someone, somewhere, sometime”) and, legendarily, spotted “Star Wars” as the game-changer that it was when others poo-poohed it as mere entertainment.

My generation of critics drew inspiration from Schickel and his cohort. He was one of those who showed the rest of us that writing about movies was serious work, to be taken seriously, even when the movies themselves were frivolous and insulting. He had standards — for the movies and for himself.

Marshall Fine was a film critic for Gannett newspapers for 25 years and Star magazine for 12.

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